Politicians, Rabbi Illuminate Darkness

Thomas Breen photoHave the courage to shine a light on what is currently hidden in darkness.

For Orchard Street Shul Rabbi Mendy Hecht, that’s the message at the core of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which started on Sunday night and runs through Monday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Hecht joined Mayor Toni Harp, Democratic Gov.-elect Ned Lamont, state House Republican Minority Leader Themis Klarides, and a dozen other celebrants for for a menorah lighting ceremony on the second-floor balcony of Union Station. The ceremony, organized by Hecht and his Orchard Street congregation, celebrated the third night of the annual Jewish Festival of Lights.

Looking out over a grand concourse bustling with rush hour commuters and festooned with floating Christmas reeves, the 34-year-old Orthodox rabbi reflected on the both universal resonance and the cultural specificity of Hanukkah.

For Hecht, Hanukkah is unique in the Jewish holiday calendar: Unlike Passover, which celebrates the birth of the Jewish people, and Yom Kippur, which recognizes the day that Jewish people judged, Hanukkah represents an ideal: of courage, and of transparency.

“The light of truth,” he said, “the light of right over might, in the sense of don’t be intimidated by the darkness. ... I think it’s message is timeless.”

Hecht explained that the story of Hanukkah dates back over 2,000 years, when a small group of Jewish warriors named the Maccabees pulled off an unlikely victory against a much larger Syrian/Greek empire looking to outlaw Jewish religious rituals and enforce cultural assimilation.

“We’re celebrating a two-fold miracle,” Hecht said. The first being that that the “underdog Jewish army” defeated its more formidable adversaries. The second being that, when the Jews returned to rededicate their shuttered temple, a lone small jug of oil that should have only kept the temple’s candle burning for one day in fact kept the flames on for eight days.

“To me, the concept of the menorah,” Hecht said, referencing the eight-branched candlestick used to celebrate the eight nights of Hanukkah, “is coming into the light, specifically after dark. The point is to illuminate darkness.”

And after combining the first miracle of the courage of the Maccabees and the second miracle of the endurance of the light, he said, the holiday’s composite message emerges: “It’s the courage to go out to those dark spaces that we’re afraid of encountering. Whether it’s a personal dark space, a communal dark space of untalked-about issues, anything. It’s the space you don’t want to enter because you’re afraid.” Each night of Hanukkah, he said, calls on Jews and anyone else looking for religious inspiration to gather one’s courage and “illuminate that darkness.”

When asked about the relative religious insignificance of Hanukkah in the Jewish holiday calendar, and about its rise to prominence in the United States as a winter holiday parallel to the culturally and commercially omnipresent Christmas, Hecht said that the ideals of Hanukkah jibe well with what he sees as the promise of the American Dream.

“You can be the smallest guy int he street and rise to the greatest heights in this country,” he said. “It’s that freedom that Hanukkah symbolizes.”

Marcia Smith photoAnd what about the tightrope walk between assimilation and independence that holiday represents, seeing as how the holiday’s heroes were religious warriors who fought tooth and nail to resist assimilation into the dominant Greek culture.

“The point is always to remember where you come from,” he said. “That’s the main thing. When you think about cultural independence, we’ve lived all over the world as Jewish people. We’ve taken from so many cultures. But we also have so much that makes us what we are. To lose that would be a shame.”

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