Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

Whether it is the melody or the words, "Ma’oz Tzur" is top of the pops.

Fortunately, we know who wrote it – a medieval Ashkenazi poet called Mordechai. The initial letters of the verses yield his name.

Even if we accept the theory that the sixth verse that many people tack on at the end is both genuine and by the same author, we can easily maintain the "Mordechai" acrostic.

This sixth verse begins "Chasof Zero’a Kod’sh’cha" – "Make bear Thy holy arm", a plea to God to redeem His people. The initial letters make up "CHaZaK" – "be strong", and there is ample precedent in Jewish hymnody for an author’s name to be followed by a pious wish such as "may he be strong" or "may he be blessed".

Our problem arises when we try to identify the Mordechai of the poem. It cannot be the Biblical Mordechai, but it may be Mordechai ben Yitzchak, author of the Shabbat song, "Mah Yafit" – "How beautiful and pleasant you are (O Sabbath)". This poem also has a "Mordechai" acrostic and a somewhat similar style.

Both poems date from the 13th or early 14th century, an age of grave suffering for Jews. Both address the problem of being a Jew at a time of persecution – one in forthright appeal to God to save His nation, the other in quiet encouragement to Jews to maintain their love for their tradition.

This is the dual message of Judaism in times of difficulty – have faith in God and faith in ourselves.

SEEING & BELIEVING

The Hanukkah blessings are followed by "HaNerot Halalu", a meditation about the lights we kindle.

It is both a moment of spirituality and a halakhic summary reminding us that the Hanukkah lights are to be looked at and not to be used.

There is quite a different rule concerning the Shabbat lights, which are not only there to be seen but to bring illumination to the home.

There are other differences between the two types of lights, but that is for another occasion. Today let us focus on the rule that says the Hanukkah lights are to be seen.

On a deeper level this law is telling us that we need two gifts in order to see – sight and insight.

The distinction is made in a Midrash about the Binding of Isaac.

Approaching Mount Moriah, Abraham asks his servants, "What do you see?" Their answer, put in colloquial English, is, "What do we see? Another old hill!" He turns to Isaac and asks the same question. Isaac’s answer is, "I see a majestic mountain with clouds entwined about its summit!"

To the servants Abraham now says, "Isaac and I will go yonder, but you stay here with the donkey. Donkeys have no spiritual perception and neither do you."

The servants had sight – but little insight.

I am often reminded of this distinction when the media report on Israel. They see a troublesome little Middle East state: we see Biblical prophecy come true, Divine promises fulfilled, a stage in the unfolding of world redemption.

We see Israel’s defects and deficiencies; we also see visions of what Israel can and will be

Rabbi Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com