Who can recount the mighty acts of Israel?
Who can count them?
Indeed, in every age, a hero shall arise
The people’s rescuer.
In those days and in our time,
A Maccabee saves and redeems.
And in our days, all of Israel
Shall stand united and be rescued.
Every winter of my childhood, my family went to visit Israeli friends who lived nearby. We would sit around their living room, eat sufganiyot, light the ẖanukkiyah and sing songs. I always looked forward to this evening spent with friends, participating in what seemed like nothing more than light-hearted fun. It was not until years later that I realized the ideological import of the songs chosen.
Mi Yemalel, among the most popular of Hebrew ˙ Hanukkah songs, is a radical rejection of God’s role in human history, replaced instead by the mighty deeds of mere mortals. Menashe Ravina (formerly Rabinovich), the Ukrainian born and German educated composer, did not just want to write a popular tune. Rather, he wanted to make a point.
Together with many other early Zionist pioneers, Ravina looked at the Maccabees as historical predecessors to themselves. Indeed, the Maccabees remain important figures in the mythology of Zionism to this day—think of all the Israeli sports teams named Maccabee. Like an anthropocentric reading of the ˙ Hanukkah story, these Zionists came not with the expectation that God would intervene and assist them in their affairs, but with a conviction that, through their own determination, they could succeed in the Land of Israel. Ravina skillfully replaces God with human creativity and determination.
Mi Yemalel is a play on Psalm 106:2, which asks ‘ה גבורות ימלל מי ,ִ‘Who can recount the mighty acts of the LORD? In Ravina’s version, of course, it is not the mighty acts of God, but the mighty acts of the people of Israel that are recalled. The participles, מושיע גואל ,and פודה) ,rescues/rescuer, saves/saver and redeems/redeemer) are all words that often, especially in Jewish liturgy, refer to God. Yet here they speak of the Maccabees.
A vibrant Judaism for me is one that honours, and indeed demands, human initiative. It is a Judaism that embraces free will and requires of its adherents to take their moral obligations seriously. We are not meant to rely on miracles and divine intervention.
At the same time, we are elevated when we seek to discover God in this world. We benefit when we recognize the Eternal in our lives.
At Beth Tzedec, we work hard to find entry points and
meaningful ongoing programming for those whose starting
point is humankind and for those whose starting point is
God. On H̱anukkah and year round, may we be blessed
with the courage to act and the ability to seek the Divine.