The Real Lesson of Chanukah
When I was a kid, I was being bullied by a kid a few grades ahead of me. Merv told me, “I want you to walk up to him and punch him in the face as hard as you can,” so I did and I got a hell of a beating – fat lip, swollen cheek and bloody nose. I went home and told Merv what happened and he said “Tomorrow I want you to go up to that kid and punch him in the face again.” So I did and lo and behold I got another hellacious beating, maybe even worse than the first one – black eye, bloody nose, swollen cheek. I went home and told Merv and he said “Ok, so tomorrow I want you to go and punch that kid one more time.” I was not overly enthusiastic but I figured that Merv usually knew best, so I did and to my surprise the kid started crying and even though he still beat me up, I felt pretty good about getting some back. Anyway, I told Merv what had happened and sure enough he said “Ok, so tomorrow I want you to walk up to that kid and hit him with everything you got.” So I did and to my shock the kid started crying and said “Leave me alone.” He never bothered me again. In fact, a few years later when I started growing, he was one of the kids who did NOT get a reciprocal beating.
Here’s the thing, after the very first time I got beaten up for defending myself, I learned that larger stronger kids could physically beat me and there really isn’t anything I could do about it other than take my beating. I learned that fighting back would lead to another beating. After the second time, the lesson was reinforced, after the third time I probably should have given up and given that I had a black eye, swollen cheeks and a lot of bruises, I doubt many people would have faulted a 9-year-old for giving up and just taking the bullying. But that would have been the wrong lesson. I mean it’s true and it’s based on evidence and experience, but the lesson that I was smaller and weaker and thus not able to fight back effectively, was the wrong lesson. The real lesson didn’t come until I went back the third and fourth times and that lesson was that bullies will never stop on their own, and in fact often when you initially fight back, they will bully you even harder to make you back down. It really is a case of “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” They KNOW if they allow you to have success they will eventually lose so they fight harder. If you give up then, you reinforce their belief that when pushed hard enough you will give in, but if you stubbornly keep pushing through, you WILL win.
This story has some parallels in indigenous peoples struggles. Often when we are fighting the mainstream they will react completely out of proportion. They will try to scare us back into submission and if we allow it, it gets even worse.
On a micro level, I have seen this with a friend of mine who runs a certain really cool blog. People seem to think if they attack him enough, he will knuckle under and maybe even quit, but he just lowers his head and keeps on keepin’ on, because he learned the right lesson when it comes to bullies – that if you fight through, eventually they look for easier prey.
On a macro level, we see this in the Jewish community and sadly often Jews have learned the wrong lessons. In fact, I have seen educated and learned rabbis make statements like “The Maccabees were extremists who almost caused the death of the Jewish people by being so stubborn, and they should have just gone along rather than being so intransigent.” They talk about how Jews barely survived and that because of those stubborn Jews who fought unbeatable odds foolishly, they nearly were made extinct. That it was only because of a few Jews who went along that any survived. Now the modern day Hellenists from J Street and other “Jewish” organizations might try to tell you differently, but they are only even here as “Jews” because their grandparents fought to remain Jewish. We don’t really have to worry about their grandkids because they will end up like the Jews who stayed behind in Egypt or the Hellenist Jews, or any other number of Jews who believed that assimilation was a virtue and not a curse.
They have learned the wrong lesson. Yes, the Jewish people barely survived the Romans, but had they assimilated, do you think ANY Jews would be around today? History shows us very clearly that assimilated peoples never survive assimilation to remain a coherent cohesive group. I would argue that the reason why Jews are still here after almost every major civilization tried to destroy them and were relegated to the dustbin of history is simple. Merv always says “Comfort is the enemy of identity” and it’s just that simple, because Jews had to fight just to survive. They fought to remain Jewish, because Jews were never allowed to feel safe or comfortable; they instead fought just to be Jewish. From tiny scattered groups of people who had been massively persecuted and oppressed throughout their entire history, they not only returned home, but rebuilt a thriving nation on their ancestral land. They regained their language and have been a great example for all indigenous peoples. Because Israel is surrounded by bad neighbors, they are not really comfortable and so they maintain their identity while Jews in diaspora are slowly assimilating with only a few steadfast holdouts maintaining an authentic Jewish identity. So instead of celebrating Jewish Christmas, celebrate eight crazy nights, eight night to remind yourself that indigenous people can and do win sometimes and that anything is possible. If you will it, it is no dream.