The story of Hanukkah, the way I absorbed it as a child, was a quick one. As the saying goes, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” When we sing the songs of triumph and torchlit celebration, it often seems as if the Maccabee guerrillas beat the Greek army in about the time it takes to smear a latke with jam (or whatever condiment you prefer!) and gobble it down.
The speed of the story, retold, suits our modern culture. News and information are just finger-clicks away. Those of us with means are used to consumer gratification that’s instant, or near it. We’re accustomed to fast responses, even to serious questions.
But the Maccabees were hiding in the hill country, fighting guerilla battles against the Seleucids – and some Hellenized Jews – for seven years before they won the power to re-establish Jewish practice in Jerusalem. Jacob, too, waited seven years (and then a little more) to marry his beloved Rachel and begin, with her and Leah, the family that became the fulfillment of his covenant with God and the beginnings of our 12 Jewish tribes.
Achieving major goals takes time.
We Jews understand a waiting game.
And we’re in the middle of one now. The stakes are very high. As the weather gets colder, and we brace for a winter with coronavirus restrictions still necessarily in place, we wait – with confidence, with hope and prayer – for a vaccine to be distributed. But while we wait, we have to both keep our spirits up, and keep our bodies distanced from each other, and masks on outside of our homes or in proximity to non-household members. We do our best to help minimize coronavirus infections and fatalities, and to avoid increasing the burden on our heroic healthcare workers in a healthcare system that is showing the strain.
So we wait. But we don’t wait idly. Our world, Jewish and wider, has been enormously creative this year. If since March, you’ve happily celebrated a lifecycle event, attended a service or a class or a concert, or worked (remotely or in person), think about the changes – tweaks or larger – that allowed that experience to happen during coronavirus. I think particularly of the new emphasis on play that clergy and educator plans now regularly include – how to encourage movement and silliness and spontaneity through a screen. We scheme to create fun together, even when we’re not in the same room. Adaptation and its twin, resilience, are Jewish values. And innovations from this time can carry forward, positively, long after COVID’s grip on our world has broken.
This is a long slog. It’s not pleasant. We miss shared meals, touch, scent, movement as we interact – everything that shoulders-and-up of a flat Zoom screen can’t convey. We’re humans; we want to be together. The absence of in-person experience, whether it’s hugging a relative, sitting down in a full classroom or office, or praying and singing together in synagogue, is brutal. But it preserves life. And the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, guides and sustains us. Thank God, that our own struggle, unlike the Maccabees’, asks us not to take life, but to guard it and heal it.
In Jewish tradition, good things are worth waiting for, and working for, even when that means fighting our own strongest inclinations. That is how, I believe, we are going to come through this pandemic together.
The Maccabees stayed the course. And at the end of it all, they were able to return to their Temples and rededicate together shoulder-to-shoulder and pour out their hearts in song and praise. From the grim yet classic Hanukkah anthem Ma’oz Tsur: “Az egmor b’shir mizmor, chanukat hamizbeiach.” “I’ll conclude with a song of praise, rededicating the altar.” May we all conclude this hard winter with new songs of praise, rededicating our holy spaces and our regathering selves.
As the late, great Charlie Murphy put it: “Light is returning, even though this is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn.”
Chag Hanukkah sameiach – a very happy Hanukkah to you. Hang on until the dawn breaks through. Wear your mask, but don’t hide your brightness. May your people sustain you and bring you joy. May we all emerge from this time of pandemic healthy and whole, with our imaginations alight.
Cantor Vera Broekhuysen is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill.