Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Hanukkah 5784

Our dear rabbinic intern, Lara, gave an exquisite recital at Hebrew Union College last Tuesday. In what I dubbed “suburban mom’s day in the city,” I headed in by train to meet up with Cantor Jenna and cheer Lara on.

I rarely have an hour of sedentary time by myself (that’s what a sabbatical is for?) so I didn’t have a great game plan for the train. So what did I do? I opened my NYTimes app and started to go down the Israel news rabbit hole.

I don’t have to describe it to you, because you can imagine my mood when I arrived down to HUC. As excited as I was for Lara, I sat down with a large knot in my stomach.

But then Lara began to sing. The program she had researched and prepared was called “Musical Expressions of Psalms of Longing.” It was the catharsis my heart needed.

There was one piece, one line, that got lodged in my heart and I’ve been thinking about since.

Psalm 130 begins: “From the depths I call You, Adonai. Adonai, listen to my voice, be attentive to the voice of my plea.”

Then it asks: “If You were to keep count of all our sins, God, who would endure? With you, there is forgiveness, and that is what makes you so great.”

“If You were to keep count of all our sins, who would endure?”

Otherwise put: if God kept count of all times we have failed or hurt one another, no one - no person, group or country - would emerge victorious in virtue. If God punished everyone who acted wrongly, not one human would be left on this earth.

It is as if the psalmist declares: all the tit-for-tat, the keeping count, the moral equivalents, it's a zero sum game. It is all pain. Pain abroad; pain in our own neighborhood and our hearts.

A war rages this Hanukkah - physically and spiritually - manifesting in each of us differently. 

And I was thinking about how Hanukkah is the story of war. But we don’t glorify war, do we? We don’t sit here and recount the gruesome details. Hanukkah’s message of triumph over tyranny, its insistence of hope in the face of despair - these are the messages that endure, the stories we tell.

There’s another question that we famously ask on Hanukkah, similar to the one Psalm 130 posed:

מי ימלל גבורות ישראל

אותן מי ימנה

“Mi Yimalel? Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them?”

It’s another uncountable rhetorical question: how many times have our people mourned a darkened world? How many times as suffering of our own people and of our neighbors tore at our hearts? To count them, to recount them, feels as if it could drive us crazy.

But then the song offers hope: 

הן בכל דור יקום הגיבור

גואל העם

In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid! 

And it continues: just like the Maccabees restored the Temple, tonight our people dream! We will arise, we will unite, and we will be redeemed!

We can’t begin to count the hardships, but we can publicize the miracle that we are here! We can sing with joy that we are strong enough to withstand the calamities and that through those songs of hope, we resolve to act for justice.

“In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.” Look around…you are those heroes. Like the Maccabees, you may be battered and scared. And like the little cruse of holy oil left in the Temple, you may feel depleted. But even from the small spark of hope, there can be a candelabra of light. You can be a Maccabee, you can be a light, you can be the miracle this Hanukkah.

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