Every time I think I understand something about Chanukah, I discover a deeper layer with an opposing meaning.
This week’s commentary is from the archives.
Every time I think I understand something about Chanukah, I discover a deeper layer with an opposing meaning. And then, I find another layer under that one. In this sense, it is the perfect Jewish holiday — the holiday of dialectics.
An example is the popular songs, “Mi Yimalel Gevurot Yisrael”. You can hear a recording of it here. It is a beautiful song, and it sounds very spiritual, doesn’t it?
Guess again! It’s true that the opening line is a direct reference to Psalms 106:2. But the verse in Psalms reads, “Mi yimalel gevurot Ado-nai” — “Who can voice the heroisms of God, declare all of God’s praises?” The song-writer, Menashe Ravino, replaced the word “God” with “Israel”. Ravino is suggesting that we are the true heroes, not God.
Here is the entire translated text of his song:
Who can voice the heroisms of Israel, Who can count them?
In every generation a hero rose up and redeemed the nation.
Listen! In days past, in our own day
Maccabees create salvation and reclaim
And in our day, all the nation of Israel
Will unite, rise up and be redeemed
In case we missed the message, the second verse makes it clear. Shma! Listen! That word can refer to only one thing: the Jewish declaration of the oneness of God. The immediate next phrase quotes the blessing recited over the Chanukah candles: “Blessed are You, God. . . who did miracles for our ancestors, in days past, in our own day.” But the song deletes the part about God and miracles. It declares instead: “In days past, in our own day, a Maccabee rescued and redeemed us.” Listen, not to the Oneness of God, but to the power of human action.
Menashe Ravino was born in Eastern Europe, and moved to Palestine in 1924. He wrote Mi Yimalel in the 1930s, as he watched the Nazis prepare to roll over Europe. His song is an explicit call to action, and an implicit rejection of the passive Messianism of his ancestors. Altering a biblical verse to replace God’s name with “Israel” is the ultimate chutzpah. True to the secular Zionism of his generation, he is throwing it in God’s face. We can’t sit around waiting for God anymore. We have to do something ourselves. NOW!
Today, a quick search on YouTube for “Mi Yimalel” gives a broad selection of singers: men in kippot with long beards, school children ranging from liberal to Orthodox, Israelis and Americans, holiday singers who chose this as their token Jewish song. I suspect few of them realize that the words are a challenge to the glory of God.
Even knowing what the words mean, I am touched in a spiritual way by the song. It feels like a prayer to me. In our generation, few of us still expect heroics from God in the form of supernatural miracles. For most of us, the rebellious anger at failed expectations is gone. What remains is the genuine hope that we can unite and bring redemption to this world. Working together, we can bring light into the dark.