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Hanukkah, Human Rights and the Revelation of the Hidden

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Last month, a group of workers at the New York State fair showed up in a Syracuse-area medical clinic suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration. As was soon discovered, the members of this group had been toiling away 100 hours a week for two dollars an hour, while being held as virtual prisoners by their employers. As a result, these workers, all immigrants on guest worker visas, had barely eaten or drunk water for months.

This case is just one example of the global epidemic of human trafficking. An estimated 27 million people are trafficked each year, including 10,000 to 15,000 who end up in North America working in the sex trade, in agriculture or in other low-wage jobs. These stories tend to be hidden from view: Had the State Fair workers not landed in the emergency room, none of the nearly one million people who attended the fair would have known the conditions under which these workers toiled. Many of us may unknowingly walk by trafficked workers on a daily basis. Many of us benefit from their labors.

One of the central lessons of the holiday of Hanukkah is that religious communities must reveal what ordinarily remains hidden. The Hanukkah menorah is lit by a window so that everyone passing by will see the candles and remember -- or learn about -- the miracle that gave rise to this holiday.

Many other Jewish holidays center around miracles: Passover celebrates the unlikely redemption of 600,000 people from slavery; Purim commemorates the rescue of the Jewish community from a royal death sentence. But only Hanukkah carries this requirement of pirsumei nisa, making the miracle public.

This fact seems even more surprising when we think about what the miracle of Hanukkah was. Depending on which story we like better, the miracle was either that a small group of scrappy guerilla fighters defeated an imperialist army, or that God caused a small vial of oil to burn for eight nights.

In comparison to a sea splitting, frogs falling out of the sky and the overturning of a certain genocide, neither of these miracles seems especially spectacular. We could chalk the military victory up to superior strategy or an unparalleled knowledge of the terrain. As for that small vial of oil, the priest who opened the jar might easily have concluded that he had misjudged the amount of fuel.

But the apparent insignificance of these miracles is the very reason that the celebration of Hanukkah includes the requirement of pirsumei nisa. By placing the menorah in our windows, we reveal these barely perceivable miracles to the world.

I joined the board of directors of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America because this organization commits itself to making public what much of the world chooses not to see. RHR reveals the horrifying and the ugly: trafficked workers held in near servitude; Israeli settlers blocking Palestinians from harvesting their olive trees; U.S. prisoners secretly tortured. And RHR also reveals the tiny miracles that offer a glimmer of light in a dark world: religious leaders who speak on behalf of trafficked workers; Jews who risk their own safety to help Palestinians pick olives; religious institutions that refuse to be silent about state-sponsored torture.

On the fifth and sixth days of Hanukah (Dec. 6-7), RHR will hold its biennial conference, Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action in New York City. At this conference, rabbis, lay leaders, and Jews of all backgrounds will learn about pressing human rights abuses, meet the brave leaders who are confronting these abuses and commit to mobilizing the Jewish community to protect human rights. Through revealing both good and bad, we will move closer to the greatest miracle of all: a world that safeguards the dignity of every human being.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition and a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights North America.

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