The Torah portion Vayetze describes Jacob’s vision of a ladder stretching between heaven and Earth: “He dreamed, and lo – a stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and lo – angels of God going up and coming down on it” (Genesis 28:12).
The rabbis point out that although the angels first went up the ladder, they always came back down. A midrash (Raba Vayikra 29:2) equates the angels to Esau and suggests that the angels ascending and descending the ladder represent the major empires of ancient Jewish history, such as the Babylonians and the Persians, that ascended to a place of power over the Jewish people only to descend again. The midrash also refers to our overcoming Greek domination, which we celebrate during Hanukkah.
The midrash was meant to reassure the Jews, who were under Roman rule at the time it was written, that just as God had limited Esau’s ascendency and the reign of Babylonia, Persia and Greece, the small Jewish nation would survive even the rule of mighty Rome.
The analogy of Jacob fearing that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination being compared to the Jews under Greek and Roman rule, who despaired that they would never be liberated, is countered by the words of Genesis 28:15, in which God says, “And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.”
Yet, despite God’s promise, the Jewish people have continued to experience moments in history when the ascendency of the angels recurs. Jewish homeland and/or the Jewish people face threats to their very existence by those who have achieved positions of power, whether hostile nations or antisemitic groups.
The holiday of Hanukkah teaches us that we should not remain passive and rely solely on God’s promise, but rather we should also act on our own behalf. In addition to remaining steadfast in our faith in God, we must also do everything we can to help ourselves, working toward making the world better and fighting against those seeking to destroy us as a people and a nation.
In the thousands of years since God’s promise was made, the Jewish people have endured many threats to our existence. Even in modern times, rulers and nations, such as Hitler, have climbed the figurative ladder only to fall back again. But history has also taught us never to be complacent.
The nation of Israel and Israelis have fought against those seeking to destroy us or deny our right to practice our traditions. As American Jews, we must do whatever we can to support Israel against terrorists and others who wish to destroy it, and urge our government to do the same. But we should not do so by becoming like our enemies or supporting those who act in such a manner.
Hanukkah serves as a reminder of our many struggles for self-determination and the importance of our right to practice our religion free from persecution. Recent reports from the FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, among other organizations, have shown a sharp rise in hate crimes against Jews and others. But we do not need their reports to notice this trend; news stories all too frequently alert us to new incidents of antisemitism and the steady rise in hate crimes against other groups as well.
This surge is not limited to the United States; it parallels a worldwide resurgence of antisemitism and hate crimes. In a world like this, the message of Hanukkah, that we can unite and win victory against those who hate, is more relevant than ever.
As we light our Hanukkah candles, let us continue to believe the promise that God made to our people, but let us not rely on the promise alone. Let us also do whatever we can to ensure another group or nation does not ascend the ladder and oppress us, or any other group.
We are taught that we were created in God’s image and, like God, can share our compassion, love and power so that it multiplies and makes the world better – just like the candles of Hanukkah share their flames, growing brighter and multiplying with each additional night.
RABBI ESTELLE MILLS is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Jacob in Plymouth, Massachusetts.