To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. Today, Rabbi Denise Handlarski looks at the miracle of the momentum of the Jewish People.
Many Jews feel strongly connected to Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
This is not only an oft-quoted line from Jewish wisdom, but it is, in my view, crucial to the whole Jewish experience. It is certainly crucial to the story of David and Goliath. David makes a name for himself in his battle with the giant. He is drawn to action, leaving his defenceless sheep with an unknown keeper and throwing himself into the fray. We think of him as heroic because we know the end of the story. But what if he had failed? Would his actions still have been considered heroic or would they have been considered foolish?
We can never know the outcome of our choices fully and, so, it begs the question: does the Hebrew Bible tell us to take risks, even when that means putting ourselves and others in danger? Is self-sacrifice an honour, Jewishly? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We are told in the Talmud that each life is precious; that to save a life is as though one has saved the whole world. Perhaps we can extrapolate then that to end one life is as though one has ended the whole world. Would that have applied to David, had he died? Does it apply to Goliath? How do we determine whose lives are worth sacrificing and whose worth saving? And what of the sheep? Did they deserve their abandonment? In the long view of Jewish life through the ages, which of these characters best represents the Jewish people? The sheep? Eliab, who admonishes David for leaving them? David himself? What about Goliath?
“the bible is always complex but in this story it is uncomplicated in its notion of right and wrong”
The Bible is always complex but in this story it is uncomplicated in its notion of right and wrong. Three times, David says that the “Philistine,” Goliath, defies the “armies of the living God.” The text tells us that because Yahweh is on the side of Israel, Israel can’t lose and David, even as a youth untrained in the art of war, will prevail. And he does. Note, however, that David’s own actions are what lead to his victory. This is not divine intervention; for David must first convince Saul that he can fight, which he does through the force of his argument, and then he must defeat the hulking Goliath himself, which he does with cleverness and the force of his arm.
There is a danger in celebrating David’s victory as preordained. We know that plenty of people from all religions have felt divinely justified to enter into battle with their enemies. It turns out it is tough to tell who is defying the “army of a living God” when each side believes they are religiously compelled to defeat the other. I am terrified of religiously-driven warfare. So, what to make of this story? What are the lessons?
I want to share with you that there have been times over the past year that I have felt my faith shaken. My faith in humanity, the belief in the goodness of people, has been waning. Sometimes I have found it difficult to see the point in continuing my work. Why continue pursuing, through the Jewish community, the ideals of tzedakah, justice, when justice so rarely wins out. I worry for the future my children will inherit, with food and climate insecurity being at the top of a long list of seemingly insurmountable problems. Sometimes, I find it hard to shake the feeling of pointlessness. Why bother?
“sometimes the real miracle, is building and maintaining the momentum to keep up the good fight”
At a certain point, we all must face our reality and decide what to do next. Sometimes, the real miracle, is building and maintaining the momentum to keep up the good fight. This is what my Jewish history and ancestry compels me to do, even when things are tough. In fact, it is especially when things are tough that we toughen up ourselves. We keep on fighting. It’s the lesson from our biblical narratives like Moses, and, yes, like David versus Goliath. It is also the lesson of Jews who found their way through the generations of exile and violence. We would no longer be a people if we folded when the going got tough.
Many of us are struggling with the political realities of our time.
Many of us also have our personal struggles, be they sick or struggling family members, our own health problems, financial pressures, loneliness, and more. But Chanukah is a time to celebrate miracles and sometimes we need to celebrate the miracle of our stick-to-it-ness, gumption, and belief that things can be better.
It is a foundational idea in Judaism that, like some of our biblical heroes such as David, we lead lives of courage. I like the idea of a life of courage precisely because it does not signify an easy life, for there can be no such thing as a life that is both easy and meaningful. Life is full of struggles and that is the way it should be. We are made who we are by how we find strength and courage in the face of adversity and fear. There is no courage without fear; there is no strength without hardship.
Several times during the last year, when things have seemed particularly bleak, my Jewish community got together. We have gone around in a circle each discussing our concerns and then, I notice, we shift to a discussion of courage. Alone we all have our individual heartaches but together we are emboldened. We know we will face whatever is to come as a community. This is the season for that kind of togetherness, community, and hope. Chanukah is a holiday about standing with our brethren and fighting for what we believe in.
What does any of this have to do with David and Goliath? This is a political and historical moment that, I believe, calls us to be David. Our people, Jews, and our people, the people in our world more broadly, need heroes now. We do not have to be the boldest and the best, for David isn’t. We do not have to be experts, for David isn’t. We do not have to be armed with swords or the best tools for whatever our particular battle is, for David isn’t. We have to be willing to fight the good fight.
Here’s where we diverge from David. The slingshot is a nice device; it is reminiscent of both childhood innocence and crude conditions. Any of us could wield a slingshot, and Jews throughout the ages have looked to this story for inspiration particularly because we have so often felt outgunned and outnumbered. We believe ourselves to be people who rely on our wits and use whatever is available to us. But are we also the people who do what David did next? Goliath is dead, must David take Goliath’s own sword and behead him? Must the children of Israel plunder the camp of the Philistines? Is this still right?
Here is my concern for the Jewish People. We believe ourselves to be David. But, at some point, I worry we become more like the other children of Israel who plunder the camp. I worry that, at a certain point, we become Goliath. When any of us attains societal power and privilege, do we lose the ability to care about those we may step on to get where we’re going?
It is difficult for me to read the narrative of David and Goliath and not think of Israel, the modern state. Is Israel David? Is it Goliath? Well, yes and yes. And for us here in the Diaspora too – whether we vote for those we perceive as “strong,” knowing others will be hurt, whether we turn a blind eye to the problems of racism, poverty, gender discrimination, environmental degradation because they are too big for us to tackle alone and, anyway, truly tackling these problems might mean giving something up. Whether we think of being Jewish as a site of victimhood or a site of strength. Whether we tune out news and politics because they can be depressing and we have a life to lead here. I’d say we are all guilty of becoming a little too much like Goliath, a little less like David. And, or, a little too much like the David who is willing to leave his sheep and head into the fray. We can sometimes forget who we are, what we are here to do, and why it matters.
We live in tough times. The world turns on, of course, and we know the problems go on too. So, as a Jewish community, we answer Hillel: we are decidedly and avowedly not only for ourselves, but we are for ourselves. And we know that the time for courage, the time for strength, the time to act is now.