In a recent Zohar class, I noted that the phrase “Who can tell the mighty acts of Adonai” from Psalm 106:2 is the basis for the well known Hanukkah song, Mi Y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael, written by Russian-born Menashe Ravina (1899-1968) sometime in the first half of the 20th century. It became a popular Hanukkah song in the early years of the State of Israel.
However, we should pay attention to the major theological difference between the source material and the Hanukkah song. The popular singable English version of the first verse is:
Who can retell the things that befell us?
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Arose to our aid.
But this is a mistranslation. The first line, in passive voice, doesn’t specifically tell us who led us to victory, and the third line introduces the word ‘sage’ to rhyme with age, not found in the original Hebrew. More literally, the song begins:
Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel?
Who can count them?
Yes in every generation a hero arises
To save the people.
In short, the Psalmist speaks of the power of God and Ravina speaks of the power of Israel. Hutzpah’dik? Theological audacity or arrogance? Yes, but with deep roots that go back virtually to the first accounts of the story of Hanukkah. The story told in the historical book of Maccabees focuses on the fight against the Syrians led by Mattathias and his five sons. God is not absent from the book, but it is clearly primarily about the zealotry and heroism of this family and especially Judah, who became known by the appellation “Maccabee” (hammer), for his strength.
The early Rabbinic tradition wanted to move away from the Maccabean origins of Hanukkah and instead emphasize God’s salvation of Israel. Thus the major Hanukkah prayer in the Amidah contains the passage, “You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.” The rabbis turned the military leaders into yeshiva bochers!
The early builders of the state of Israel face the opposite challenge, that of turning academics and trademen into farmers and soldiers. Thus their songs emphasized strength and independence. If Israel was to survive the economic, social, and military challenges of the early years, they needed to learn how to do things that Jews had not needed to do for centuries, if ever.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this month, in our songs and prayers and candle-lighting rituals we remember the miracles ancient and modern, by which God has ensured the improbable survival of the tiny but determined Jewish people and our State of Israel. We also remember the Maccabees and others who fought for our religious freedom, both here and in Israel. Hag Ha-Urim Sameah, May you experience a joyous festival of lights!