Monday, December 29, 2008

Chanukah and the Kassams (3 Year Aliya Anniversary)

A couple of friends of mine are big 'Birthday people'. You know the kind – there's a celebration on the actual day, a party that weekend and a joint party the week after.

While not begrudging anyone extra celebrations, I never really identified. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I have become the same – not a birthday person per se but an 'Aliya anniversary person.'

This year I've not only 'celebrated' both my Hebrew and English Aliya dates (first night Chanukah and Christmas day respectively).

I also spent the whole week telling everyone its 3 years since I moved here.

Back in December 2005, before my Aliyah, I wrote that if a place can make you cry - make you shout at the TV when a politician you disdain is speaking or produce pride that your country brings its boys home (even when you don't agree with it)… if a place can trigger those emotions - then how can you not live there?

3 years on, despite not waking up every morning with the Zionistic fervor of a swamp drainer, I still believe (as I wrote last year) that Israel remains the front line in shaping the Jewish people's future.

And as long as I can, I want to remain a part of it.

Yet living in a place that can make you cry can often lead to tears and frustrations (more frustrations than tears - I am a guy after all).

There's the rockets in the South which show no sign of abating;

The fear that initial successes in Gaza will be followed by the failures of Lebanon;

The continued, creeping erosion of the two state solution and our Jewish democratic state with it ;

Upcoming elections without the belief that change is possible;

and an increasingly quasi-Messianic minority who the State seemingly can't control.

Yet in the context of this darkness comes Chanukah, the festival of light, the victory of the Maccabees over Hellenists, of Jerusalem over Athens, of one way of life over another.

Their differing conceptions of how the world works is reflected in the story of how humanity gained the knowledge of making fire. Greek mythology tells of Prometheus stealing it from the Gods on Mount Olympus. As a punishment Zeus ties him to a rock and his liver is eaten (daily) by an eagle.

The Jewish myth (or Midrash for those who prefer) of human technological advancement explains that on the 8th day of creation (after Shabbat), God teaches Adam and Eve the secret of making fire.

For one, life is tragic, a constant battle against the will of the gods. For the other, life is about a divine-human partnership; towards bettering the world. It's about Tikva, Hope.

So as we finish lighting candles to brighten up our stormy nights, let's be strengthened by the idea that our Tikva – the one that guided us through the darkness of the past, and the one that continues to inspire Olim to make their home here – Od Lo Avda, is not yet lost.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chanukah 5769: The Strong always in the Hands of the Weak?

You in your abundant mercy rose up in their time of trouble, delivered the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked in the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones in the hands of those occupied with Torah.

This past week I've been struggling with the meaning of the military victory of Chanukah.

On the one hand it seems clear; the few against the many, the strong against the weak, the good against the bad demonstrates that if justice is on our side we need to stand firm and fight.

However minimal our chances might seem, whatever the geo-strategic forecast, we need not compromise on our values, whatever the potential cost.

Because with God's help, we will be victorious.

Yet I'm still uncertain.

Because for every Judah the Maccabee who fought against all odds and successfully freed his people from an occupying empire (Greece), there is a Bar-Kokhba whose revolt against an occupying empire (Rome) ended in defeat and mass slaughter and expulsion.

And apart from the result, is there genuinely any qualitative difference between these two stories?

In addition, are these models really better than that of Yochanan Ben Zakai who, when faced with a Roman siege of Jerusalem, acquiesced to the temple's destruction and requested only the small town of Yavneh and its students?

When all is said and done, who can say when we should fight and when we should compromise?

And if we do fight, who's to know it will lead to a famous victory or a terrible defeat?

Jared Diamond in his book Collapse discusses the case of five small eastern European countries who were faced with the overwhelming might of the Russian / Soviet armies;

The Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians surrendered their independence in 1939 without a fight (a la ben Zakai);

The Finns fought in 1939-40 and preserved their independence (a la Maccabe's);

The Hungarians meanwhile fought in 1956 and lost their independence (a la Bar Kokhba).

Who are we to say which country was wiser?

And who could have known beforehand that only the Finns would 'win' their gamble?