Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chanukah sermon
Like millions of others, I was riveted by the historic speech that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered to a joint session of Congress during his brief visit to Washington, D.C.
Significantly, the event took place on the fourth night of Chanukah. During a season that practitioners of many faiths observe as a time of gift-giving (and gelt), Zelensky said of the massive American funding of Ukraine’s war effort against Russia’s criminal aggression: “This is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy.”
Speaking only days before Christmas, Zelensky — possibly the most recognizable and most admired Jew in the world today — invoked that Christian holy day repeatedly. He effectively evoked the image of Ukrainians sitting down to holiday dinner tables and celebrating by candlelight — “not because it is romantic,” but because Russia’s unprincipled attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure have left countless Ukrainians without electricity or heating. He deftly appealed directly to American families who would be enjoying the warmth of the holiday and who would want that warmth for others.
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Zelensky also pointedly compared his own nation’s struggle to critical moments in American history, quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbor address from the same podium, insisting that his countrymen “in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” He drew parallels to the American Revolution, with specific and erudite reference to the decisive Battle of Saratoga — in which an outnumbered and outgunned American force turned the tide of the war, rallied national morale, and generated the military momentum required for victory and the securing of the American nation.
Zelensky’s oration, delivered forcefully in English — clearly not the language in which he is most fluent or comfortable — was justifiably met with repeated, sustained, and generally bipartisan standing ovations. Watching as my Chanukah candles continued to burn, I was profoundly moved. News pundits and political commentators were unanimous in their estimation of the historic quality of the address.
Though the address was by all accounts a triumph, I could not help feeling it was lacking in one respect. How I longed for the president of Ukraine — so distinguished a son of the Jewish people — to cite the observance of Chanukah and the historic events on which it is based. Just a brief and simple acknowledgement. Something like this:
“I would be remiss if I did not take note that a proud and patriotic minority of Ukrainians, like a proud and patriotic minority of Americans, are tonight celebrating Chanukah … celebrating the victory of a citizen army against a despotic ancient superpower … the victory of the few against the many, the victory of good over evil, the power of light over the forces of darkness. As I have told my fellow Ukrainians before in that spirit: ‘Life will win over death and the light will win over darkness.’”
Perhaps Zelensky might have quoted Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who wrote in 1915: “As part of the eternal world-wide struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal world-wide interest.”
Zelensky’s address to Congress undoubtedly and justly will find its way into the history books and the collective memory of the free world, together with Winston Churchill’s speech to the same body at the height of World War II. With a brief reference to the religious tradition to which he was born, Zelensky’s masterly oration might have entered the annals of Jewish history as the finest Chanukah sermon on record.
How deeply I felt the lack of a reference to Chanukah, to the Maccabees, to the festival of light and dedication.
Why did the Ukrainian president, an artful orator and a shrewd student of history, forgo so fitting and felicitous a rhetorical opportunity?
Perhaps it is my own bias as an American Jew that has me asking the question at all. A brief and well-chosen invocation of Chanukah — in addition to being topically on point — would have reflected America’s glorious religious and cultural mosaic. What a moment in Jewish history would have resulted: a joint session of Congress applauding (perhaps with yet another standing ovation!) the historic precedent of the Hasmonean rebellion.
Or perhaps the president’s silence regarding Chanukah was carefully calculated — a response to the deplorable rise of antisemitism in the United States and beyond. Perhaps, alas, President Zelensky feared that such a distinctly Jewish reference would be detrimental to his cause. I pray that this was not his thinking.
Or perhaps — and, again, I pray that I am wrong — Volodymyr Zelensky simply lacks a sense of Jewish identity and literacy and worldview sufficient even to consider such a statement, even when the occasion and the timing all but demand it.
Even with this oversight, I was inspired by President Zelensky’s address. It was a tour de force in the literary arsenal of freedom and democracy.
As I contemplate what Volodymyr Zelensky said, and what he did not say, I am reminded of a famous teaching of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine indeed has delivered one of history’s greatest sermons on Chanukah, on the Maccabees, on the victory of freedom over tyranny, of good over evil, and of light over darkness. His life, his leadership, and his luminous personal example are that sermon.
“Use words only when necessary.”
Yasher koach, Volodymyr, our brother. We pray that you and your citizen army soon will rekindle your lights, and rededicate your own temple of democracy.
Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.