Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.
“O mighty stronghold of my salvation, to praise You is a delight. Restore my House of Prayer and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering, When You will have prepared the slaughter for the blaspheming foe, Then I shall complete with a song of hymn the dedication of the Altar.”
The warm glow of freshly lit Hanukkah candles fills the room, my family stands arm in arm, and as the wick of the last candle is ignited, we gleefully burst into a rousing rendition of the first stanza of Ma’oz Tzur. Somebody laughs as battling versions from my mom’s family and my dad’s family try to out-sing each other; my brother sticks in some extra jazzy notes and be-bops, and after a couple of rounds of the same stanza, we leave the song behind in eager anticipation of the exchanging of gifts.
The memory and the feeling is one of warmth and joy, togetherness and peace. No attention is ever paid to the actual words that we sing, but rather the tune, the song, the joy in the moment.
Taking a Look at the Hebrew
In college I started taking Hebrew more seriously. I will never forget the first time my Hebrew was good enough to understand the words I was singing to this joyful tune. The warm peacefulness of the moment was shattered by the reality of the words’ meaning. There was a sharp dissonance between the feeling of the ritual and the words on the page. Were we really singing that God should prepare the destruction of another people, even if those people were our enemies?
And would we really sing such a request in such a joyous manner? Hadn’t I been taught at Passover; when we remove wine from our glass in honor of the Egyptians who died, that when our enemies die, we acknowledge their death regretfully and sadly? Why was the tune to these words so joyful?
Why must this evening–one of family togetherness and giving, when we celebrate the survival of our Jewish identity, our liberation from religious oppression, and the miracle of light in moments of darkness–be tinged by a song that beseeches God to carry out violence on our behalf? Where is the line that separates celebrating our freedom and liberation from celebrating the slaughter of those who oppress us? Is it not possible to mark a holiday or to live a life that celebrates our freedom without seeking vengeance on our former oppressors?