Though Yom Kippur may be a fading memory, I hope that you are still thinking about two things: your resolution to live a better life, and the messages of my sermons. (If you have to choose, choose the former. But the rest of this column may therefore escape you!)
I spoke about the need for a paradigm shift, from viewing ourselves as victims-in-waiting to seeing ourselves as being in charge of our own path in the world. It may not surprise you to discover that these two ways of looking at the world through Jewish eyes are as old as our tradition. We have always had ourshare of oppressors to resist, and we have always had the impulse to define ourselves on our own terms.
When you light candles for Chanukkah, you most likely sing some version of Ma’oz Tzur, a medieval poem set to familiar music. The English version, written as a paraphrase of the German version, is “based on” the real meaning of the original Hebrew, but it definitely accepts the victim paradigm. Indeed, the second stanza begins “Children of the martyr race,” not exactly an empowering title. But the Hebrew version is a mixed bag of resistance to the villains of our history (Pharaoh, Babylonian oppressors, Haman, Greco- Assyrians and Frederick the Red – look him up) and a reliance on the relationship with God to empower us.
In fact, somewhat surprisingly, the sixth of the six verses calls for revenge very explicitly. The tone of this last verse, which I would describe as “enough is enough already,” reflects the impatience of the author with suffering. The words are militant and passionate, and they are mixed seamlessly with a faith that God has the power to restore us to peaceful and independent lives – which we deserve.
The message of Chanukkah has changed with the centuries, from militant religious extremism, to faith in miracles, to redemption from suffering and to religious freedom in our day and age, with lots of nuance scattered among them all. When you sing Ma’oz Tzur, even if you sing the English version, take note that the candles burn more abundantly each night (as Hillel instructed us). For Hillel, it represented the increasingly awesome miracle. For us, let it represent the light we shine proactively as free people in our own land.
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