A Friday Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.8.23

December 8, 2023


This week:

  1. Celebrate this special Shabbat with us – Cantor Adi Wyner!!
  2. A word about Chanukah


  1. A very special Shabbat:

I think everyone knows about the Hanukkah Hootenanny tomorrow night – if you haven’t bought tickets yet, don’t fret – you can buy them at the door. Ariel Wyner and his band Jacob’s Ladder will treat us to a phenomenal night of fun, Chanukah-worthy music – bluegrass, “Jew-grass,” and other Americana. We’ll be serving hot latkes, sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and other Chanukah treats. You don’t want to miss this one!


In case you’re not aware, Ariel is the son of Cantor Adi Wyner, who served as the part-time chazzan of EMJC for some years before my arrival. Adi was, in fact, my first teacher of nusach (Jewish prayer-modes) back when we both lived in the San Francisco Bay area, and it’s because of him that I ended up at EMJC. In the spirit of our centennial celebration and honoring our center’s history, I invited Adi to co-officiate with me tomorrow morning. Adi will lead the Musaf service for Shabbat Chanukah, a treat that I am greatly looking forward to. We will also have the great pleasure of hearing Steve Appell deliver a Chanukah sermon, not to mention Nathaniel Olveira and Dori Levine (my mum!) reading Torah. Chanukah also means that we’ll get to recite the beautiful Hallel service (around 9:50 am). I hope you can join us.


  1. A Word about Chanukah

Maoz Tzur is the paradigmatic Chanukah hymn, traditionally sung after the lighting of the candles on each of the eight nights. The ubiquitous Ashkenazi melody comes from a German hymn that, by 1450, was already well-known among German Jews, so certainly dates back even earlier than that. The six-stanza poem itself, by an author named Mordechai (he wrote his name into the poem in the form of an acrostic), is thought to have been written in the 12th century, during the time of the Crusades. I love the idea that so many Jews around the world, even ones who rarely step foot into a synagogue, sing a 900-year-old religious poem eight nights a year. 


Maoz Tzur, after an introductory verse (the one most people sing), recounts our miraculous redemption from four different enemies: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Haman, and the Greeks (i.e. the Syrian-Greeks of the Chanukah story). That fifth, Chanukah-specific verse, says:


The Greeks gathered against me

Back in the days of the Hasmoneans

And they breached the walls of my towers (Jerusalem, the Temple)

And defiled all of the (sanctified) oils

But from the remnant of the vessels (of oil)

A miracle was wrought for the lilies (i.e. the Jewish people)

Men of deep understanding

Established an eight-day festival of song and praise

(Translation SL)


Each stanza makes allusion to suffering or calamity of some kind (e.g. “The Greeks gathered against me,” “The oppressor came and exiled me” etc.), and then to God’s salvation. As an expression of the terrible anguish and destruction wrought by the crusading Christians, it’s not surprising that the concluding verse indicts Christianity and pleads with God for messianic salvation: 


Expose your holy arm,
And bring the end, the redemption

Avenge the abuse of your servants,
From the wicked nation

For the redemption has been long delayed,
And there is no end to the days of misery.

Reject Edom (=Christendom) in the shadow of the image (=crucifix),

Raise up for us the shepherd of the seven.

(Translation Prof. Yitzchak Melamed)


We now find ourselves in another time of difficulty. This time, it is Hamas that is the “wicked nation” that brings us “no end to the days of misery.” And just as Chanukah celebrates both a military victory (the Maccabees over the Greeks) and a divine miracle (the cruse of oil), so we hope in our time for a doubled redemption. First, let us see an end to this war: Hamas permanently debilitated and de-throned, the safe return of all the hostages, and an end to the terrible destruction of life and property in Gaza. And second, a permanent peace, suggested in the final, obscure line of the poem: Raise up for us the shepherd of the seven. 


Prof. Yitzchak Melamed of Johns Hopkins University explains in an article in TheTorah.com that there are two versions of the final line (the other being Raise up for us the seven shepherds). But the more common “shepherd of the seven” is most likely an obscure allusion to a well-known verse from Isaiah (11:6): The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. If you count, there are seven animals (i.e. “sheep”) listed, and “a little child” to be their shepherd. This image of a future time when there is perfect peace, when the hunter and its prey both “lie down” together, under the protecting watch of an innocent child, is just the elixir we need right now. 


The watershed moment of Oct. 7 inflicted a trauma on our people that will take generations to heal from. But one thing is certain: we can never go back to where we were. The time has come for a new vision. We should now be single-mindedly looking and working toward that time. Our old animosities, our failed political stratagems, our fruitless rationalizations, are now worth nothing. Yes, Maoz Tzur lists some 1300 years-worth of travail for the Jewish people, but it also ends imagining a far-better future. Chanukah is, famously, a holiday that recognizes the joint venture between God and humans in bringing about miracles; so should we be reminded that, with God’s help, we have agency in bringing about change for the much better. 


The second blessing over the Chanukah candles thanks God for “performing miracles for our ancestors, in those days, at this time” (she’asa nisim lavoteinu bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh). In other words, we’re celebrating an anniversary. But there is a variant to the blessing, picked up by (at least) the Conservative movement, which more optimistically and more contemporarily thanks God for “performing miracles for our ancestors,” bayamim hahem U’vaz’man hazeh – “in those days, AND at this time.” 


And let us say amen.


Wishing you all a Shabbat shalom um’vorach and a chag Chanukah same’ach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat filled with the light, joy, and hope of Chanukah.


Rabbi Sam Levine