By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
But Don Quixote, the man, is far from mad. Yes, he is a figment of his creator’s feverish imagination, but his sense of fairness, equality and justice are far from wrong. Aldonza, the woman who, in his fantasy, transforms into the fair Lady Dulcinea, is taken, abused, and demeaned by men who are attracted to her beauty and gender. Is rescuing her from her tormentors such a mad thing to do?
And perhaps he did see giants that he felt needed to be felled. Does that make him mad? I’m not even speaking of modern-day, giant corporations that prey on human frailties—for example, the food and beverage industries that tell us that sugar is yummy, that Coke is “the real thing,” and that you, too, can turn from a common geek into a sexy hunk if you just quaff the right beer. And I am not referring to supersized ego politicians who would have you believe that, if only you voted for them—no matter how bad or even criminal their past and present behavior might be—the world would be a better place. But aside from them, there are other, real, giants in the world—disease, ignorance, prejudice and terrorism to name a few. Does it make a person mad to fight these giants and defeat them once and for all?
Maybe Don Quixote was mad. Maybe all the evil he saw around him did affect his brain. No matter how many times he fell, he rose and rose again—“To right the unrightable wrong,” until he could rise no more. Maybe that is a kind of madness.
Cynics would have us believe that reality cannot be changed. Things have always been bad. There is, and always was, immeasurable cruelty in the world. And there has never been, anywhere, a time of peace longer than a decade or two, and that only due to one side having superior military strength.
You might as well be tilting at windmills if you think otherwise.
In Greek mythology, heroes fall because it is their preordained, unavoidable, fate to fall. Trying to change anything is useless. One of the most famous myths tells that, at his birth, Oedipus was abandoned to die on a barren cliff. Why? Because a soothsayer foretold that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. I know—gross. But that’s exactly what happened, at least according to the myth. The message of Greek mythology is that defying fate and the will of the gods can only lead to misery and pain. We might as well give in right from the start.
But in another land, at just about the same time, other stories were told. These taught that there can be change; that justice should be—must be—pursued; and that all people deserve the benefit of dignity, equality and respect. The stories that we the Jews told were about freeing slaves and feeding the hungry. The Bible—the written record of that vision—is all about people who do argue with powerful men—the Pharaohs and emperors of the world; it’s about simple men and women who defy fate, who confront evil, who demand justice even from God, the almighty Creator of the Universe.
That the two cultures were headed toward a violent clash is therefore no surprise. The clash took place in the second century BCE, in the form of the Maccabees’ Rebellion. More than it was about control of Israel—then called Judea—this revolt was actually about two opposing world views: On one side, the Greek system, which demanded unquestioning submission to gods and kings. On the other, the Jewish view, which upheld that freedom is an inalienable human right. More than the Maccabees fought for a piece of land, they took up arms to fight for religious freedom, for freedom of thought, for the freedom to question, to doubt, and to make real once-impossible dreams.
The Maccabees accomplished their mission. They defeated the mightiest army of the day. Under Judah the Maccabee, freedom was restored; and the Temple in Jerusalem—the temple that the Greeks had defiled by placing a golden statue of Zeus in it—was rededicated. The Maccabees then instituted an annual celebration to commemorate the amazing victory of the few against the many, and they called it Hanukkah—the Hebrew word for “dedication.”
Two hundred years later, it was the Romans’ turn. The Romans went even farther than the Greeks: They destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple that stood in its heart. Forbidding the Jews to ever rebuild, they tried to make us forget our national roots and our history.
But like Don Quixote, we rose, and we rose again. For two thousand years, nation after nation tried to destroy us, but without success. And a mere three years after the Holocaust, which saw one half of the world’s Jews annihilated, we rose yet again, and we established a new state in the land of Judea, the State of Israel. And even though the Temple has not been rebuilt—there is a Moslem mosque standing on its ruins today—the city of Jerusalem is once again Israel’s capital, the seat of its government and the center of Israel’s spiritual, political and cultural life.
I can see the appeal that Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote, had for my father. From a letter that he received at the end of the Holocaust, my father learned about the tragic loss of his entire family. Though he never quite recovered, like Don Quixote he never abandoned hope. Dedicating his life to rebuild that which the Nazis destroyed, he started a family, built his own home, and became an educator for hundreds if not thousands of pupils—me among them—teaching Jewish history and literature, Hebrew and The Bible. Throughout his life, my father kept before his eyes the vision of the frail old man of La Mancha, a man who truly believed that, “To fight for the right/Without question or pause/To be willing to march into Hell/For a heavenly cause” was a mission well worth dedicating your life to.
So tonight, on the very day that my father would have turned 101, I want to say, Happy birthday, Abba; I hope you know that I have not given up the quest, that I have dedicated my life to the same ideals you held high: freedom, justice and the undying love for our people; that Hanukkah for me is more than about a miracle that happened two thousand years ago. Like you, tonight I celebrate a long string of miracles, the wondrous miracle of our People’s survival against all odds, despite all our oppressors.
And truly, I believe that the world is better for this.
May the lights of Hanukkah continue to shine brightly throughout the long, dark nights of this season; may they inspire us never to lose hope, to continue to dream, to carry on our noble quest for what is right, fair and just, and, hopefully, in our own day or in the days of our children, “To reach the unreachable star.”