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Outnumbered?

Friday, 20 December, 2019 - 7:25 am

As Chanukah arrives, I hear the annual chatter about how difficult it is to be a Jew during this time of year. At schools, businesses and public places the non-Jewish holiday displays are ubiquitous. Coupled with songs and parties – it’s simply everywhere.

How do Jews remain proud at this time of year, especially in places like Idaho? How can we compete against such great odds? Indeed, we cherish the religious freedom that our great country affords us.  But we are, after all, a minority.

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Many have argued about the prominence Chanukah receives in modern Jewish society. Some claim that it’s not a major Jewish holiday and its virtue is largely exaggerated, only due to competition with other faiths’ festivals. Others counter that it offers historical and cultural relevance, and thus deserves the spotlight. The mystics point to its deeper symbolism and energy, shining a spiritual spotlight on it.

One relevant observation for our particular society is that Chanukah – by Divine Providence – occurs at a time when Jews might be concerned about being outnumbered.  So perhaps we can look to the Chanukah story itself – not the gift-giving or latkes – for guidance.

We are all familiar with the miracle of the menorah’s oil lasting eight days instead of one. But the other great miracle of Chanukah was the military victory of the Maccabees. The marvel of their triumph was that an inexperienced and under-armed group of Jews repelled and defeated the powerful Greek-Assyrian army. An even greater coup was that the Jews were outnumbered ten to one.

How did they even dream of taking on the mighty soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanies against such ludicrous odds? Was it not suicidal?

***

Perhaps this week’s Torah portion of Vayeshev can provide some appropriate insight.

After Joseph is sold by his brothers, he winds up in Egypt as a slave. Let’s look at it from his perspective: He has no family: they traded him away for some gelt! He has no friends: he is a foreigner in a new land, a lonely immigrant. He has no freedom: he can expect to remain enslaved for the rest of his life.  He still has an entire life ahead of him: he is seventeen years old, certainly capable of adapting to his new life and forgetting his previous one. If there ever was a person that felt lonely and outnumbered, Joseph should fit the bill. 

Yet we read in the Torah that Joseph overcame numerous challenges and temptations, and remained loyal to his faith and family. He resisted seduction and threats from his master’s wife – though no one would have known the difference. He proudly affirmed his faith when Pharaoh inquired about the source of his wisdom. He raised his children as followers of his own language, belief system and tradition – even though he was now Egyptian royalty. And he forgave his brothers for their brutal act of betrayal.

What motivated Joseph to continue the legacy of his fathers when he could have easily created his own – more magnificent – legacy?

The Talmud relates that when Potiphar’s wife begged him to sleep with her, he almost succumbed to temptation. But at that moment the image of his father appeared to him in the window and he tore himself away from sin.

What Joseph realized at that moment is that he is not alone. His father, his tradition and his G-d are all with him. A Jew is never alone.

 The Maccabees might have been physically outnumbered, but they recognized that all of their fellow Jews were with them. A Jew is never alone.

If we are alone, we do indeed feel outnumbered. But, every American soldier fighting overseas can feel the support of the entire country behind her. And every Jew can feel the soul of our people pulsating within her singular body, no matter where.

The juxtaposition of Chanukah in the secular calendar creates an extra reminder for us that a Jew is never alone.

In order for a soldier to arouse the sense of support and connection to his country, he must dress the part, engage in military activities and interact with his comrades in arms.

We too - like Joseph and the Maccabees – must spring into action – proclaiming our faith to ourselves and our children and drawing our spiritual swords. If we, as Jews, embrace this wonderful gift – miracles can happen.

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