Rabbi Russell Jayne: Shifting our focus on Hanukkah

by Rabbi Russell Jayne

Rabbi Russell Jayne

(Calgary) – When we tell the story of Hanukkah, we tend to focus on the miracle itself.

We talk about the Maccabees lighting the menorah with only enough oil to burn for a single day, but finding that it stayed lit for eight nights. We point to the ways our traditions – lighting candles, reciting the blessings, frying latkes in oil – symbolically retell that story, and we focus on the awe and wonder it inspires.

Miracles are important. They give us hope and fill us with an understanding of God’s glory, but this year, when I think about the Hanukkah story, I’m thinking about the lead up to that miracle. I’m thinking about King Antiochus outlawing our faith and trying to crush the Jewish spirit. I’m thinking about him erecting an alter to Zeus in the Second Temple and ordering pigs to be sacrificed at its altar. I’m thinking about the rebellion that followed, and the Maccabees’ efforts to liberate and cleanse the Temple.

We are once again facing a world which threatens the Jewish spirit. Rising incidences of anti-Semitism – at home and abroad, online and in-person – are making it increasingly difficult for us to proclaim our Jewishness. We debate the wisdom of wearing kippot in public or affixing a mezuzah to our front door. We worry that putting a menorah on the window might attract the wrong kind of attention, or possibly even violence. We decide it’s better not to speak up when we hear anti-Semitic “jokes” repeated as though they don’t represent generations of Jews who have been persecuted for their faith.

No one is worshiping Zeus in our temples, but there is a rising fear of what might come if we are seen as being too Jewish to be acceptable to the larger world.

But silence is not an effective defence against hatred. Ignoring the issue won’t keep it from your front door. Speaking out against anti-Semitism may be a risk, but it is a necessary act of courage. When you speak out against ignorance, when you light your menorah and debate where it belongs, know that placing it on the windowsill is like your own personal liberation – a direct strike against the darkness of ignorance and enmity.

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes that “nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would have been like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.” The story of Hanukkah reminds us of the courage we need to take action in the fight against anti-Semitism. It reminds us of the courage necessary to show up and be seen – as Jews, as individuals, and as a community of people who will not stay silent against those who threaten our spirit.

And that, at the end of the day, is a miracle worth celebrating.

Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne is spiritual leader and Kol Bo at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary. 

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