Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The story of Hanukkah is a compelling tale. The fight of good versus bad, the underdog minority overthrows a powerful and disruptive national government. A family comes together to save the day. And that’s just the backdrop against which the real drama takes place: The destruction and rebuilding of the Temple and the miraculous discovery that what seemed like it would never be enough, is.
This year, as I think about Hanukkah, I am especially thoughtful about what we fight for. I think about the Maccabees, this slightly rag-tag band of brothers, throwing in their lot together against all odds, ready to navigate the consequences, come what may. This is not the fight one fights when there is another way. This is the fight of absolute necessity.
I think about Judah and others we think of as heroes. There is no hero training. Being heroic, standing up, being courageous, happens because it has to. We may wonder, What would I do if I were in that situation? when we hear of the ordinary everyday hero. The person who jumps on the subway train tracks to save the one who had fallen in as the train approaches. Would I be the bystander? Would I be the hero? Truthfully, we do not know, cannot know, until we are standing there.
Did Judah Maccabee know he had the necessary fierce-determination to defeat the Greek-Assyrians before he was in the middle of doing it? Perhaps, this is not how it works. Perhaps that bright flame of intensity and strength does not even exist until it is needed. These characteristics may not be ones which we dig deep to find but rather things we create on the spot, in the moment, only when we need them. And that capacity exists within all of us. The question is just, will we be able to spark the spark when the time comes?
I recently heard Tom Hanks being interviewed for a new collection of stories he had written. In the piece, he said he believed that people are villains, heroes or victims. There are no bystanders. This may be a stark assessment of the essence of our human experiences. However, who we are, or who we think we are may be defined by these moments. And as we practice small acts of heroism, we become more confident that the spark necessary to fight for what we believe in is there; that when we need the audacious bravery of Judah Maccabee, it will be there.
Because, I believe, we live in the space of hero-villain-coward more often than we think these days. If you want to know if you could be a Maccabee- to fight the necessary battle, know this: opportunities to practice being heroic, for standing up, for saying yes or saying no present themselves to each one of us daily. Saying something or not saying something to the random passerby who throws trash on the street, telling or not telling the kids running on the playground too fast that they may hurt the little kids, saying or not saying something when someone makes an off-color, inappropriate or just plain rude remark. These moments are practice for when it really matters and remind us that each moment really matters. They push us to recognize that who we are as individuals or who we are as communities are forged in the fire of the necessary battles we fight-or don’t-every day.
Because you always never know what the underdog, the outlier, or even little ole’ you can do.
So as we wind our way through the days of Hanukkah, as we add our lights to the darkness, even the smallest, most unlikely, ordinary person has within a small spark just waiting to ignite.