Shabbat Vayeshev Hanukkah 5781

The COVID-19 Hanukkah

This year we celebrate our Festival of Lights in the midst of a dreadful pandemic, and, for far too many, literally in the shadow of death. The masks, social distancing, limited gatherings and even lock downs that mitigate the ravages of this plague, are unwelcome intrusions into our lives and communities. We are heartened, however, by the imminent rollout of vaccines that will liberate us from this dreadful plague. This glimmer of light fills us with hope.

Hanukkah is a festival of hope. For seven nights, we add an additional candle, and then, on the eighth night, we rejoice in the sight of our fully illuminated Hanukkiah. It’s a powerful symbol that we can, and will, successfully transition from darkness to light and from despair to salvation.

The first verse of Maoz Tzur* (Rock of Ages}, a beloved hymn of spirited affirmation of survival, is often sung immediately following the blessing and the lighting of the Hannukiah. The remaining four versus retell and celebrate deliverance from four ancient enemies: Pharaoh who enslaved our ancestors; Nebuchadnezzar, the  Babylonian tyrant, who destroyed the First Temple; Haman of the familiar Purim story; and Antiochus IV, who desecrated the Second Temple and whose severe decrees sought to destroy Jewish religious life.

This year we are still in the grips of Covid-19, the virus that has wreaked havoc upon our lives, our families, our economies, our societies. God willing, we will celebrate Hanukkah 2021, liberated from this deadly virus that, like the oppressors of the past, was ultimately overcome.  When we kindle our Hanukkah candles and chant the first verse of Maoz Tzur, may we be heartened by the faith that even the darkest of times ultimately give way to the light of the morrow.

*My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation! ‘Tis pleasant to sing Your praises.
Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer You our thanks.
When You will have slaughtered the barking foe.
Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar’s dedication

My soul was sated with misery, My strength was spent with grief.
They embittered my life with hardship, When enslaved under the rule of 
Egypt.
But God with his mighty power Brought out His treasured people;
While 
Pharaoh‘s host and followers Sank like a stone into the deep

He brought me to His holy abode; Even there, I found no rest.
The oppressor came and 
exiled me, Because I served strange gods,
and drank poisonous wine.
[a] Yet scarcely had I gone into exile,
When 
Babylon fell and Zerubbabel took charge; Within seventy years I was saved

The Agagite, (Haman) son of Hammedatha, plotted to cut down the lofty fir

But It proved a snare to him, and his insolence was silenced.
You raised the head of the Benjamite, (Mordecai)
;the enemy’s name You blotted out.
His numerous sons and his household You hanged upon the gallows

 The Greeks gathered against me, in days of the Hasmoneans.

They broke down the walls of my towers, and defiled all the oils.
But from the last remaining flask a miracle was wrought for the Jews.
[d]
Therefore the sages of the day ordained these eight for songs of praise.

From the holy city of Jerusalem, my fondest wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing and a Hag Hannukah Same’ach – a spirited and joyous celebration of our Festival of eternal hope.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar