Chanukah message from UJC Chair Lance Katz

Chag Chanukah Sameach

One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people described and repeated several times in the Torah, is that we are stiff-necked – an am k’she oref.

At first glance this appears to be a negative characteristic – hard, stubborn, obstinate and difficult. In fact, God uses the term that way as a reason for wanting to abandon the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf: “I have seen these people… and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them.” (Ex 32:9)

And yet later Moses invokes the same description of the Jewish people as being stiff-necked, this time not as a criticism but, argues Moses, as the very reason for God to maintain his unique covenant with us: “If I have found favour in Your eyes, my Lord, may my Lord go among us, because it is a stiff-necked people.” (Ex 34:8-9)

There are many explanations given by the commentators for why Moses uses the term ‘stiff-necked’ to plead for God’s mercy when it was this characteristic of the people that God found objectionable.

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, in an essay on this subject, draws our attention to the 20th-century writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum. The argument he attributed to Moses was this: “Almighty God, look upon this people with favour, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue. Just as now, they are stiff-necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty.”

Much has been written about the remarkable, some say miraculous, endurance of the Jewish people over the millennia. Many reasons are given for this: Our eternal covenant with God. Persecution and alienation which prevented assimilation. Our indomitable spirit and steadfast and loyal adherence to our faith.

However, the reason that fits best for me is that we are the ‘stiff-necked’ people of hope. When everything and everyone around us tells us to despair, we see a brighter future. Even when the proverbial tunnel is so dark that no light can possibly penetrate, we are able to imagine a flicker that will come to illuminate the darkness.

On a Facebook group for concerned Jewish mothers seeking to support one another and their children facing unprecedented antisemitism on American college campuses, one mother on the group quipped that perhaps, when the crisis was over, they could repurpose the Facebook group to arrange shiduchim for their children. This moment of humour in an otherwise gloomy context enabled the group to see beyond their current dire predicament to a better time ahead.

Chanukah is the Jewish festival of light that, for me, epitomizes Jewish hope. Not only because of the obvious simile of the light in the darkness, but because the story of Chanukah itself reflects hopefulness. Our determined search amongst the post-battle rubble and devastation for a single cruse of oil to light the Menorah… and finding one. Our decision to proceed to light the Menorah with that oil even though it was expected to only last a day after which we would be left without oil until we could secure new supplies. Our hope against all odds that the oil might last longer than a day… and it did!

Every day in my communal life I see Jewish hope in action. The generosity of our donors and volunteers to fuel our communal organizations. Our investment in world-class Jewish education for our children. The care we show towards our most vulnerable. Our belief in the sanctity of life and our protection thereof.

This Chanukah, be sure to light your Menorahs close to a window and let the light of the candles shine forth. The world could do with Jewish hope right now, especially that of our exceptional Cape Town Jewish community.

Lots of Love and Chag Chanukah Sameach,

Lance Katz

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• Published in the December 2023/January 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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