Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Alan Gross Released from Cuban Prison

In celebration of Chanukah, we tend to focus on the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. However the great miracle was not so much about the oil as it was a result of the successful Hasmonean revolt in their fight for religious freedom against the Selucid-Greeks.

With that in mind, we are pleased to celebrate the modern miracle of the release of Alan Gross from his imprisonment in Cuba. As recent travelers to Cuba, members of Har Sinai Congregation went with the goal of providing resources and supplies to the Jewish communities struggling in Communist Cuba. As I blogged following our trip, it was an eye opening experience. Cuba was nothing like we were expecting. However we were cognizant that Cuba is a repressive regime that tries to roll out the carpet for travelers to present Cuba in the finest light.

As we are in the greater Baltimore-Washington D.C. area, friends of Alan Gross reached out to us requesting that we not travel to Cuba. We understood their plea, however we felt the resources we could provide the Jews in Cuba outweighed Alan’s plight. We found ourselves becoming immersed in his experiences and learned that it was a more complex narrative than one portrayed in the media.

Whether Alan knew exactly what he was up to, or was a pawn by the State Department will be debated by scholars, pundits, and historians. What we do know is that his release is a welcome miracle and blessing for his family and his community.

It could also signal a change in the United States’ approach to Cuba, which may ultimately result in the toppling of the repressive Communist regime. This in turn could result in religious and personal freedoms not just for the Jews of Cuba, but for all Cubans. And this would be a great miracle and blessing indeed, for which we can all rejoice.

In the meantime, we wish Alan a speedy return to his loving family and friends. We wish him a Refu’ah Shleymah, a complete recovery of mind, body and spirit. And we look forward to him being able to celebrate Chanukah as a free Jew, a blessing for which we can all be grateful for.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chanukah Reimagined

The most famous symbol of Chanukah is the Chanukiah. That is the 8 branched menorah, which we light one additional light for each night of the festival. The reason for this can be found in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat where it reminds us that after the Hasmoneans drove the Selucid Greeks and their leader Antiochus IV out of the Temple in Jerusalem, they only found one container of oil that had been sealed by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. This The used the oil to rededicate (Chanukah) the Temple, and great miracle was that this oil lasted not for one day, but for eight days.

This is the reason we tell our children that we light candles for eight nights. The problem with this narrative is that the great miracle was not the oil. The great miracle was a group of desperate and heavily oppressed Jews managed to overcome a far superior force in a central battle for religious freedom. With the way things were going, if the Hasmoneans, as led by Judah Maccabee had not defeated the Selucid Greeks, there would probably be no Judaism today.

We even reference this during our worship services during Chanukah with a section called Al HaNisim, “We thank you for the miracles.” In it we are reminded that Mattathias ben Yohanan, the High Priest, and his children rose up against the evil Government of Greece. And that God, “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…”

In many ways, it is the same narrative we use when referencing Israel’s battle for Independence.
But why don’t we emphasize this story rather than the story of the oil? Part of the reason was because the Hasmoneans fell out of favor once they conquered the Greeks and began to abuse their authority. In a way, the rabbis wrote them out of history, or at least de-emphasized their role in the narrative.
Another reason is because, for the longest time, talk of Jews as powerful military figures overcoming oppressive forces would not play well in intolerant countries. However, as we now live freely and openly as Jews alongside with a Jewish State, now is a great time to begin to reclaim this heritage.

So as you light your candles and eat your latkes and sufganiyot, sing not just the songs of the menorah, but also the songs celebrating our ability to fight for our right to be able to do such things as light the menorah and eat latkes and sufganiyot. Chag Chanukah Sameach!