Bringing light? Israel’s future depends on it
Usually at this time of year, we’re feeling excited. As Chanukah approaches, we begin to look forward to the annual traditions. We look forward to lighting, eating, and the joyful celebration of a long ago miracle. This year feels different. We’re carrying much heaviness in the wake of 7 October and the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
We’re shell-shocked and grieving. We’ve been more fearful as Jews living in South Africa, and indeed in the world, than many of us have ever felt before. We’re exhausted from our effort to support Israel, bring home the hostages, advocate for peace, and fight back against ignorance and antisemitism. Many of us are worrying about loved ones in Israel. It’s been a difficult few months, to say the least, so we may not feel as ready for, nor as enthusiastic about Chanukah as usual. The idea of celebrating feels uncomfortable. We may not have the energy – the koyach – to fry up latkes and invite friends over to share a meal. Yet Chanukah may be more relevant this year than it has ever been in our lives.
In the northern hemisphere, Chanukah is a time of bringing light into darkness, falling in the darkest, coldest part of the year. Here, our days are getting shorter and brighter, but we can still relate to the metaphor of bringing light into dark times. Now, the story of Chanukah is more relatable than ever. A small band of Jews battling to overcome hatred and violence, fighting to hold onto Jewish autonomy and security, the Maccabees took back a part of our land that was desecrated and rededicated it, echoing so much of what Israel is experiencing.
On Chanukah, we celebrate Jewish strength and pride at a time of year when, especially outside of Israel, we’re hyper-aware of being a minority. Yet, there’s also an important warning for us in this history. Most of us know the story of Judah Maccabee’s great victory over the Assyrians. Less of us are familiar with the history of the Hasmonean dynasty, when the descendants of the Maccabees became a radical religious autocracy, ruling for only a few generations before losing hold of Jewish autonomy for the next 2 000 years. While we might proudly wish to equate modern-day Israel with the mighty Maccabees, we must also be watchful that it doesn’t become a place of violence and radicalism. Security is vital. So are the human rights that the Torah demands that we protect and promote as Jews – not only for ourselves, but for all people. When this war is over – may it be soon – we’ll need to support Israel to rededicate itself, to be a land that’s sacred because it lives up to its obligation to be a light to other nations – a place of peace and of hope.
Once we can turn swords again into ploughshares, we’ll need to think about which values we hope to encourage Israel’s leaders to embrace and prioritise. Chanukah is about victory, miracles, and light, and also about rededication – looking ahead to a better future. This year, as we pull ourselves out of sorrow into joy, out of darkness into light, may we dedicate each candle to a brighter future, for Israel and for Jews the world over.