I started wearing tefillin after we lost the election. I started wrapping tefillin because it was the first time in my life that I felt scared for my safety as a woman and as a Jew. I took on the obligation because I needed to mark a significant transition in my life and in the world– I needed to mourn something that was lost, and at the same time, reclaim my body, my femininity, and my faith. I needed to transform my feeling of helplessness to one of immense strength and power. The commandment to bind, to wrap, is to make an embodied sign, a binding on one’s body, to create a physical and impermanent reminder of ourselves and our tradition, וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאות עַל יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטטָפת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ, You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. After the election, I needed a reminder: that although everything around me was lost, I was bound, rooted to a tradition that would hold me, and constantly reaffirm my power as a Jew and as a woman.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the reclaiming and rededication of the Temple. Over the course of eight days, we remember the tragedy of destruction, the loss of our temple, and we briefly reflect on the experience of being a people without a spiritual or physical home. On Chanukah, we also celebrate our liberation, as we are reminded of the political and military abilities of the Maccabees, as well as the great power of religious mythology. On Chanukah, we remember, and celebrate our power. Each night, we light a candle. We create a physical and impermanent sign of our power and our great potential. And, as always, the fire of the Chanukah candles is as warm as it is dangerous.
This year, Chanukah will arrive on the heels of Donald Trump’s irreversible statement, marking Jerusalem as the official, and undivided capital of Israel. Here, we find ourselves at a significant crossroads, one at which our religious and political histories merge. Something fundamental has changed. We have changed. Our particular political moment is not unlike that portrayed in the Chanukah story. For many, Jerusalem has just been liberated, freed from generations of division and violence, restored to its rightful and powerful owners. For others, this declaration only suggests the continued oppression and hostility of invisibility and erasure.
In the moments following the speech, I thought about power, and the choices we will have to make in the days, months, and perhaps years to come.
If we are invested in maintaining Jerusalem’s security, as well as its holiness, we must commit ourselves with integrity. We must ask ourselves to take on the immensely difficult task of reflecting on our own history of victimhood and persecution, while remembering the great power we now hold in the world as Jews.
Taking the Palestinian narrative of oppression seriously does not require us to forego or even forget our own pain. We can hold both. In fact, we must.
While Jewish law forbids us from using or deriving any benefit from the light of the Chanukah candles, we must remember what is being reflected back to us by those tiny, trembling flames.
As we light the candles of Chanukah, we have the opportunity to look back into our history and pay attention to the way our power has shifted. As we say the blessings over each of the eight candles, we see our oppression, we can remember exile, we feel the heat of our history. And yet, we can also sense our liberation, we can feel the warmth of power.
With the Channukah candles, we physically and clearly mark our own monumental move away from oppression. We must be compelled to ask ourselves who we are, who will we be, what is the cost of our power, who is being reflected back to us in the Chanukah light?
Every morning, as I wrap seven black lines around my arm, tie binding stitches around my hand, and lay a flat knot at the top of my neck, I think about all that has been lost, how everything has changed. And, when I kiss the boxes that protect the small, fragile patches of my arm and heart, I am able to rededicate myself to the radical and sacred work of progress and redemption. To bind tefillin is both an act of liberation and pain. Chanukah is a holiday of liberation and pain. Chanukah’s charge is clearer than ever: In remembering the Maccabees, which Jerusalem are we reclaiming? How are we rededicating ourselves to a long and painful history of victimhood and oppression? We cannot be fooled by the beauty and the warmth of the Chanukah candles. We must not be fooled by the pleasure, by the sneaky high of having achieved power. We must create the warmth and the light of Chanukah, but we must not benefit from it.