In December of 2001, the Jews of Afghanistan celebrated their first Hanukah free of the Taliban in almost a decade. It was a small celebration, for there were only two Jews left in the entire country – only two – and each one celebrated the Festival of Lights alone.
At separate ends of a rundown synagogue in Kabul, Ishak Levin and Zebulon Simantov lit their candles and said their prayers. Both were happy to celebrate in freedom for the first time in many years. Both were the only living descendants of a former thriving Hebrew community in Afghanistan.
Both had survived the Soviet occupation, the atrocities of the Taliban, and the American-led invasion. Both prayed to the same God and largely for the same things, and yet they could not share the same space or the same celebration, each worshipping alone with a heavy, dark curtain dividing the room so that they would not have to see each other.
Neither of the men could accurately remember what started their feud, but it has cost them much, including their synagogue’s most treasured possession: Its copy of the Torah, the ancient Hebrew scroll of sacred scripture containing much of what we Christians call the Old Testament.
The two eventually fought over what should be done with it, each one accusing the other of wishing to steal it. So, it was given to the Taliban for safekeeping (Those two words “Taliban” and “safekeeping” should never be used in the same sentence), and as you might guess, the scroll was never recovered.
Levin, on that first night of Hanukah said, “For a thousand and thousand years, our forefathers have celebrated these nights, and now Jews all over the world are celebrating too.” And then speaking of his antagonist on the other side of the heavy curtain, he said, “But with him – it is not possible.”
A decade later Levin was dead, leaving Simantov alone, very much alone. He is the only known Jew left in the country, living in a single, tiny room, alienated from his neighbors, estranged from his wife and daughters who live in Israel, cursing former friends, and demanding money or whiskey (Black Label Johnnie Walker to be specific) from reporters who come to interview him. He is a bitter, old man, the ugly product of his own hatred and lack of reconciliation.
Zebulon Simantov may be alone in his dilapidated Kabul synagogue, but he is not alone in his animosities, even as the celebrations of Hanukah and Christmas are upon us. Untold thousands are at war with those around them, be it the army across the border, or their neighbors across the street. These holidays of shalom and peace aren’t enough to break this hold of ill will.
Yet, it will not always be this way. I believe the day will come when such hostilities will be put to rest, when the world will be at peace. I believe there will be no more maimed and bullet-ridden soldiers; no more school shootings; no more battered wives; no more refugees of war; and no more animosities between neighbors.
Now, you may think that my buoyant imagination has gotten away from me; “you might say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” – for this is the assurance of the Jewish prophets, the very hope of Advent, and the promise of all perennial faith traditions: There will be “peace on earth and goodwill toward all.”
Yet, I cannot simply wait for that promised peace to magically arrive – nor can I trust any government, empire, public policy, politician, or war strategy to bring peace. Peace by means of “redemptive” violence or idealistic accord has been the broken promise of human history.
No, I have to practice peace, now – there is no substitute – not allowing this world’s massive levels of toxic hate to embitter or isolate me from others. I have to become an active participant in God’s redemptive process, “an instrument of peace,” as Francis of Assisi prayed, learning to overcome evil with good, beginning, at the place I call home.