On Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020—a week before Chanukah—the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted a tour de force talk for undergraduate students by Dr. Erica Brown ’88S, prolific scholar, author and director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University, on “What Chanukah Teaches Us About Responsibility.”
Fondly recalling the many menorahs that lit the lobby of her Stern College dorm as an undergraduate, Dr. Brown described city dwellers as especially attuned to lights. By hyperfocusing on the fight to light the menorah in the 2nd century BCE, and the establishment and continuity of this sacred ritual, Dr. Brown illuminated the powerful and actionable lessons Chanukah imparts today.
Although some of us were still feeling November’s “turkey burn,” Dr. Brown noted that the 25th of Kislev and the days following were appointed by Chazal [the Jewish Sages] as a holiday for “praise and thanksgiving” (BT Shabbat 21b). Why? Because sustaining gratitude, even for the miraculous, is naturally challenged by the passing of time. Memories fade and memorials tarnish. Indeed, there are significant holidays in Jewish history that are no longer commemorated today. In establishing Chanukah as a chag [holiday] for the Jewish people, Dr. Brown argued, the Sages underscored our collective responsibility to honor ritual and history and ensure that acts of greatness, by G-d and His people, are as significant in the present as they were in the past.
Dr. Brown continued her exploration of what we owe to ourselves and each other through close examination of texts that furnish Chanukah’s “spiritual master narrative.” She invited participants to reflect on passages from Sefer Maccabim, apocryphal books that aren’t often read yet merit further consideration. The Eicha-like images of the destruction and devastation of Jerusalem reveal the high price individuals paid during this tragic period in Jewish history. As we’ve seen during the global pandemic, crisis engenders a spectrum of pain and disappointment, from postponed ceremonies to diminished celebrations to profound, permanent loss. With lucidity and exceptional sensitivity, Dr. Brown showed how the heroic and the heartbroken can teach us the complementary responsibilities to mourn (rather than diminish) loss and to exercise compassion, both critically important charges given the challenges we face today.
With intellectual alacrity and rare insight, Dr. Brown took her audience through a variety of historical and rabbinic sources—from Josephus’s Antiquities to the Zohar—highlighting aspects of the Chanukah narrative that model and extend the responsibility to lead, to celebrate and even the responsibility to be responsible in our homes and in public. The personal and communal obligations gleaned from the Chanukah story are boons and not burdens, as Dr. Brown demonstrated, enabling us to face these exceptional times with clarity, hope, and resilience.