Hanukkah is a reminder that darkness can be transformed into light, and that miracles are possible.
With so much conflict, misery, anxiety and hopelessness in the world, we need some miracles.
There have been a few rays of hope in Israel in recent days – the release of hostages from Gaza has brought a world of relief to the families and friends of those freed and to Jews and others abroad. As a people, we will not rest until all those who have been kidnapped are returned home safely.
Even then, the war will likely continue, with the stated goal of eradicating Hamas. As catastrophic and heartbreaking as the war and the atrocities that sparked it have been, this is a single battle in a longer conflict that seems destined to go on, at least for the time being.
When we look at today’s events in the context of a larger history, it is understandable to conclude that things are not getting better, but worse. Silver linings in such a situation seem few and far between. To be honest, in this space we try to find something constructive and hopeful in every topic we confront, and it has rarely been more difficult than in the past two months.
As students of history, we can only offer this piece of hope: many times, in our individual lives, in the story of the world and in the 3,500 years of history of the Jewish people, seemingly intractable problems have been resolved in stunning and unexpected ways.
Consider three massive geopolitical examples that have happened in the living memory of most of us.
Many of us grew up under the shadow of nuclear catastrophe. Some of us may recall practising hiding under our desks in preparation for a nuclear explosion. All of us who are middle-aged or older certainly remember a world viewed as a binary of “us” (the capitalist West) and “them” (the communist East).
From the perspective of the child cowering under the desk, the idea that the defining global status quo would end not in a bang – the ultimate bang – but with the relatively peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union and its client regimes, would have seemed unimaginable. The Cold War, which defined our worldview and, at times, threatened our very existence, ended peacefully more than 30 years ago. Just a short time before it did, nobody could have foreseen the unfolding of events.
Likewise, the end of the racist regime in South Africa and its apartheid institutions. One of the most venal systems ever imagined was ended not by bloody revolution, but by a relatively peaceful, collaborative transition to democratic majority rule.
A third example, the Irish conflict, understatedly referred to as the “Troubles,” largely ended with the successes of the Good Friday accords of 1998.
In all three of these instances, the resolution of what seemed like intractable, even existential, challenges were overcome with remarkably sudden and unanticipated events.
It should be noted as well that, in all three cases, events played out very much because of specific leaders who were involved, who took immense risks, were willing to compromise, and placed an immense amount of hope in the goodwill of their people to make their societies and, by extension, the world a better place.
We might say that we don’t see great figures on the horizon on either side of the conflict that presently consumes us with such intensity. But this is precisely the point. Vast historic changes have happened when least expected because movements and visionary individuals emerged and ushered in changes, upending the seemingly rigid status quo.
The Israeli leadership has promised that the current war will eliminate the terrorist autocrats who have run Gaza. The leadership in the West Bank is inevitably going to change before long as well, if only because the current president is aged 88.
Not incidentally, when this horrible war finally ends, Israelis will be undertaking a very serious review of recent events. It is entirely reasonable to expect significant changes at the top of both Israeli and Palestinian power structures in the very near future.
The truth is, in change there is hope. And, indeed, change is the only thing that is inevitable.
It might be also time to dig up an old chestnut from David Ben-Gurion, who said something that is relevant here not only because of the time of year – Hanukkah – but because of the time of history.
“In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”