Lives of flame and for­tune

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIONS - STE­WART WEISS The writer is direc­tor of the Jewish Out­reach Cen­ter of Ra’anana. [email protected]­

The Passover Seder may be the most-cel­e­brated event in the Jewish cal­en­dar, and Yom Kip­pur may have the high­est sy­n­a­gogue at­ten­dance, but there is no ques­tion that Hanukkah is the most pop­u­lar of all the Jewish hol­i­days. And why not? Eight days with ab­so­lutely no rit­ual re­stric­tions, filled with song and tempt­ing fried food – proof pos­i­tive that we Jews struck oil a long, long time ago! – so what could be bad? And in the Di­as­pora, Hanukkah takes on even greater sig­nif­i­cance, al­low­ing us to compete fa­vor­ably with the 12 days of Christ­mas in the an­nual “gift-off” with our non-Jewish neigh­bors.

Of course, there is no short­age of sig­nif­i­cant and mean­ing­ful mes­sages to this hol­i­day. It has al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with free­dom, as the up­start Has­monean com­mu­nity threw off the yoke of Greek dom­i­na­tion and re­claimed its in­de­pen­dence. And it high­lights the ever-present mirac­u­lous hand of God, ev­i­denced by both the against-all-odds vic­tory in the war, as well as “the lit­tle cruse that could” – the oil that as­tound­ingly lasted eight full days.

Yet I want to sug­gest an­other theme to Hanukkah that goes to the heart of this fes­ti­val: The strug­gle for pu­rity in an of­ten di­luted and de­luded world.

The rea­son why we light eight lights in our hanukkiah is be­cause it took eight days to secure new oil. But why so long? One opin­ion is that the oil was pro­duced in a re­gion four days’ travel from Jerusalem. But an­other opin­ion is that, due the war and its many ca­su­al­ties, the peo­ple were tamei, in a state of rit­ual im­pu­rity, and were re­quired by Jewish law to wait a full seven days be­fore they could be­come tahor, rit­u­ally pure. Only then could they process new oil – which took an ad­di­tional day – and thus the eight-day wait.

Yet the rab­bis ques­tion if this de­lay was nec­es­sary, for there is a ha­lacha that ex­plic­itly states that if the en­tire na­tion is im­pure, then, in ef­fect, no one is im­pure! Thus the Tem­ple of­fi­cials could have im­me­di­ately se­cured new oil and re-lit the meno­rah! So why did they wait?

The es­sen­tial an­swer is that, while this per­mis­si­bil­ity – this loop­hole, if you will – did in­deed ex­ist, the vic­to­ri­ous Mac­cabees did not want to rely upon it. They felt that if they were go­ing to re-ded­i­cate the Tem­ple, if they were go­ing to jump­start the spir­i­tual en­gine of the Jewish peo­ple, they should do so in a first-class man­ner, with­out re­ly­ing on any short­cuts or quirks in the law. Bet­ter to wait, they de­cided, and thereby ad­here to the very high­est of stan­dards.

Some years ago, when I vis­ited the re­fusenik com­mu­nity in pre-per­e­stroika Rus­sia, among the rit­ual items I took with me were a num­ber of ke­tubot. As there were no rab­bis at the time in that com­mu­nity, I of­fered to per­form the wed­dings for a num­ber of cou­ples who had mar­ried civilly, but not in a re­li­gious cer­e­mony.

One of the re­fuseniks raised the is­sue that none of the women would be able to go to the mikveh (rit­ual bath) be­fore the cer­e­mony. He ex­plained that it was dan­ger­ous for Jews in the USSR to use the mikveh, as they would be pho­tographed as they en­tered and tar­geted as “so­cial de­viants” and en­e­mies of the state. As such, they stayed away. I ex­plained to the cou­ples that, while mikveh was in­deed a pre­req­ui­site for Jewish mar­riage, my rab­bis had in­structed me that in this ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stance, it was prefer­able for the cou­ples to per­form the re­li­gious cer­e­mony now, and visit a mikveh later, when it was safe.

At that point, the group hud­dled to­gether for quite some time, ar­gu­ing about some­thing among them. Then one of the women, who also spoke He­brew, stepped for­ward and told me: “With all re­spect to you, rabbi, we ap­pre­ci­ate your of­fer and ac­cept that we would be al­lowed to marry re­li­giously, with­out the mikveh. But we have de­cided that we are go­ing to wait until we can wed in a full-fledged, 100% man­ner, no less than the most ob­ser­vant of Jews would do. That day will come, we be­lieve, and then there will be no ‘foot­note’ or ‘as­ter­isk’ by our names.”

I was im­pressed be­yond words, and placed the ke­tubot back in my brief­case.

We, to­day, live in a so­ci­ety that is con­tin­u­ally search­ing for ways to mas­sage, stream­line, tweak and ad­just the law – both Jewish and sec­u­lar – so that it be­comes as palat­able as pos­si­ble to our tastes, with­out cross­ing the red line of dis­obe­di­ence or il­le­gal­ity. And that is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing; the teach­ers at our yeshiva in Skokie al­ways taught us that our task as rab­bis was to make Ju­daism as ac­ces­si­ble and at­trac­tive as pos­si­ble to the wider Jewish com­mu­nity.

But some­where along the way, it is also im­per­a­tive that there be those se­lect in­di­vid­u­als who re­ject the path of least re­sis­tance and choose in­stead to al­ways take the high road, peo­ple whose con­duct is un­sul­lied and unadul­ter­ated, free of short­cuts and com­pro­mises – politi­cians who take no bribes; Is­raeli soldiers who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally choose com­bat roles at the risk of their lives; rab­bis who look straight ahead at the truth and not con­tin­u­ally over their shoul­ders; men and women who demon­strate there are no up­per lim­its to our abil­ity to con­form to God’s will and man’s law. These rare and out­stand­ing per­son­al­i­ties are the Mac­cabees of his­tory, rays of bril­liant light that show us mere mor­tals the way, mod­els and mon­u­ments for all of us to emu­late.

Yaakov Kirschen of Dry Bones fame asks: “The ques­tion is not how the cruse of oil lasted for eight days; the ques­tion is how we Jews lasted through­out the cen­turies!” The an­swer, I sug­gest, are the liv­ing jars of pure oil and pure faith whose flame can never be ex­tin­guished.

These rare and out­stand­ing per­son­al­i­ties are the Mac­cabees of his­tory, rays of bril­liant light that show us mere mor­tals the way

(Pn­ina Peretz)

THREE-YEAR-OLD Eliana Peretz of Modi’in lights her hanukkia.

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