Shabbat Chanukah

Let There Be Light

December 6, 2012 marks an important date in the history of American and world Jewry.  Even so, most of you probably do not know what this date represents. December 6 , 2102 marks the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington to protest the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union.  On that Sunday in 1987, over 250,000 people from all over the United States assembled on the Washington mall to demonstrate American Jewry’s solidarity with the Jews of the Soviet Union.  Pearl Bailey sang “Let My People Go.”  The shofar was sounded.  Elie Wiesel invoked the memory of the Holocaust when he said that millions could have been saved during World War Two had people protested like they did that day on behalf of Soviet Jewry.  “During the Holocaust,” said Wiesel, “too many were silent. We are not silent today.” Many of you here today were not even born in 1987. Many of you are too young to remember the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union.  Yet some of you here today were born and raised in the Soviet Union, and you or your families experienced directly the State anti-Semitism that was a government policy of some seventy years.  Like the Greeks who we recall during this Chanukah season, the Soviet authorities forbid Jewish people from practicing their religion, from teaching it to their children, from studying it themselves, from gathering together for prayer. Soviet Jews had none of the freedoms that we take for granted here in the United States.  Possessing a Jewish book was a crime and one could go to jail if one was found in your home. Teaching children Torah was illegal – the teacher would be imprisoned. Celebrating Jewish holidays was outlawed.  Heaven help you if you had the audacity to apply for a passport so you could travel to Israel. For that crime, you were sent to Siberia, the frozen wasteland far from your home, where you would be thrown in a prison work camp where conditions were cruel and harsh and where you might very well die.   Yet, despite the risks, brave Jewish people in the Soviet Union did have Jewish books in their homes, books often smuggled in by visitors from the United States. Teachers did teach adults and children about Judaism, even though they might lose their jobs as doctors or scientists or engineers in the state run institutions that employed them.  People did celebrate Simchat Torah publically in Moscow, even though they knew the KGB was watching and they might get a visit from the secret police to their home the next morning.  People did apply to go to Israel, even though they knew they could be sent to Siberia and disappear forever. These people were called “refusniks” because they refused to allow the government to force them to give up their Judaism. The most famous refusenik was Natan Sharansky.  He applied to visit Israel and was thrown in a Siberian prison camp for nine years, from 1978-1986. He was the only Jewish person in his prison camp when Chanukah came around. Nevertheless, he told the story of Chanukah to his fellow inmates – the story of freedom, the story of returning to one’s own culture when powerful governments sought to crush you. The prisoners liked the story, even though they were not Jewish. The themes of Chanukah spoke directly to them. They helped Natan make a small Menorah, decorated it, and found some candles. Every evening they lit the menorah, said the blessings, and sang some songs in their small barracks. But on the sixth night of Chanukah, the jailer came by and took the menorah away. “This menorah is illegal,” said the jailer. “It is made from state property. And the candles are dangerous – they can start a fire. This is not allowed!” “In two days the holiday will be over,” said Natan. “I’ll return the “state property” to you after that. Please…” “This is a prison, not a synagogue. You cannot pray here,” answered the jailer. Natan Sharansky was not going to accept that without a protest. So, he wrote a letter to the President of the Soviet Union and began a hunger strike. He wrote that the prison was interfering with his rights. When the prison warden heard about that, he called Natan Sharansky to his office.  He did not want Natan going on a hunger strike and telling his bosses he was abusing his human rights. “Natan, can’t you be reasonable,” he said.  “If you take back your letter and eat, I promise you that you will be able to pray as much as you want.” “Great,” said Natan. “Then give me back my menorah. It is the eighth night of Chanukah, and I have to light the candles.” “I’ve already given the order to take the menorah. I can’t give it back to you,” said the warden. Natan knew that the warden could not be seen by the whole camp as giving in to a prisoner. “I’ll tell you what,” said Natan. “You must have the Menorah here in your office.  Why don’t I light it here with you?  Then I’ll end the hunger strike and take back my letter.” The warden agreed and went to get the Menorah.  If it would end all of this nonsense, he thought to himself, he could do that. Natan arranged the candles and went to the coat-rack to get his hat.  “During prayers you have to have your head covered and stand up,” explained Natan to the warden. “And when I finish my prayer, you have to say “Amen”. The warden nodded. He put on his major’s hat and stood up. Then Natan lit the candles and said the blessings in Hebrew.  He added in Hebrew, “May I soon be allowed to light the Chanukah candles in Your Holy City of Jerusalem.” Seeing the warden standing meekly at attention, Natan was emboldened. He added, in Hebrew, “And may the day come when all our enemies who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say “Amen.” “Amen,” said the warden. “That’s it,” said the warden. “Now you can go back to your cell and have something to eat.” “I can’t go back until the candles burn out,” said Natan.  So he and the warden sat silently in the office, looking at the burning candles until they went out. The warden had a dreamy look on his face, as if he were actually enjoying the sight of the candlelight. When the candles burned out, the warden snapped out of it, and ordered Natan back to his cell. Natan told his fellow prisoners about how the warden and he lit the Chanukah candles.  They all had a good laugh at the warden’s “conversion”. Tomorrow morning, the Sabbath of Chanukah, we will read the words of the prophet Zachariah – “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit alone, says the Lord.”  Natan Sharansky stood up against the might and power of the great Soviet Empire, and with G-d’s spirit coursing through his veins, he prevailed against them.  The Soviet Union tried to frighten him, to crush him, to destroy him, but he resisted them at every turn.  In 1986 they released him, and he moved to Israel, where his wife, his friends, and his supporters were joyously awaiting.  In 1987, he spoke in person to those 250,000 people at that March on Washington. It is worth recalling Natan Sharansky’s final statement in Soviet Court before his sentencing in 1978. At the time he said this in court, he did not know whether he would be executed or imprisoned for fifteen years for the crime of wanting to live in Israel. His words exemplify the spirit of Chanukah –that even when the odds are against you, we should never give up hope. He said in court: For more than 2000 years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Now, when I am further than ever from my people, from my wife, Avital, facing many years of arduous imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, to my Avital, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Shabbat Shalom and Ah Freilichen Chanukah