A Hasidic Teaching About Hanukkah For This Divisive Holiday Season

lit-menorah

The notion that Hanukkah conveys an urgent message about diminishing one’s anger, being compassionate to the lost, wicked, and alienated, and abandoning judgementalism might seem surprising. After all, isn’t this the holiday that celebrates the triumph of the righteous and a military victory against the oppressive other? A holiday that celebrates lines drawn in the sand and a vivid sense of black and white? Well, that fails to take into consideration the Rabbinic transformation of the holiday- first at the hands of the Talmudic Rabbis, and then at the hands of Chasidic mystics like Reb Nosson of Nemirov (R’ Nathan Sternhartz, 1780-1844).

 

Reb Nosson was the amenuensis of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), his closest disciple and secretary, and single handedly responsible for the preservation of Rebbe Nachman’s mystical writings and famed stories. Reb Nosson was also a brilliant teacher and writer in his own right, and his letters and commentaries are studied to this day by Hasidim. Among the works he left behind is a massive, ingenious commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. This commentary, called “Likutey Halachot” (Collected Writings on Jewish Laws) is a penetrating, kaleidoscopic meditation on the spiritual and psychological implications of Jewish legal rulings, using his master Rebbe Nachman’s teachings as the theological lodestone.  It is here that we see Reb Nosson’s perennially relevant insights into Hanukkah.

 

Light

When the Seleucid Greek Empire attempted to suppress Jewish religious practices, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu and his son Yehuda, defeated the Greeks. The Temple, which had been intentionally profaned by the Greek army, was restored and rededicated. This was established as a holiday early on, and the rededication of the Temple was celebrated by no less of a Jewish celebrity than Jesus less than than two hundred years later, according to the book of John.

Some time later the Rabbis canonized a story about a tiny amount of pure oil in the Temple burning miraculously for eight days (in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b). The Rabbis chose to put the miracle of burning oil and the imagery of light at the centre of Hanukkah. To quote Malka Simkovitch, a Jewish scholar:

From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) Hillel and Shammai, eternal sparring partners in the transcendent realm of Jewish archetypes, have an argument about the way the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. Shammai says the light should be reduced every day (from 8 to 1) and Hillel says they should be increased every day (from 1 to 8). In Likutey Halakhot 4.11, Reb Nosson writes that this debate highlights Shammai’s strictness and Hillel’s kindness. Both agree that the spiritual light of the holiday increases day by day. Hillel thus argues that we should add another candle each day. Yet this is very reason Shammai thinks we should reduce the candles- if we make so much spiritual light accessible, the “wicked and the distant (from Torah)” may make use of it!

 

This debate reflects a deeper rift between the houses of Shammai and the houses of Hillel, Reb Nosson writes. Hillel generally believes, as is shown in the famous Torah story about his patient response to the potential convert who impertinently asked him to explain the whole Torah on one foot, that spiritual light should be given out freely without fear or judgementalism. Shammai disagrees, as shown by his chasing that same convert out of his house angrily brandishing a tool he had been using. Though Jewish tradition historically and officially favoured Hillel, it is sad to see how much contemporary Ultra-Orthodoxy has defected to the school of Shammai, both with regards to converts and much else. The house of Hillel, Reb Nosson explains, believed that the more light was available, the more “we need to shine this light into the world, to illuminate the entire world, to being closer even the most distant people, to enlighten the smallest and lowest, to heal the most spiritually ill.”

 

“How could anyone think we should decrease holiness?”, Reb Nosson asks, and then answers: “There are tzaddikim (righteous ones) who are truly great….due to the intensity of their holiness, they distance people and decrease holiness, for people become angry with them for being unable to accept their behaviour. But this is not what God desires. God always desires lovingkindness, and that the tzaddikim should always have compassion….even when God himself is in great anger with them on account of their conduct, He wants the tzaddikim to pray for them and elevate them. As our sages said on the verse, “Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp” (Exodus 33:56): Rashi’s commentary adds that God says, ‘If I am angry and you are angry, who will bring them close?’.

 

Reb Nosson goes on to enumerate other examples from the books of the Prophets showing God’s desire that tzaddikim take the side of the people, not the side of God’s holiness and judgement. He then goes on to assert that the greater the holiness one attains, the more careful on should be not to be angry or judgemental to those “lesser” than yourself, but rather the more you should exert yourself to “cleverly come up with new strategies and “constrictions” (tzimtzumim, which here means bringing things down to their level) to bring more and more souls closer and to heal even the worst and the sickest.”

The point here is not to be a clever salesman, but rather something more akin to Vygotsky’s “zones of proximity”- one needs to empathetically understand where these others are and then modify one’s message in whatever way needed to reach them and bring them authentic healing.

 

“All this is represented by the Chanukkah candles”, finishes Reb Nosson brilliantly, “which are lit below ten handbreadths, and this is why they must be lit in an increasing number.” In other words, the ritual of the menorah teaches us that unbounded light must be freely given, restricted and shaped so it can reach who it needs to be reached; that it must be at our level; and that it should slowly increase. Hanukkah, says Reb Nosson, is a lesson in generosity and pedagogy. It is also important to recognize that what makes the light shareable in the first place is the righteous one’s abandonment of anger, judgement and fear. This lesson couldn’t be more needed as we go into our Hanukkah festival in a world of divisions with vast gulfs of mis-understanding, anger, judgement and fear.

 

I am not suggesting that those reading (or writing) this article are tzaddikim, but Rebbe Nachman taught that everyone has a good point- a point of messianic light, or tzaddik-ness, that might shine towards a friend in a certain situation when the friend needs it (Likutey Moharan 34). We may find ourselves in that situation this holiday season in any number of ways. If we regard the impure other, rendered so by any number of things, perhaps by pro-Trump (or anti-Trump) comments, with fear, anger or judgement, then we miss what Reb Nosson says is a fundamental lesson of Hanukkah.

 

Reb Nosson’s lesson would first suggest that we need to abandon anger, fear and holier-than-thou judgement before we engage with our challenging friend or relative. We need to think about where they are at and why, and try to share what light we can. We should not go for broke. Maybe we can win a small victory, a little “a-ha” or a tiny concession and be happy with that. Maybe not- maybe all we can accomplish is to draw that person close and keep them in relationship to us. That might be the smallest reali light we can manage, but it might be something we can build on in the future, step by step, light by light.

 

 

The Book of Esther As A Manual of The Resistance

160817020735-trump-bannon-split-780x439

In the Book of Esther, the Persian empire is ruled by a foolish, narcissistic King with neither principle nor empathy. While drunk at a party he summons his Queen, Vashti, to dance naked before the guests, and when she refuses he has her banished and makes plans to replace her (“You’re fired”, he might have said). Ahasuerus searches among all the young girls of the empire like pastries in a display case and chooses a Jewish virgin, Hadassah- Esther (Ishtar) in Persian, the story explains, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. Ahasuerus has an advisor named Haman who becomes enraged one day when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, or, one might say, refuses to put obeisance to the state above his own conscience and his own minority identity within the Empire. Mordecai is a loyal Persian citizen, something he has proven by reporting traitorous activity and possibly saving Ahasuerus’ life. Nevertheless, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to eliminate Persia’s Jews, presenting them as a dangerous fifth column within the glorious nation.

The parallels should be all too obvious. Trump fits the model of Ahasuerus all too closely, consistently showing a marked lack of empathy for others and concern for no principles outside of his own self-aggrandizement. Like Ahasuerus, his commitments are fickle and turn with the wind. Yesterday Trump announced who his chief strategist and senior counsellor would be: Stephen Bannon,  the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, previously the senior editor of Breitbart, the alt-right mouthpiece that under his tutelage became the nest for the iron birds of nationalism, white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. What will Bannon-Haman be whispering in the ears of King Trump?

What policy Trump will take towards Jews is unclear, and so far he seems far more dangerous as an enabler of anti-Semites. I am not suggesting that the Trump-Bannon team is chiefly a concern for Jews, however, not by a longshot. They are clearly a threat to every vulnerable group in the US- Muslims, LGBQT, women, African-Americans, refugees, immigrants, and more. What can we learn from the book of Esther about how to resist the insane malice and ignorance of Trump’s white house?

    1. Don’t bow. Mordecai does not sacrifice his conscience before the demands of the Persian government. At this time we must not budge and inch in demanding decency, rational discourse, ethical probity, and protection for the vulnerable whether we are American or, like me, we are a close neighbour concerned about the global spread of the “emotional plague” of Trumpism.
    2. Mourn Publically. When Mordecai heard of the Kings decree, he put on sack cloth and ashes and walked the streets of the city wailing loudly. Jews all throughout the provinces joined him (Esther 4:1-3). So far in the week since Trump’s election, Jews have joined protests, sat shiva in synagogues, and penned group letters expressing solidarity with vulnerable minorities. Major Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward have been aggressively watchful and critical of Trump. This is all good, and it must continue relentlessly, especially when the Trump government begins making actual law and policy.But what of the Jewish Republicans? We turn to that next.
    3. The Lessons of Esther. I’m sure the association of Esther with Jewish Republicans will make some people very unhappy, and understandingly so. A more natural choice might be Ivanka. Whether she will play a role in standing up to Trump behind the scenes remains to be seen, and one can always hope. Ivanka aside, the Jewish Republicans are the Jews in Esther’s seat, sitting in the house of power. The Book of Esther has prophetic words for them: “Mordecai has this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:13-14).”
    4. The Lesson of The Happy/Unhappy Ending of Esther Ultimately Esther and Mordecai together turn the tables on Haman, and he is humiliated and defeated. Fickle Ahasuerus is turned again to favour the Jews, and he allows them to arm themselves and fight the hordes who descend on them on their appointed Kristallnacht. The Jews route their attackers and kill thousands of them. This is in one sense a happy ending- the Jews live, and after all the ones they kill are genocidal maniacs bent on the murder of innocent men, women and children.  On the other hand, the fact that the crisis wrought by Ahasuerus and Haman is solved by a bloody civil war between different people groups is hardly something for unalloyed joy. This is exactly the danger America, and countries throughout the world, are in danger of. If White America rises up to vent its frustrations on Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, etc., then the “minor” violence of the anti-Trump protests and the post-election hate crimes may escalate into more serious, and more bloody conflict. Now is the time for us to forge inter-communal ties, and advocate for fierce non-violence. May the Compassionate One have mercy on us all and inspire us with endurance, discernment, and love.