The evening before Hanukah began, I sat in a lovely restaurant in Jerusalem, enjoying a bit of quiet reflection time. My reverie was interrupted by the high-energy voices of teenage scouts on the street outside, singing a favorite Hanukah song at the top of their lungs. "Banu choshech legaresh!" – "We have come to banish the darkness. In our hands is light and fire. Every person is a tiny flame; together we are a great light. Depart, darkness, away! Depart before the light."
The song is a favorite of secular Jewish Israelis. In the traditional Hanukah story, a miracle allowed a tiny remnant of light to sustain the Jews of 2nd Century B.C.E. through their own dark period of religious oppression. In the modern song, the light and the power are in our own hands. In this version, we can depend only on ourselves to banish the darkness.
It has been a wonderful week in Jerusalem - as always, full of beauty, contradictions, and paradox. A festive atmosphere pervades the streets, as families enjoy the children's week off from school, and friends and strangers alike greet one another with exuberant wishes for a happy holiday. Hanukiyot (Hanukah candelabras) are everywhere, as are the ubiquitous jelly donuts many Israeli Jews associate with Hanukah. After sunset, families and friends gather to light the Hanukah candles, enjoying song, food, and loving relationship, and for the religious, prayers of thanksgiving for the God who brought us miracles in the past and will again.
On another level, it is a dark time in Jerusalem right now. Even peace-loving leftists feel stuck, confused, and hopeless. They long for a diplomatic breakthrough that would lead to the end of the occupation and a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. But none of the people I have talked to this week believe that, without a miracle, we will have a breakthrough soon. I feel the darkness more than the light.
But even in dark times, as the Jewish mystics taught, there are sparks of holiness to be found. The sparks are abundant. An Orthodox scholar drawing together settler rabbis and arch-leftist leaders of the secular peace camp for respectful dialogue and visioning. Dedicated attorneys and human rights activists working on a daily basis to advance the rights of women, the poor, the Bedouin, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, Ethiopians and more. A veritable parade of rabbis visiting Yasuf to offer apologies, copies of the Kor'an and their own labor to repair the damage and defacement caused to a mosque by a violent Jewish extremist.
In the original Hanukah story, the Assyrian Greeks suppressed our religious freedom and defaced our temple. Today, we have the power to oppress others and to deface our nation and our collective soul. We continue to pray for miracles, and also to do everything we can with our own hands to bring brighter days.