Al Ha-Nissim - Seeking Harmony in the Face of Diversity

I wrote this d’var Torah at AJR in December, 2012. It was published to all students and faculty.

The drawing/painting is by Claude Marks and is a portrait of me, 1976.

Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots. When I initially learned about these groups in Hebrew School, it made me anxious. I couldn't remember which group was which and I didn't understand the issues they were in disagreement about. Even in adult study sessions, it's challenging to understand political leanings, particularly through the sometimes hazy lens of history. Folk religion is easier than history for many of us, easier than understanding factions and politics. The hag Hanukah merges together disparate traditions. The actual historic facts in folk religion are perhaps simplified, emphasizing our human need for spirituality and purpose. In Hanukah we find a record of Jews and Greeks, and - among the Jews - traditionalists and Hellenists, struggling for supremacy.

 

Al ha-nissim v'al ha-purkan... which is read or sung on Hanukah, is found in the liturgy of all Jewish denominations in the second to last blessing of the Amidah. The opening line of the prayer is the same for three holidays. The full prayer is never the same wording for each holiday; the wording for Hanukah differs from that of Purim and from that of Yom Ha'Atzma'ut.

 

Hanukah celebrates the success of the Hasmonean revolt, circa 168 BCE under Judah Macabee. While there was much discord at the time of the rededication of the Temple under the Hasmoneans, they gave Israel national unity, with a king, for about 150 years. The Hasmoneans successfully regained the Temple, yet it was at a cost. It was during the Hasmonean days, Jews divided into the groups Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots. We can speculate that these four factions had more in common than they were different, yet they could not come to agreement.

 

Two thousand years later, history continues to be full of wars, disagreements, persecution; famine, catastrophe, tragedy; stories of brothers against brothers, greed and murder. We go together beautifully at times, then fragment into pieces, parties, and political disarray which leads to ugliness and war.

 

There was one moment in history - no, many more than one moment - where people joined together for a common cause. After the defeat of the Seleucid Greeks, people came together to return to the Sanctuary and purify God's house; at times great leaders have set an example to protest inequality and persecution; like the Maccabees, people around the world even today ignore the lure of materialism and focus instead on bigger ideals such as upholding the values of Jewish tradition.

 

Where does Al ha-nissim v'al ha-purkan... fit into all this? This prayer thanks God for miracles and wonders and for how our People were saved against a tyrant "determined to make our ancestors forget God's Torah." God gave us "strength to struggle and to triumph," to reach "freedom" to serve God. In Hebrew, the word Hanukah means "dedication," and this holiday is about the re-dedication of the Temple.

 

In today's global world of video visibility through TV and various forms of online media, spectators who are astute and aware recognize at least one simple truth, that there are tremendous political differences in our global human community. While some groups of people value individual freedom and others value communal cohesiveness, and some groups value equality and others value building our unique personal destinies, there's a tremendous opportunity here for all of us, to grow by learning from each other. Instead of focusing on our differences, we can surely find strength in our oppositeness!

 

Some folks believe in individual freedom, and simultaneously, other folks believe in all people having equal responsibility within a group to maintain all of the group's standards. According to tradition, despite our differences, we are all b'tzelem Elohim, "created in the image of God." Together, even with our distinct, contrasting views, we can more keenly address our past and even our recent present, and decide instead of violence, hatred, poverty and deprivation, we'll forge a new destiny based on giving thanks for life, thanks for the marvel of our individual and collective lives, and thanks for the many miracles in the world around us.

 

Have a Happy Hanukah - hag Urim Sameakh! May the lights of our Hanukiyot and the light of humanity grow brighter for us together.

 

Marian Kleinman is a Cantorial Student at AJR, the Academy for Jewish Religion, in Yonkers, NY.