Israel, Torah

Renewing Our Faith that the Few Can Win Over the Many

by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, for All That’s Left

This Chanukah, All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, is publishing a series of eight essays — one for each day of Chanukah — from left-wing rabbis, rabbinical students, and Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on the Festival of Lights in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays, beginning with this piece, by long-time resistance leader to Israeli occupation and brutality, Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

I have never felt marginalized in Israel until now, and pray that Khannukah will help us discover within how to help the many rededicate themselves to a peaceful and just world.

There has always been a significant number of Israelis who shared many of the values we believe in, even if all too few acted on those beliefs. I would have burned out long ago, were I not able to maintain my belief, despite all of the injustice and oppression we deal with on a daily basis, in the basic goodness of the vast majority of my fellow Israelis. They live in a convenient bubble, but are not incorrigibly evil.

The last elections challenged that belief. For most of Israel’s history, the presented public ethos championed justice and universal human rights, although that was a veneer masking a much different reality. However, Bezalel Smotrich’s campaign slogan was “If you vote for me, you know what you’ll get.” Several parties campaigned on platforms that openly fused religion, expansionist nationalism and the glorification of power. All too many Israelis voted for them, even if many had other reasons for voting as they did, such as the belief that these parties would restore their personal security.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch warned in his Torah commentary that when we will someday have a state we must not abuse our newfound power as the Egyptians used it against us (Commentary to Exodus 22:20). Unlike the current branding of Palestinians as Amalek to justify all-out war, Hirsch says that what we are commanded to wipe out is “Not Amalek, but the memory and fame and glory of Amalek. This endangers the moral future of humanity. As long as the history books will glorify military heroes…as long as people will want to emulate them.” What we must remember is “Don’t forget a thing if the day will come when you will want to be like Amalek” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

Even before the war, at a meeting of veteran human rights NGO staffers, we all acknowledged that although the injustices of the Occupation are the legacy of successive governments, none of us could recall a time when the situation had ever been so bad. Then, the slaughter, rape and kidnapping of Israelis on October 7th truly marginalized us. The situation of West Bank Palestinians today is analogous to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. United in grief and anger, the vast majority of Israelis are incapable of distinguishing between Palestinian terrorists and terrorized Palestinians. Almost nobody was willing to stand up for Japanese Americans when they were put in camps. Almost nobody is willing to defend Palestinians. More than ever before, those of us who do are seen as traitors. Unleashing unbridled power is seen as justified.

I have therefore never needed as I do today the words we recite in the Khannukah Amidah and as a Khannukah addition to Birkat HaMazon (blessings after a meal), “You delivered the powerful into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.”

This phrasing is still way more zero sum than I am comfortable with. I don’t want the many who think differently than us to be militarily “delivered” into our hands, or to seek the vengeance that the prayer’s previous line says that God wreaked on the Greco-Syrians. While fervently believing in our understanding of Jewish and universalist morality, we should remember that all the truth is not in our hands and have the humbleness not to say we are the tzadikim (the righteous) of this prayer and those who oppose us are evildoers. But we do need to hold on to the faith that the day will come, perhaps in our lifetimes, when we will celebrate the more inclusive victory envisioned in the Aleinu prayer. God will turn and return to God the world’s evildoers, “l’hafnot aleikha kol rishai aretz.”

Faith can’t be established by fiat, and faith alone will not bring about the triumph of today’s few. But perhaps Khannukah can be a time to look inside us, around us and to God to find the faith that inspires us
to act. Many of us know that the mitzvah of lighting the Khannukah candles is for the sake of “pirsum ha’nes.” We want to advertise the Khannukah miracle to others. However, Maimonides in the Mishna Torah writes that we light the Khanukkah lights “l’harot v’l’galot et hanes” (Hilkhot Megillah 3:3). L’galot can be translated either to reveal or to discover. Perhaps we are not just revealing the Khannuka miracle to others. We must discover or rediscover within ourselves the faith challenged when we are a marginalized minority. Many have commented that the true miracle of Khannukah is that the Maccabees dared to believe in God, in themselves and that the few really can prevail over the many. During the darkest days of the year and in these dark times, we need to find within ourselves the faith in the arc of justice in history. Whether or not it will happen in the near future, God does have a plan in which ultimately, IF we play our role, humanity will be turned to God. We will honor God’s Image in every human being.

Change may be taking place without us realizing it. During Khannukah we read the strange interlude in the Joseph narrative in which Judah’s first two sons die, and Judah refuses to require his third son to perform levirate marriage with the widow Tamar. She therefore disguises herself as a prostitute, entices Judah, and out of that union is born Peretz. King David will descend from Peretz. While I’m not sure that King David is worthy of being the Messiah’s progenitor, our tradition believes he is. The midrash teaches that Peretz’s conception takes place when everybody is depressed and immersed in their own woes, “The tribes were engaged in the sale of
Joseph, Joseph was engaged in his sackcloth and his fasting, Reuben was engaged in his sackcloth and his fasting, Jacob was engaged in his sackcloth and his fasting, Judah was engaged in taking a wife for himself, and the Holy One blessed be God was engaged in creating the light of the King Messiah” (Bereshit Rabbah 85).

However, we cannot be passive because we are also taught that the most seemingly ineffective act that we take may be the act that tips the scales one way or the other for ourselves and for the world (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 40b).

May this Khannukah be a time in which we each discover the sources of faith and insight we need to bring about the world we aspire to.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization “Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice.” Previously, he led “Rabbis For Human Rights” for 21 years.

All That’s Left is a collective unequivocally opposed to the Occupation and committed to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.

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