Standing up Against Authority

“You’ll be Greek, soon you’ll see. You will pray to Zeus the same as me…” These words are in the Maccabeats Hamilton Hanukkah parody. King Antiochus IV told the Jews that they must become Greek-or else, an offer they could not refuse. Yet a brave small group of Hasmoneans known to us as the Maccabees stood up to the king, and though few in number, they successfully defeated him, rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem and celebrated an eight day festival.

This week’s Torah portion is also about standing up to authority.  In Genesis 39, we have Joseph sold as a prisoner to Potiphar.  Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to Joseph, telling him, “Come lie with me.”  In such a situation, the typical thing to do would be to go along with it, for how can someone refuse his master’s wife?  Joseph, however, refused to commit adultery, running out of the room.  When Potiphar came back, his wife inverts the story, proclaiming that “the Hebrew you sent tried to lie with me by force!”  Potiphar was incensed, leading to Joseph being thrown into prison.  Eventually Joseph would rise to second in command of Pharaoh, but not before he was punished for standing up against an authority figure.

Similarly, the Chanukah story is about resisting the Syrian Greeks.  The Greek ruler, Antiochus, forbade the Jews from circumcising themselves, forced them to eat non-kosher food, violate Shabbat and bow down to Greek statues.  There were many Jews who did these things, as the First Book of Maccabees has stories of Jews undoing their circumcisions and bowing down to Greek statues.  However, a group of Jews, led by Mattathias and later his son Judah, refused Antiochus’s decrees.  Eventually the Maccabees would defeat the Selucid Greek army, but not before they were forced to flee for their lives.

The point these two narratives are demonstrating are the difficulty of standing up to authority.  It would have been much easier for Joseph to submit to the whims of his master’s wife, just as it would have been easier for Jews to eat non-kosher meat than risk their lives.  In both cases, however, despite the dangers, our ancestors chose to “put their lives on the line” rather than do what the authority figures demanded of them.

It can be hard to relate to these situations today, when we are living in a country that has outlawed slavery and proclaimed religious freedom for all.  However, it is still difficult to take a stand, especially when that stand goes against the grain of what people are doing.  To choose to say “I want to do things differently” or “In contrast with you, I believe this” is very difficult.  It is much easier and feels less threatening to choose to say nothing or to “go along with the flow.”

Have there been times in your life where you have chosen to take a difficult stand?  What did you think about before making that choice?  Were there repercussions in speaking out?

When I think about these questions, I remember when I did Student Congress in high school.  Student Congress is based off of the United States Congress: a resolution is proposed, there is an affirmative speech followed by a negative speech and when there is no one else who wants to speak the issue is voted on.  One of the most notorious resolutions that came up was one to condemn Israel as a human rights violator.  Most of the times that resolution was put forward it passed by a score of 23-1, with me being the only dissenting vote.  It was so difficult defending a country that everyone else in the room attacked, yet I am proud that I was able to do so.  Although I never faced any consequences for defending Israel aside from having my views attacked, it was still difficult to do, and would have been much easier to remain silent.

Yesterday’s UN Resolution, which passed because our country abstained, declared all Israeli settlements post-1949 to be illegal. This is not just referring to land in Judea and Samaria which by themselves house 400,000 Israelis-it includes the entire Jewish Quarter (Kotel included), French Hill, Gilo and would make Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus impassable for Israelis. Israelis would not be able to travel directly from “West Jerusalem” to Masada or the Dead Sea, as much of the land in between them is “illegal.” The resolution was clearly written by people who have no sense or interest as to what Israel was like between 1949 and 1967. The one thing that gives me comfort are the words of Dani Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, who asserted “we overcame these decrees during the time of the Maccabees, and we will overcome this evil decree today.” I agree with Dani that Israel will continue to prevail and this agreement in my view gives Israel license to continue to ignore the UN and do what it feels is in its best interest. I also want to commend President-Elect Trump who was successful at getting Egypt to withdraw from the resolution.

As we look ahead to these eight days of Chanukah and get ready to begin a new secular year, I believe each and every one of us should analyze what we believe in and think about times that we have taken stands that are contrary to those around us and when have we not done so and wished we did.  Standing up for what we believe in can be challenging, especially if it means standing against an authority figure, like Potiphar’s wife or Antiochus, or someone who claims to be an authority.  However, my hope for the coming year is that we can be comfortable knowing where we stand and when we should take a stand, even when that stand is in opposition to what is perceived as “the norm.”  May this holiday be one of celebration as well as personal introspection, one where we take pride in what we believe and in who we are.

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