Esther Bitya Cameron
USHPIZIN FOR CHANUKAH
Rabbi Nachman, “The Tale of the Seven Beggars”
Matityahu the Kohen
Poet (in front of the curtain)
Chanukah’s coming. We’ll light the candles, sing,
Spin the top and make the children rich
With chocolate ducats; and we shall remember
Those days, the heroism and the victory.
Shall we thus silence all the grief and insult
Of present days, where no solution’s seen?
Alas! I am a poet and cannot
Be silent. What I cannot utter, chokes me.
This isn’t going to be light entertainment,
Rather a battle with despair and fear
And what it has to say may not please all.
From the struggle with darkness may a little light
Spring forth! May those who hear fight side by side
With me for hope, and from the depths may counsel
And comradeship arise! (And Understanding
Whatever circumstance it contemplate,
Contains within itself a certain gladness.)
The curtain rises. A street. Twilight. Matityahu and his sons Yehudah, Shim’on, Yochanan, Yonatan, and Elazar, and their sister Chanah.
Matityahu. Well, here we are. Our holiday’s already
Begun. In front of every door
Along the street, menorahs are set up,
And here and there the first night’s candle glimmers.
Yochanan. A national-religious neighborhood –
Modest, yet well kept up.
Matityahu. Indeed, my son.
Yochanan. And comfortable. Perhaps too comfortable.
Father, what is it we are seeking here?
Matityahu. Souls, my son, souls. And hearts prepared for struggle.
Yochanan. All quiet hereabouts. If there’s a war on,
I wonder where’s the front.
Yehudah. In many places.
Where Israel borders Lebanon and Gaza,
At the fence around each hilltop settlement,
Between the neighborhoods of mingled cities,
In the Old City’s heart, and somewhere too
In cyberspace where Israel and Iran
Are locked in battles that no eye can see.
Yonatan: And in those offices, those lecture halls,
Those restaurants, in which the politicians
And diplomats and bureaucrats and who knows
What other agents congregate and dicker
Over the fates of this and other nations.
Shim’on: And on the campuses of universities
Funded by grants from nations not our friends
That influence the professorial mind,
While in the student body circulate
Those who stir hatred up and call it justice.
Yochanan. Yes, and in writers’, scholars’ conferences
Where it’s imprudent to speak well of us,
And on the news and on the social networks
Where the crimes of those that hate us go unmentioned
And we’re the only sinners. And not only
Bribery proves persuasive, but the threat
Raised against anyone who dares to trace
The violence to its source – to that envenomed
Root which the lord of all false prophets planted
In the Arabian waste, to propagate
Ever more rapidly its poisonous shoots
To all the settlements of humankind.
Shim’on. And even into many a heart among us
That venom seeps, making the eye grow dim
At the sight of the enemy, obscuring
That sight with a mirage of peace, suggesting
Accusations against those who stand firm
In defense of those who blame them! Till some managed
To give the reins of rule to those that hate them,
Like puppets worked by a destroyer’s hand!
Elazar. Yet not the poison of that root alone
Assails us, O my brothers. Not alone
That so-called God whose power is only Force
And lust for domination and for blood,
Whips up its mobs against us, but the thirst
For profit, organized in corporations,
Machines made out of human beings stripped
Of conscience, molded to a mighty golem
That has no loyalties, no conscious aim,
No consciousness indeed, yet a relentless
Tendency to undermine free will
With ever more ingenious temptations
And change the human mind, with all its talents,
Its aspirations, its capacity
For judgment, love, and loyalty, to a lone
Body in a cubicle, riveted
To screens, with all its needs and whims supplied
Without recourse to any fellow-human –
Refashioned in the image of the machine.
And how should such a creature muster courage
To fight for the good things it has already
Relinquished gradually, bit by bit
In exchange for comforts and addictive pleasures?
For what sake could it fight, and with what faith?
Shim’on. And those who turn the dials of the machine
See in the call to rest one day in seven
Only an obstacle to power and profit;
Nor can they sympathise with those who cling
To something dear to them for its own sake
And not convertible to currency –
The family, say, or some tract of earth
Promised to them by G-d, on Whose existence
Their system of causality casts doubt.
Yehudah. Doubt… yes, I see the hand of Yavan here.
Matityahu. You see aright, my son. Does not all flow
From the retreat of faith before the worship
Of human reason, limited indeed,
Yet capable of finding explanations
For all the miracles of G-d’s Creation,
For all the good that G-d saw fit to bless!
Till at last all they see is particles.
Indeed the snake deceived us, and the fruits
He tempted us to eat have turned the world
To ash, and us, who thought to be as gods,
Into the servants of our own devices!
Chanah. And yet for all that, in this place there is faith.
Look, here a candle’s lit, and there another…
These are the homes of those that love the land,
Fathers of families who study Torah,
Youths to whose hands the Torah teaches battle
Yet also deeds of kindness, while the women
Are clothed in strength and dignity, learned in Torah,
And for their kindness worthy of renown.
Yehudah. It’s truth they study Torah and support
Their families and generously assist
The needy; but their sustenance derives,
In the end, from that same great machine whose ways
They do not study how to rectify.
They exercise in study halls their reason
On laws of sacrifice, not on the laws
Of the state in which they live, and which they claim
To see as the beginning of redemption!
They sacrifice the blind, the lame, the sick
On the altars of a temple which is not
Built in their generation, nor is it planned.
Elazar: And they too dance the dance of marketing
Whereby the individual’s desire
Is served, and not that passion of the whole
That springs from an eternal Will that wills
The good of the whole, in which the good of each
Is held implicit. Nor can they escape
Wholly the taint of a surrounding culture
Which labors to profane each sacred thing.
Observe their daughters: how the necklines creep
Downward each year, while the hemlines creep upward!
Or listen to that pandemonium,
Bad for the ears, with which youth celebrates
The covenant of marriage, or the attainment
Of that age when the boy or girl assumes
Manhood or womanhood and the obligation
To hear the Lord’s command! And if no outcry
Is raised against the damage to our hearing,
How shall our conscience fortify itself
Against the pressure to grant tolerance
To everything, until the heart is deafened
To the weeping of the victims of a creed
Of cruelty – and of the golem’s message
Of G-dlessness that justifies whatever
Can undermine the covenant between
The two halves of G-d’s image, and the home –
Foundation of our life, nest of our future –
Which founders when that covenant is broken.
No one now counts the tears of the forsaken,
Of the child whose future hangs upon a whim –
And those whose longings turn toward their own sex
Demand not tolerance and understanding
Alone, but all the encouragement and honor
With which the love of bride and groom is crowned –
Nay, we are asked to praise their pride, as if
Pride were not warned against by all our teachers,
Nor are they satisfied till they have wrested
Approval of the gelding of mere children
Persuaded by a media-craze to fancy
Themselves not of the sex which G-d assigned them!
Shim’on. Be careful, Elazar! Don’t get yourself
Reincarnated in this generation:
With such opinions you’d be banned and shunned,
Or at least cause discomfort to your hearers,
Which comes to much the same thing nowadays.
Yochanan: Alas! I see how the two enemies
Of us and of all humankind converge –
Though it would seem that not much love is lost
Between a fanatic creed that knows no mercy
And an unlimited greed that has no values –
To work against us. For the media
Make pets of the unrighteously indignant,
And if the desecration of G-d’s image
Provokes no outcry, how can much resistance
Be roused against encroachment on the land?
Woe’s me! Before my mind’s eye pass processions
Of those who walk and weep, nor do I know
If these are visions of the past – or future!
Matityahu. My children, you have rightly seen, and rightly
Lamented. With your insight you have lit
The field of struggle, you have dissipated
Illusions, and marked the enemy’s positions.
You’ve diagnosed the illness; but we shall not
Do well, unless we also can propose
A strategy, and offer hope of cure.
Not to disseminate despair we came here.
Now, children, who’ll point out a source of hope?
A prolonged silence. In the background a song by Naomi Shemer – “Mi yadlik ner atik (who will light an ancient candle)” – is heard.
Chanah. Despite all falsehood and all desecration,
On every human being the Divine
Image is stamped, and in each Jewish heart
Is hidden, like the jar of oil still pure,
The knowledge that our souls are truly part
Of G-d; and over all of us the spirit
Of Knesset Israel, our mother, hovers.
Will not some hand reach for that jar of oil
And strike a light? Before my mind’s eye rises
The vision of a host that is all flames
Of souls recruited to defend the heart’s
Temple, the holy land of Israel
The hope of all the humans on this earth!
Elazar. If so, then it would seem the front is here:
In the heart of every one of Israel,
Wherever and whenever truth and falsehood
Come face to face.
Yochanan. Who will recruit those souls?
Who will supply weapons to them, and armor?
Matityahu. These shall be fashioned. Though the guile of Greece,
Fruit of the tree of knowledge, has contrived
To weaken in the world the fear of G-d,
Removing some of its external props,
Within the heart the still small voice has never
Ceased to sound. The soul still knows itself,
Can still bear witness to its own Creator
And recognize its foes.
Chanah. And it will surely
Rise up, tear off the veils of self-deception,
As I once tore my garments, and demand
Help from all powers of the human being
Against its desecration. It will seize
The instrument of reason to illumine
All various fields of knowledge and of action
And show to every one his or her task,
So that the bnei binah, the sons and daughters
Of Understanding, may reveal themselves,
Here in this neighborhood, and in the dwellings
Of cousins, inlaws, friends throughout the land,
Until the hearts, wherever they may be,
Shall see and gather strength.
Matityahu. May it be so.
May it be your will, Lord of all souls,
That in response to our arousal flow
From the highest Crown a power of wisdom,
Understanding, knowledge, magnanimity,
Strength, compassion, resolution, and
Acknowledgment, to fortify and guide us!
And you, my children, bearers of the light
That will not bow to darkness – go now, stand
Beside the Chanukah menorahs, as
Invisible ushpizin, whispering
Counsel and strategy to every one
According to their natures and their gifts!
And as on that day long ago I blessed
Each of you – now each of you bless them!
Yehudah. I bless them with the legislator’s insight,
That they may sort and rectify the laws
Of this their present state, and afterward
Give to the nations laws in keeping with
That Justice upon whose eternal tablets
Jerusalem is inscribed, and no less deeply
The Sabbath, that keeps watch over us all.
Shim’on. I bless them with the courage to recognize
Their enemies, and love whoever stands
Against them – never to disown, for instance,
Those youths who keep their vigil on the hills
Lest the complacent cities be besieged.
Yochanan. I for my part bless them with the awareness
That they’re at war, and each one must join up,
Cease to rely on leaders chosen not
By them, but by the golem with its media –
That they must organize to find the leaders
Who’ll lead them on the path of life and strength.
Yonatan. I bless them with fidelity to friends,
With the courage to speak truth, the humility
To hear it, and with love that overcomes
All jealousy, and praises without stint
Whatever gifts G-d’s wisdom has bestowed
Upon a comrade, for the sake of all.
Elazar. I bless them with the courage to uphold
The covenant of love and loyalty
Between a man and woman, though it be
Not easy, and the bond of generations
Which rests on that foundation; and I bless
Whoever helps to make between those two
A true and loving peace.
Chanah. And above all,
My brothers, let us bless them with an ear
And heart attuned to the beating of the heart
Of Knesset Israel, into whose keeping
Heaven gave the seed of hope for humankind.
All (sing). Once again our foes arise,
And seem as strong as ever:
Creed of force and corporate lies
To drive us out endeavor.
But our light won’t fail us,
Torah will avail us,
Firm we’ll stand
Till every land
For our truth will hail us.