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Chanukah Reflections: Maoz Tzur

Sometime around October 11th or 12th, during that first week of the war in Israel, my cell phone broke, and I had to get a new one. Getting into my car for the first time with the new phone, I turned up the volume on my stereo, expecting the bluetooth to connect me to whatever I had been listening to on Spotify last. But instead, a totally different, unexpected song came blaring through the speakers.

Rock of Ages, my salvation, to praise You is a delight.

The Berkshire foliage hadn’t even reached their peak autumn display, our Torah scrolls were still rolled from the spot where we had read them on Simchat Torah, so to hear this song that I think of as a Chanukah song was jarring.

But something made me keep listening.

The version I had on was recorded by Erran Baron Cohen, from a Chanukah compilation by various artists called “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah”, and uses a standard English translation, which notably, was done by Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil, both 19th century rabbis and Talmudists:

Rock of Ages, let our song praise your saving power.

You amidst the raging foes, were our sheltering tower.

Furious they assailed us, but Your arm availed us

And Your word broke their sword

When our own strength failed us

Children of the Maccabees, whether free or fettered

Wake the echoes of the song, where you may be scattered

Yours the message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see

All men free,

Tyrants disappearing.

It might have been October, but as the song played on, I knew: Maoz Tzur was the song I needed to hear. This was the God I wanted at that moment. A saving God, a protecting God, a God for the generations.

As my friend and teacher Rabbi Andrea Weiss teaches, there are so many metaphors for God through TaNaKh (Torah, Prophets, and Writings). The biblical imagination is vast, describing God as Father as well as God as Mother, and God as Eagle. Each metaphor highlights the various ways our people have understood God in their lives throughout history.

God as Rock first appears in the book of Deuteronomy, in parashat Ha’azinu, a beautiful biblical song or poem.

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,

and let the earth hear the speech of my mouth…

The Rock, his work is perfect,

indeed all his ways are just;

a God of faithfulness,

and without wrong, righteous and upright is he.

(Deuteronomy 32:1, 4)

Here, the metaphor God as Rock (Tzur || צור ) elicits an image of God that is solid and unmoving. The use of this metaphor is echoed also in Psalms, where God as Rock is God as protector and fortress, citadel and refuge.

In times like these, I take great comfort in imagining God as Tzur: a source of solidity and protection. And now, exactly two months after our world changed,, we will kindle the first light of Chanukah on December 7th. What better time to sing out those words, Maoz Tzur yeshuati, l’cha naeh l’shabeiach. Those words, written in the 13th century, feel precious today: a reminder that we are the Children of Maccabees, and we are a covenanted people with God who is all things: Rock and Parent, a source of comfort and protection.

As we prepare to celebrate the Festival of Lights, I am reminded of the true meaning of Chanukah, from the Hebrew root Chet, Nun, Chaf, meaning to dedicate. When the Maccabees defeat the Hasmoneans, their military victory is transformed into a spiritual victory by their work of rededication. They return to their Temple, restoring its sanctity and rededicating it as a sacred gathering place. My hope and prayer for this Chanukah, is that it will be a time of rededication for our people here, and around the world. As we continue to pray for the return of hostages, and the safety of innocents throughout the land, may Chanukah be for Israel a time of miracles and rededication.

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