Some of the conversation surrounding the Brexit vote (shock) in the UK, followed by the Presidential vote (further shock) in the United States, has been quite startling. There’s been a significant questioning of democracy, of stability, of our values with a not so subtle dose of uncertainty and anxiety about our collective future.
My own view is that we have not even come close to reaching catastrophic results in either country. However, this is as good a time as any to take stock and be aware that history can change dramatically, unexpectedly, and catch us all off guard.
We Jews know that reality more than any other people. Safe in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, suddenly there arose a Babylonian Empire to destroy the Temple and exile two thirds of our people.
A Jewish state, Judea, the last sovereign Jewish state until 1948, existed in strength and in peace until the expanding power of Rome in the west eroded Jewish independence, leading to the outbreak of the doomed Jewish revolt in 66CE and destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE.
Our entire history since those debacles, while living in galut (exile) or diaspora (dispersion), has been a story of “security and safe haven” one day, only to be eventually shocked into disarray.
Jews lived in Baghdad for centuries until they were caught up in its gradual decline and finally invasion by Mongol invaders in the 13th century.
The Jews of Spain, who lived in relative comfort for centuries, bouncing between Muslim and Christian overlords, found themselves cut off by the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, culminating in their expulsion from the entire Iberian peninsula, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. Jewish havens in Poland and Ukraine also came to a sudden end.
In our own lifetime, Jews who had lived in Germany since the 9th century and by the 20th century had reached positions of influence, creativity and even power, became the centre of Nazi extermination designs.Then came the virtual end of Russian Jewry.
And that is a major reason why we should remember the lessons of the coming festival of Chanukah. Before Antiochus Epiphanes IV began his religious persecution, his Seleucid predecessor, Antiochus III, followed up his victory over the Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt in 198 BCE by giving the Jews freedom of worship and relief from heavy taxation.
Antiochus IV continued this policy for the first seven years of his reign. But in a complete reversal, in 167 he initiated the first major pagan persecution of any Jewish community, forbade the study of Torah, prohibited circumcision and forcibly imposed emperor- worship on the Temple in Jerusalem.
What happened in so short a period of time? There are all kinds of explanations – unrest in Egypt following his incursions, leading to fear of another war there; souring of the economy; and most importantly, a growing intolerance towards the “differing practices” of the Jews
Hence, the first religious persecutions in history, the three-year Maccabean revolt and the subsequent cleansing of the Temple, leading to our holiday of Chanukah.
So, what does this all mean for us? To me, it means that there are no guarantees in history; that things can change rapidly; that we need to be ever alert and ready to check any emergence of anti-Semitism.
We must always be mindful that the countries we love so much and which have given us abundant freedom, hold no rock-solid guarantee that this will last forever.
What is forever is God, Torah and the people of Israel. We must never forget that reality. So light those Chanukah candles, cherish our current freedom, implant in our children the resolve to resist any onslaught on our people and faith. Let them know that our spiritual strength and vision will last for eternity.
My wishes to all of you for a festival of light and hope, of lots of oily food (latkes, sufganiyot) and the joy of freedom.
Chag Chanukah Sameach!
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler