I have a confession.
While studying in Israel, I violated a commandment in the Torah.
Deuteronomy 17:18 states that God commanded, “Do not return that way (towards Egypt) anymore.” However, wanting an escape from my studies and lured by my worship for the false idol that was the beaches of the Sinai Peninsula, I decided to take my chances during Chanukah and return to the land of bondage.
I made sure when I packed my backpack that I included a pack of Chanukah candles, just because I was violating one commandment, heaven forbid I would not light the candles! In the desert, a few classmates and I found an isolated place. We nervously looked around, sang the blessings and kindled the festival lights. We hurried off before anyone could spot us, worried that our Jewish identity would put us in danger, and watched from a distance as the flames danced in the sand. I thought not only of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt 3000+ years ago and how they had crossed this desert to freedom, but also of the 80,000 Jews who populated this country a mere 80 years prior.
Today, the Jewish population of the largest Arab country is approximately 100.
Upon my return to Israel, my Egged bus passed massive hanukkiot with their billowing flames, and finally, after 7 hours of travel, I arrived back in Jerusalem. As the bus neared the station, I wiped away the fog on the window and gasped. Before me stood a high-rise apartment building, and in every single window was a lit hanukkiah, hundreds of them!
Though Israel is a place that is far from perfect, my Revelation came not at Sinai but upon my return to Jerusalem; this country is my home. For the Jews from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, Spain, Poland, Russia, Germany, France, and Egypt, among dozens more countries from around the world, who had previously been scared of the ramifications of expressing their Judaism, Israel is now a place for them to do so with pride rather than fear.
On that cold night, the lights of the hanukkiah and the freedom of my people warmed my heart and I fell in love with Israel.
Sam Spector was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and studied at the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Cum Laude with a B.A. in Judaic Studies. He is entering his final (5th) year of rabbinical school in the fall at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Sam is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Naval Reserves and the rabbinic intern of Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA.