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Who are the courageous and who are the weak? Viewing the war through the lens of a Hanukkah prayer

Israeli soldiers are not the Hasmoneans, and Hamas militants are not the Greeks

A friend told me recently that prayer is about rejecting the state of the world as it is. She meant this in a positive way. When we pray, we express a yearning for a better reality, a belief that the current reality can change even against all odds.

This week, as we add the special paragraph for Hanukkah to the central Amidah prayer and during grace after meals, I wonder whether we are also expressing our lack of acceptance of so many aspects of the reality unfolding inside Gaza. For in the ongoing pain and anguish over the Hamas terror attacks of Oct. 7, as an Israeli Jew I ponder who I am in this story, and how it connects to who my people have been in the stories of our tradition.

The paragraph speaks directly to God about the historic battle between the Hasmoneans and the Greeks, the miracle of our ancestors’ victory that we celebrate with our eight-day festival of light. “You fought their battle, You judged their judgment,” it begins. “You delivered the courageous into the hands of the weak.”

Who in this prayer are the courageous, and who are the weak? I found myself wondering. Clearly the Hasmoneans, the Jewish ruling dynasty around Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C.E., needed courage to confront the Greek empire, which spanned much of the Mediterranean and big parts of southwest Asia. But where is the miracle of winning if the enemy being overcome is weak? So I suppose we Jews were the weak.

I remembered from saying the text in prayer in previous years that the prayer is dichotomous — a series of pairs of oppositional adjectives describing the two adversaries. Maybe the rest would help me understand, then, which adjective fits us, the Jews, the heroes of this story, and which describes the Greeks, who tried to kill us.

The prayer goes on to speak about God having delivered “the many into the hands of the few” — we know that the Hasmoneans numbered far fewer than the Greeks, so we Jews are clearly the second in this pair. “The impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous,” it continues. “The evil into the hands of those engaged in the study of Your Torah.”

It becomes clearer that we are represented by the second adjective in each pair. The Greeks are the impure, who are wicked, who are evil, are the other, the enemy. And God delivered them into the hands of those who were studying Torah, the righteous and the pure — the Hasmoneans, the Jews, us, Israel.

According to this logic we can go back to the first line, about the courageous and the weak, and understand that the Hasmoneans, whose offspring we are, and whose victory we are marking, were the weak.

As the words of the prayer were being recited around me, my thoughts wandered to the present. It seems we are again the righteous in the hands of the wicked. Hamas attackers perpetrated horrific crimes against humanity on Oct. 7. So once we, Israel, win today’s war, the impure will be given into the hands of the pure, etc. etc. etc.

But then I went back to the rest of the prayer, to this list of dichotomous adjectives.

Are we now the many or the few? It depends on one’s perspective: Certainly the Israel Defense Forces, especially with more than 300,000 reservists mobilized, are many compared to the estimated 30,000 or so Hamas fighters inside Gaza. But we remain a tiny minority, few compared to the many Arab nations that surround Israel, 10 million Israelis vs. 2 billion Muslims, and thus we are the few, if our perspective is the larger Arab world and the significant part of it that is still hostile to the state of Israel.

Who are the courageous and who are the weak? Are the weak always also the pure, the righteous, those engaged in study? Are the “courageous,” as it is used here, always impure, wrong, cruel, aggressive and destructive? Is the world actually dichotomous, like the prayer — or messier, blurrier, more complicated? Are we perhaps both weak and courageous?

As I recite this special paragraph each day, I remain confused, and see how this model of the past fails me, fails us. Its dichotomous pairings are in fact an oversimplification of our situation, possibly of every situation, overlooking our present complexities. I’m left questioning: What are the appropriate adjectives to describe ourselves, the IDF, and the state of Israel in these days? And what are the appropriate actions related to each of these adjectives?

Maybe my mistake is with the identification of the “us” and “them.” One thing this war has already taught me is that when saying “them” one always needs to ask: Who do you mean? Often one speaks broadly, but the intention, the identification, is directed only at the few.

Maybe “us” are all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and “them” is Iran? Maybe “us” are the mothers of all who are involved — mothers of fighters, kidnapped, children — and “them” are the decision-makers? Maybe “us” are those who are peace seekers and “them” are those rejecting compromise and preferring war. 

I end my prayer with three understandings: Prayer is a tool through which I look at reality. Dichotomies are insufficient tools to understand our reality, even in light of atrocities and even in the shadow of war. I pray to push myself to think beyond the present, of what other realities could be here, what adjectives might describe who I am and what actions these adjectives might lead to.

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