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Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation
Weekly Musings December 2004
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Friday, December 10 2004

 What is Chanuka?

For most people the question will conjure up a description of their Hebrew School Chanuka pageant where a silver-foil clad Yehuda Maccabee successfully routed a ill-assorted bunch of kids dressed up in various historical uniforms and then proceeded to the corner of the stage to light a wonky cutout of a menorah. I wish, however, to discuss the underlying philosophical meaning of the Chanuka miracle.

The Talmud asks the same question Mai Chanuka " what is Chanuka? (Trac. Shabbat 23a) Interestingly, the explanation given there makes no mention of the military victory against the Syrian-Greek armies, nor does it describe the resultant era of political and religious freedom ushered in by the Maccabees. In the Talmud's way of telling it, the Chanuka miracle is exclusively the story of a tiny vial of oil that burned for 8 days.

Some 8 years ago I spent the week of Chanuka in Detroit, Michigan running a Dreidel House for the local community. School groups would come in and be given a quick tour of our Chanuka exhibition. We'd sing some Chanuka songs, play a game of dreidel and then feed them some latkes (which for some extraordinary reason Americans seem to prefer eating with apple sauce?!).

We'd utilise the down time to chat to passing strangers, invite them in, offer them the opportunity to put on Tefillin and generally try to snatch a few minutes of adult conversation after days of mindless tedium repeating the same spiel over and over to thousands of grotty, little, apple-sauce bedecked loud-mouthed American kids.

I fell into conversation with one guy, who refused to put on Tefillin, take home a menorah, or have anything to do with anything smacking even vaguely of religion. He was a Secular-Humanist he told me proudly, who had just come from the Secular-Humanist Chanuka party. (Apparently, Detroit and its neighbouring city, Windsor, is the world centre for Jewish Secular-Humanists).

Isn't that extraordinary? Imagine, a self-proclaimed Secular-Humanist celebrating Chanuka! Surely the Chanuka victory was not only against the foreign forces of the Greek-Syrian army but also marks the defeat of the Hellenised Jews by believers in traditional Judaism. Fighting on the side of the Greeks were a fifth column of assimilated Jews, and the Maccabee victory was not merely of a military nature, but presaged a wide spread revivalist movement and religious restoration. If anything the Secular-Humanists of today and their ilk represent the losing team in the Chanuka campaign.

It is this aspect that the Talmud accentuates. The miracle of the oil celebrates the triumph of the supernatural over the purely rational. The Greeks and their hangers-on were believers in the atavistic codas of the so-called civilised nations. They adored wisdom and celebrated power and military might. Their Temples were shrines to "gods" who, according to their mythology, indulged in the most base of human type behaviour. Their quarrel was with the Jewish belief in the supra rational; in a way of life that elevates the will of the Divine over the dictates of human logic. The first and most important post-war act of the Maccabee was to repair the Menora and rekindle the lights of traditional Judaism.

That miraculous light emanating from the menora illuminated not just the immediate surrounds of the Temple in Jerusalem but was a source of radiance for the whole world. That light still shines as brightly today, offering all Jews an opportunity to be reacquainted with our true meaning and purpose.

Friday, December 31 2004

 G-d, didn't you promise that if we have faith things would get better, not worse? How can you justify all the pain and destruction you've visited on the world? Why are you punishing us so?

Paraphrased, this was Moshe's complaint to G-d at the end of this week's Torah reading. Hashem had sent Moshe as a messenger to spread the glad tidings of the approaching redemption. Instead of the situation improving; rather than this salvation eventuating, the pains and suffering of slavery had increased. Pharaoh grew resentful of the longings for emancipation that had swept through the nation and responded by intensifying the discipline.

Was Moshe expressing a lack of faith with his complaint? Was the leader of the Jews rejecting his G-d for behaving so capriciously? G-d forbid. While Moshe refused to accept the evil he was witnessing and complained vociferously to G-d, this did not affect his innate belief in Hashem nor his absolute confidence that all G-d's actions are for the ultimate good.

Intellectually, no one has the right to rationalise away the suffering of others. If anyone ever seeks to justify the presence of evil on this world, to extend an explanation for the Holocaust, terrorism or natural disasters, get away from that poseur as quickly as you can manage. Emotionally however, this desperate demand for revealed Divine justice does not preclude one believing in Him, because of, despite and independent of His actions

Never accept or make peace with the tidal waves of evil which wash over all our worlds from time to time but never let them bring you to reject our G-d who, for reasons best known to Himself, caused them.