A Still-Relevant Hanukkah Thought
Today is the last day of Hanukkah. I’d like to share with you my D’var Torah from the congregation’s annual meeting, since I think its message is relevant year-round.
The broad story of Hanukkah is familiar, but a lesser-known incident early in the First Book of Maccabees echoes down the ages:
Word reaches the king’s forces in Jerusalem of Mattathias’ rebellion. The king’s men set out to the desert hiding place of one group of rebels we know as the Hasidians, or pietists. They refuse to fight on Shabbat, with dire consequences.
With a large force [the king’s army] pursued them and, on coming upon them, they encamped and formed in battle line against them on the Sabbath day, saying to them, “Come out to us and obey the word of the king, and we shall let you live.” They, however, replied, “We shall neither come out nor obey the word of the king to profane the Sabbath day!” Accordingly, they advanced quickly upon them in battle line. But the Jews neither replied to them nor hurled a stone at them nor blocked the entrances to their hiding places, saying, “Let us all die in our innocence. Heaven and earth bear witness over us, that you condemn us unjustly.” They attacked them in battle line on the Sabbath. They were killed with their wives, their children, and their cattle, to the number of one thousand human beings.
When Mattathias and his followers hear of this, after grieving over the losses, they realize that they must make an important decision. Maccabees continues:
They said to one another, “If we all do as our brothers have done and do not fight against the gentiles for our lives and our laws, they will now quickly wipe us off the face of the earth.” On that day they came to a decision: “If any man comes against us in battle on the Sabbath day, we shall fight against him and not all die as our brothers died in their hiding places.”
This is the earliest example we have of the halakhic principle of piku·ah nefesh doheh Shabbat — “Saving of life supersedes Shabbat.” But there is also a deep theological conviction at work here.
As Rabbi Adam Raskin puts it, “A further corollary to the Maccabean theology was the refusal to passively rely on God as the exclusive provider of succor and rescue. In the fundamentalist model, every element of both persecution and salvation was predetermined by God. Human encroachment on that plan was not only useless but heretical. Hanukkah’s audacious theology suggests that humans have ultimate responsibility for their destiny. God is the Source that invigorates their perseverance. God is the Power that inspires their commitments. Rather than humans waiting for God’s intervention, it is God who awaits human action.”
In a particularly fine phrasing, Raskin affirms, “God’s outstretched arm was now the esprit de corps that animated righteous, brave, indeed miraculous human endeavors.”
This idea of partnership with God, that we must be God’s outstretched arm, is an important component of Conservative Judaism. For example, we may not say to a hungry person, “God will provide”—we must stretch out our hands with food and compassion. Likewise, synagogues may not rely on miracles. Synagogue members are called upon to be God’s partners in maintaining and sustaining them. That term we like to use, kehillah kedoshah, sacred community, reflects our partnership with God. Beth David is a kehillah — a community of Jews. We are diverse in our observance, beliefs, and practices, but united by our commitments to Beth David, to Judaism, and the Jewish people. We are also kedoshah—holy, seeking to align with God’s purposes in the world through prayer, life-long Jewish learning, and deeds of lovingkindness.
In both aspects of the synagogue enterprise, God supports our work but God will not provide. We are responsible for supplying the human and financial resources for Beth David to fulfill its mission. That is why we are here today, to learn about the past year, to appreciate what we as a congregation have accomplished, and to elect board members who will continue this holy work. But year-round, we hope that all of our members will feel personally responsible for our kehillah kedoshah, and that this will be reflected in their investments of (as the saying goes) “time, talent, and treasure.”
During Hanukkah, we add one light each night to the hanukkiah, following the practice of Hillel. The Talmud explains: we must increase holiness, never decrease. My prayer for this annual meeting and four our congregation is that it will inspire all of us to increase our involvement in our Kehillah Kedoshah and that the light and spirit we thus create will add holiness and blessing to our lives.