We celebrate Hanukkah as the Festival of Lights, the victory of light over darkness, of freedom over oppression. For me, Hanukkah holds a special place, as the story of the cruel religious oppression faced by our ancestors under the ancient Assyrian-Greeks is not dissimilar to what my fellow Jews and I faced behind the iron curtain in the Soviet Union. It was only through miraculous Divine intervention, garbed in the form of shockingly unexpected seismic geopolitical shifts, that we were eventually set free.
Even after all these years, my amazement and gratitude never cease. I appreciate every moment of Jewish pride and religious expression against the backdrop of persecution and repression I witnessed and experienced in my youth. But it didn’t always feel this way. There was a brief time, shortly after my escape, when I actually somehow missed the Soviet Union.
On the one hand I was elated to be free, but on the other hand there was a certain loss of purpose, since it seemed like there was nothing left to fight for. In the Soviet Union, every mitzvah and every moment of existing as a Jew was a struggle. And then, suddenly, I found myself free to practise my religion, with every resource at my disposal. I remember sitting in a proper yeshivah for the first time in my life, surrounded by hundreds of excitedly animated students immersed in Torah study, and finding myself – kind of bored.
Not that I found the experience boring – it just felt too easy. I was used to fighting for everything, and that fight gave me strength and vitality in my Divine service. I would even venture to say that, at least to a certain degree, it defined me. But I was afraid this spoon-fed religious life would lull me to sleep spiritually.
I eventually made my way to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe – my Rebbe. I was swept away by his passion and comprehensive world view. To the Rebbe, the world was constantly on fire; his Hasidim were the firefighters entrusted with coming to the rescue. The Rebbe sent me to Toronto, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When I reflect on this experience and chain of events, especially in light of Hanukkah, it reveals an interesting lesson to me. Miracles and redemption, as amazing as they are, can be limiting. Times of darkness and suffering, as difficult as they are, contain the potential to awaken tremendous depth through the experience of slogging through the struggle. This idea finds expression in Hasidic teachings that after Mashiach comes we will long for the days of exile, since we have the opportunity to work and attain depth through our own striving.
Once the redemption arrives, our reality becomes so immersed in light that it diminishes our ability to choose through our own volition. There is, in a sense, something uniquely authentic that emerges specifically through exertion and struggle. In Kabbalistic terms, the darkness contains within in it a quality of light that cannot be revealed as light, and so it presents itself as the absence of light – much like an overwhelming amount of light actually blinds us.
Today, I look at what’s happening in our community of former Soviet Union immigrants and their descendants during Hanukkah, when thousands of people will participate in dozens of events over the eight-day festival. The same is happening in other similar communities around the world, and even within the belly of the beast itself, with freedom and even unprecedented support for Judaism in the former Soviet Union.
I look at all of these developments – I live them on a daily basis – and I reflect. I try to continue to never forget the darkness from which it all emerged – not only to appreciate the light we have today, but also to remember what it means to fight for what we believe in. Because even though it seems easy today, certainly compared to the past, it is most definitely not easy. For though today we may be relatively free, darkness still looms in more subtle forms, and we need to keep that fight alive in order to overcome the complacency and indifference that threaten to overcome us as a people.
We need to be fighters today when our enemies are few and in the shadows no less than when they were many and brazen – and perhaps even more so. I pray that we all experience tremendous joy and light this Hanukkah, and that we remember to instil at least a little bit of fight into our experience of the light so that its fiery strength permanently banishes all darkness and suffering from all our lives.