Shabbat VaYeshev: Minority Status

Hanukkah begins on Sunday December 2 at sundown. We always find it in proximity to the parashat hashavua which we study this week, VaYeshev. The word means “he returned” but we might also read it as “here we go again.” One month after the massacre of our fellow Jews joined in Shabbat prayer in Pittsburgh, we prepare to kindle Hanukkah lights with a somewhat sharper sense of our minority status and its implications. The tiny little light we begin with on the first night shines this year against a very dark night.
VaYeshev recounts the experience of Jacob, Leah, Rakhel, and their families, a large camp of kin who travel with flocks and herds, camping outside of the city walls of Shekhem. Their experiences of the people of Shekhem are varied: some take advantage of their helpless immigrant state, others apparently try to befriend them – but no trust grows between the two groups. A violent end to the story forces the camp to move hurriedly away, and they resume their homeless walk.
One enduring lesson of this parashah is the difficultly of minority status. Our ancestors wandering in medieval Europe knew this well: their survival always depended upon the whims and moods of others. In our own day, we who have passed as white and participated in the hegemony of this nation have recently awakened to the fact that our own whims and moods have defined the lives of targeted minorities in our own midst. We have recently been reminded that we are also vulnerable, in a very powerful way. Not long ago we were going about our lives, as oblivious as possible to unpleasantness happening not far away. We should be grateful to Black Lives Matter and many other justice-based organizations for welcoming our support, now that we’re starting to wake up, and for their leadership in discerning what paths might best help targeted minorities survive in our own day.
For us Jews, Hanukkah brings us the lesson every year that to survive as a minority means to be awake to the sources of our strength. The Books of the Maccabees (not included in the Jewish canon) chronicle the experiences of a happily assimilated minority – the Jews living in the Greek empire – coming under pressure to renounce distinctive practices. We ourselves know this pressure, in a more subtle way, when we are socially snubbed for being Jewish, or for not eating certain things, or for not celebrating certain holidays. In a city in which the public school system has ruled the Christmas tree to be a non-religious symbol and therefore suitable for school hallways, clarifies for us the local impact of the fact that we constitute only two percent of the U.S. population.
The Jewish experience as a minority has been summarized as developing in three stages: (1) the demarcation of ghettoes expressed the attitude “you cannot live among us as Jews’; the expulsions demonstrated (2) the declaration that “you cannot live among us.” Finally in the twentieth century we saw the ultimate declension: (#) “you cannot live.” To our horror, in our recent relative safety we have lost track of the fact that it is not only against us that these statements and their attendant violence have been perpetrated, and now we see that even those of us who were able to separate ourselves from the violence once done to us, now done to others, are no longer able to secure that separation.
We are back there again, feeling unsafe because we are Jews. There is no satisfaction in the voices of those who say “I told you so,” only resignation and sadness. Let the Hanukkah lights this year illuminate what we must learn:
One candle sheds a very small light: we will not be safe if we attempt to keep only ourselves safe.
One candle is quickly blown out unless it finds protection larger than itself: we cannot depend on our own resources alone.
As each night of Hanukkah passes, may the growing light inspire us to consider how we might work with other minorities for the safety of all.
And may that light shed the necessary illumination, so that we are able to see each other, and the support and strength our tradition offers us when we come together.
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