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Harrison Cohen – Festival of Chanukah

Posted by peacedevelopmentnetwork on November 18, 2009

Harrison Cohen – Festival of Chanukah

Speech at House of Lords

November 18th 2009

Your Lordships, esteemed colleagues and friends: Let me start by saying it is truly a great honour and a privilege to have been given the chance to speak before you this evening. Before I start I am actually reminded of something that Lord Parekh mentioned earlier, and that of a concept in Jewish teachings that learning in honour of someone departed, it is as if they themselves have committed a good deed. So I’m honoured to be honouring the memory of Dr Singhvi with this presentation tonight.

Next month, Jews all over the world will be celebrating the festival of Chanukah. I hope now over the next few minutes to provide you with an insight into the meaning of Chanukah, both for myself as a Jew, as well as its particular relevance to all of us as members of different faiths living in Britain today. As we look at the world around us it’s hard not to notice the pain and the suffering brought on by poverty, disease, extremism, war and terror. We are only now beginning to emerge from the greatest economic crisis of our time and a swine flu epidemic, two global threats that if anything demonstrate the interconnectivity and interconnectedness of all of mankind. As we look around Britain today on the one hand it is easy to see a society fractured by baseless hatreds, prejudices and intolerance. Yet, as I look around this room tonight I’m pleased to say that I know these challenges can be faced and G-d-willing overcome – knowing that when a small group of men and women, and religious leaders come together in a display of unity, that we are no longer divided by difference, but we are united by our faith.

I have chosen to speak about the Jewish festival of Chanukah because it is one that ultimately teaches us the importance of religious freedom and human dignity. Chanukah demonstrates the importance and indeed necessity that even just a few good people can triumph over a tyranny of evil. On each of Chanukah’s eight nights we light candles that in many ways represent the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness. It is also notable to say that the act of lighting the Menorah during the winter period is significant in that we light an extra candle as we approach the Winter Solstice. If we look to history we see so many occurrences within which just a few good men managed to triumph over evil, I am reminded by some inspirational words said by the American president John F. Kennedy, who said:

“We are not here to curse the darkness; but we are here to light a candle.”

We may not be able to make right all the wrongful ills in the world today, but at least we can try to change one person in the same way as [Iman Dr] Mahmadou [Boucoum] said, for each person is a world unto themselves. By lighting a candle we can at least bring a tiny spark of illumination to a world beset by darkness and confusion. Today, our world may be filled with compulsions to violence, intolerance and hatred, but it is also countered with the unending struggle in the fruition of goodness. The Jewish people know all too well the consequences of such evil compulsions, the challenges brought on by darkness and suffering: For throughout our history we have fought for survival time and time again, we have fought for the right to practice, to pray and to worship: To live our lives as the Torah commands us to. Throughout history when faced with inquisition and pogrom the Jews fought back with an unrelenting spiritual faithfulness. Throughout our exile and wanderings in the wilderness of the Diaspora we cling to the belief of the arrival of Messianic Era and the return to the Promised Land.

As we can see there can be no doubt that the Jewish people have witnessed some of the worst periods of darkness in human history, but the Jewish people have also received G-d’s greatest and most holy gift, the Torah. The Torah commands us to, as seen in the Book of Isaiah, to be a “light unto the nations” and I quote “For behold, darkness may cover the earth and a thick cloud may cover the kingdoms, but upon you the L-rd will shine, and His glory will be seen upon you. Nations will walk by your light and kings by your radiant illumination.” These passages underline the message and importance of Chanukah that we must make public and spread such light, indeed when we light the Menorah we are commanded to place it in a window so that passers-by may see it and in doing so witness the miracle of Jewish survival through the ages.

The story of Chanukah relates how the Jewish people in Israel were persecuted by the Ancient Greeks; forbidden to worship, to study Torah or to perform the basic and essential fundamental rituals of Jewish practice. But the Jewish people continuously defied their oppressors by practicing and worshipping in secret; the Jewish people continued to pass on the sacred knowledge of the Torah’s teachings; and the Jewish people rebelled and ultimately rejected the immoral ideals of Ancient Greek Hellenism. Eventually the Jewish people were able to rise up and defeat their oppressors. Good triumphed over evil. The Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated and the Jewish people ultimately survived to pass on the torch to future generations. Yet, when the time had come for the Menorah to be lit in the Temple, there was only enough oil to keep it going for a single day, while new oil could be prepared and consecrated, a process that could take as long as a week. Miraculously, however the Menorah remained lit not only for one day, or two, or three, or even seven. It was kept alight for eight entire days. The miracle of the oil lasting for eight days is noteworthy when we look at its significance as noted in Jewish mystical numerology. Whereas the number seven in Judaism relates completion in nature, that of a perfect cycle, such as that of the seven days of the week; the number eight represents all that is beyond nature, that which represents the infinite, the supernatural and the eternal. In the same way as G-d kept the Menorah alight for eight days, so too does Chanukah teach us that G-d will never forsake or abandon the Jewish people.

There is still hope for the Jewish people and for people of all faiths; for the entire world to witness. There is renewed hope when we look at an America that came together last year to elect its first black president, Barack Obama. During his campaign for the US presidency, Obama summarised such a hope with three short but resoundingly magnanimous words, “Yes we can”. On Chanukah we come together united as Jews and we too reaffirm such a hope, such that we still and always will maintain our faith in G-d; that we will persist in the undying effort that our Judaism may become stronger day after day: than ever before. We reaffirm that we are still here and that we are undefeated.

In conclusion, the message of Chanukah for me is one of unceasing persistence; it is one of justice, peace, tolerance, and a celebration of the values of freedom. The message and miracle of Chanukah is that good will triumph over evil; that the weak will overcome the mighty and the few will triumph over the many; that even by lighting a candle, a weak and flickering beacon of hope we can conquer darkness and that the righteous and the just will ultimately prevail over the wicked. We reaffirm the timeless values held by religion that all men were and are created in the “image of G-d”. As Interfaith leaders in Britain today it is essential that we spread the message of peace, tolerance and respect, and that we remember that we are ultimately all brothers and we are each other’s keepers. As Martin Luther King said so significantly, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. If there is the hope, G-d-willing, may we have the desire, determination and the courage, that together united we will begin to change, make a difference and ultimately elevate our world.

Thank you and Shalom

One Response to “Harrison Cohen – Festival of Chanukah”

  1. […] Harrison Cohen – Festival of Chanukah […]

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