O Jerusalem! A Reflection on Chanukah 2017

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For the last few nights the crescent of the waning moon has been beaming bravely in the winter sky, while growing smaller and smaller.  And today at noon my yard was flooded with golden light, as if at sunset, as the sun slunk low across the horizon, barely peering over the treetops.  The darkening moon and early-setting sun can mean only one thing: it’s time for Chanukah!

In their wisdom, the rabbis of the Talmud set our winter festival at the time of greatest darkness, the end of the lunar month closest to the solstice.  The Christian Bible includes the Book of Maccabees 1 and 2, but these Greek texts were not included in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible.  Living under Roman occupation, the rabbis who oversaw the final redaction of the Tanach chose not to include the story of rebellion, knowing that the story took place in the context of civil war in Judea.  And perhaps more importantly, for the rabbis, the essence of Jewish identity went beyond nationalism.  The Jews were a people not of a place, but of an ideal, a relationship with a transcendent Power-Being-Reality, involved in human history, both as a Force that set the vast universe in motion, and as a Face turned attentively toward human affairs.  (Recall the blessing for the children: May the face of holiness turn toward you, shine upon you…) Not in the Greek Chanukah story, but rather in the Talmud we find the story of the one-day supply of oil that lasted for eight nights, through the celebration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Oh, Jerusalem!  If I forget you, may my right hand forget its skill.  (Psalm 137:5)

Oh, Jerusalem indeed!

In 1887 excavations in Amarna, Egypt unearthed cuneiform tablets that brought to light the earliest known reference to Jerusalem: diplomatic letters from the Canaanite ruler of Uru-salim (city of the god Salim) requesting military aid from his Egyptian suzerain.  This was sometime in the 14th century B.C.E, a few centuries before the Tanach story of a tribal chieftain named David who conquered the city and made it his capital. (2 Samuel 5)

Philologist Christopher Rollston points out, “Among the most important things that these tablets demonstrate is that there was a vibrant and sophisticated scribal apparatus in Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age.  The Canaanite city was certainly not a backwater, but precisely the reverse.”

(See http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/jerusalem-in-the-amarna-letters)

Thirty-three centuries later, the ruler in Jerusalem still relies on a foreign power to the west for military aid!  Is there nothing new under the sun?  How bizarre it is to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu playing the role of the Canaanite king, and President Trump playing Pharaoh.

To really drive home their antipathy toward the Maccabees, and their reluctance to champion a nationalist cause, the rabbis of the Talmud chose perhaps the most pacifist-leaning verses in the Tanach as the Haftarah reading for the Shabbat of Chanukah: “Not by might, not by power, but through My spirit, says the Holy One!” (Zecharyah 4:6).

In ancient times cities were built around temples, which served as a cosmic nexus, connecting heaven and earth.  As scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky has written of ancient Sumer (the birthplace of Abraham and Sarah in the Torah story), “The city was not simply a coincidental assemblage of people who happened to live in the same place. It was an entity that had unity, integrity, and power – it was a locus of divinity.” (In the Wake of the Goddesses, page 9)

Today Jerusalem is revered as a just such a sacred place, a Holy City, revered by two billion Christians, one billion Muslims, and about 14 million Jews.  Jerusalem is a seat of undisputed power, the de facto capital of a nation that ranks number one on the Global Militarization Index, making Israel the most highly militarized country in the world. (See https://www.bicc.de/publications/ publicationpage/publication/global-militarization-index-2017-785/)  But to lay claim to being a Holy City along the ancient model, Jerusalem must be not only of headquarters of power, but also place of unity and integrity.  Many wonderful organizations both within Israel and without are working toward that goal, recognizing the international stature of the city and also the unique Jewish connection.

President Trump’s much trumpeted proclamation on the status of Jerusalem has enthralled his “base” supporters who misguidedly cherish the Holy City as a venue for the Armageddon and return of their savior, but it does little to change the shape of the city. That work is being done in the Knesset, where two bills have been introduced in a blatant effort to boost the declining Jewish majority of the city by annexing adjacent Jewish neighborhoods and excising Arab neighborhoods from the municipality.

An October 2017 position paper by non-profit Ir Amim (City of Peoples) on the Jerusalem, Capital of Israel Bill and the Greater Jerusalem Bill explains as follows: “Over the course of the fifty years since the annexation of East Jerusalem, something resembling a mutual dependence has been created between the two parts of the city, and alongside existing hostilities, delicate balances that help to sustain daily life in the city and deescalate tensions during periods of crisis. Forty percent of the workforce residing in East Jerusalem is currently employed in West Jerusalem and over the years public spheres have been created that serve both parts of the city while both continue to preserve their national and political attachments.  This necessary balance is widely understood by residents of the city, both Israeli and Palestinian, even if politicians tend to ignore it.” (See http://www.iramim.org.il/sites/ default/files/Destructive_Unilateral_Proposals_on_Jerusalem-October_2017.pdf)

When the municipal borders of Jerusalem have been wisely drawn to accommodate the diversity of its residents, and to honor the place it holds in the hearts and minds of three billion people, then we’ll have something to celebrate.  Then Jerusalem, literally meaning City of Peace, will be worthy to see the return of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, the Indwelling Supernal Energy that, as tradition teaches, led the Israelites through the wilderness, resided in the ancient Temples, went into exile when the Temples were destroyed, and is present among us when we celebrate Shabbat, when we study Torah, and whenever we greet one another with respect.

As we revel in the dreamy darkness of Chanukah on the redwood coast, in the relative safety and security of our homes, let us rededicate ourselves to a vision of peace and prosperity – in West Jerusalem (predominantly Jewish), in East Jerusalem (almost exclusively Arab), in all the diverse neighborhoods of the Jerusalem metropolis, in our own cities here in the U.S., and in all the cities of the world.

Chag Chanukah Sameach ~ A joyful Chanukah!
Rabbi Naomi