We Jews in all our variety-Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, and many variations of each, secular or cultural in all of their shades, Zionist and Israeli in too many versions to enumerate-are, in the main, hide-bound traditionalists.
After all is said and done, the holidays that demand our greatest devotion have been around since ancient times. We haven't added anything really new, except possibly for Israel Independence Day, in more than 2,000 years. In fact, most of our holidays commemorate events that took place in the first few weeks of our becoming a people after liberation from slavery in Egypt. Passover, Shavuot seven weeks later when we stood at Sinai, and Sukkot commemorating the wandering in the desert, all mark events in the first few weeks and months of our history. So when we actually manage to add a holiday or two we had better wake up and pay attention.
What do Purim and Chanukah have in common? They are both not found in
They take place after the end of prophecy. Thus they both lack as their basis the commanding voice of God. It's God who instructs Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Chanukah and Purim emerge from the collective experience of the Jewish nation.
These two are bound up with each other. Together Chanukah and Purim represent an arrangement between God and Israel. It goes like this: God is responsible for the welfare of the Jewish people; the Jewish people are responsible for God's Torah. God protects us. We protect God's presence on earth. Chanukah commemorates the Jewish response to an assault on God's presence.
The Hellenizers sought to abolish God's Torah and the mitzvot, the commandments. Purim commemorates God's response to an assault on the Jewish people. In the case of Chanukah, Hellenizing Jews supported by their Hellenist allies sought to radically water down the content of Jewish life. They sought to significantly compromise a life centered on the Torah, its mitzvot, and the unique Jewish culture those mitzvot establish. They sought to banish God. We rose in military revolt against the Hellenizing Greeks to protect God's Torah. We went to war over this. We won. God's presence was restored. The idol they had placed in the temple was removed.
Purim commemorates how God responded to an all-out assault on the very existence of the Jewish people when Haman became the first genocidal monster. Haman was not interested in the assimilation of the Jews. Haman was interested in the annihilation of the Jewish people. The Jewish people did not have to rise up against Haman. The Jewish people did not have to go to war against Haman. God made sure that Mordechai and Esther were in the right place at the right time. The Jewish people did not have to defend themselves. God kept the bargain and the Jewish people were saved.
There is inherent in the relationship between Purim and Chanukah a remarkable statement about our relationship with God. In the case of Chanukah, when God's presence and our unique religious culture were threatened, our ancestors took up arms against the Hellenizers and violently expelled them from the Land. We defended God and His Torah. In the case of Purim, it is we the Jewish people who were threatened with annihilation. God, whose hand was mysteriously working behind the scenes, saved the Jewish people from annihilation. We did not have to fight.
The covenantal agreement between God and Israel goes like this: When God is threatened, we fight. When we are threatened, God fights for us. Now this covenant stood us both in good stead for 2,000 years. This does not imply that we the Jewish people did not suffer and bear significant assaults on our very existence, but in each and every instance we always had somewhere to run and somewhere to hide. For example, driven out of medieval England, France, and Germany, we found refuge in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Driven out of Spain and Portugal, we found refuge in Italy and the Balkans. Driven out of Czarist Russia in the 19th and early 20th century, we found refuge in North America and in the Land of Israel.
That said, as we all know, something profound has changed. European Jewry was destroyed. This was a moment of absolute Jewish powerlessness. Three years later, the Jewish people returned to sovereignty in the ancient homeland, and wielded power in their defense. What then is the state of this age-old covenant? We live after the most horrific experience of powerlessness. We are privileged to live in the period of restoration of Jewish power. There are mysteries beyond our grasp and we continue to celebrate Chanukah and Purim as we always have, albeit evermore alert to what is happening in the world around us.