Chanukah in Our Time

Eight Thoughts for Eight Nights (5)

Discover Rabbi Sacks’ message to Mikhail Gorbachev when they lit Chanukah candles together in 1991.

Back in 1991, I lit Chanukah candles with Mikhail Gorbachev, who had, until earlier that year, been President of the Soviet Union.

For seventy years the practice of Judaism had been effectively banned in communist Russia. It was one of the two great assaults on our people and faith in the twentieth century. The Germans sought to kill Jews; the Russians tried to kill Judaism. Under Stalin the assault became brutal. Then in 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, many Soviet Jews sought to leave Russia and go to Israel. Not only was permission refused, but often the Jews concerned lost their jobs and were imprisoned.

Around the world Jews campaigned for the prisoners, Refuseniks they were called, to be released and allowed to leave. Eventually Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the whole soviet system was unworkable. Communism had brought, not freedom and equality, but repression, a police state, and a new hierarchy of power. In the end it collapsed, and Jews regained the freedom to practise Judaism and to go to Israel.

That day in 1991 after we had lit candles together, Mr Gorbachev asked me, through his interpreter, what we had just done. I told him that 22 centuries ago in Israel after the public practice of Judaism had been banned, Jews fought for and won their freedom, and these lights were the symbol of that victory. And I continued: Seventy years ago Jews suffered the same loss of freedom in Russia, and you have now helped them to regain it. So you have become part of the Chanukah story.

And as the interpreter translated those words into Russian, Mikhail Gorbachev blushed. The Chanukah story still lives, still inspires, telling not just us but the world that though tyranny exists, freedom - with God’s help - will always win the final battle.