“Nes gadol haya po,” President Barack Obama joked to the crowd near the end of his second-to-last White House Chanukah party Wednesday, Dec. 14.
He could have been talking about his mastery of Hebrew phrases such as “A great miracle happened here,” which is what dreidels represent in Israel. But instead he couldn’t resist the urge to draw parallels between his eight years in office and the eight days of Chanukah.
“You know, at the beginning of my presidency, some critics thought it would last for only a year,” Obama said of his presidency. “But, miracle of miracles, it has lasted eight years. It’s lasted eight whole years.”
He was speaking at the first of two Chanukah receptions that day. During the second, his final official Chanukah party as president, he kept the miraculous humor going with first lady Michelle Obama at his side.
“It so happens we’re a little early this year, but Michelle and I are going to be in Hawaii when Chanukah begins, and we agreed that it’s never too soon to enjoy some latkes and jelly doughnuts,” the president said. “This is our second Chanukah party today, but in the spirit of the holiday, the White House kitchen has not run out of oil.”
But the president did turn to the meaning of Chanukah, focusing on a message of freedom and the power of a small, determined group to change the world.
“This is the season that we appreciate the many miracles, large and small, that have graced our lives throughout generations and to recognize that the most meaningful among them is our freedom,” Obama said. “The first chapter of the Chanukah story was written 22 centuries ago, when rulers banned religious rituals and persecuted Jews who dared to observe their faith. Which is why today we are asked not only to light the menorah, but to proudly display it — to publicize the mitzvah. And that’s why we’ve invited all these reporters who are here.”
The guests at the evening Chanukah reception included Judge Merrick Garland, who never did get a hearing for his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Antonin Scalia.
The president called Garland “one of the country’s finest jurists” and emphasized that he’ll continue to serve as the chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Despite the setback in his effort to elevate Garland to the Supreme Court, Obama drew inspiration at least one last time from the Maccabees’ struggle against tyranny.
“We teach our children that even in our darkest moments, a stubborn flame of hope flickers, and miracles are possible,” Obama said. “That spirit from two millennia ago inspired America’s founders two centuries ago. They proclaimed a new nation where citizens could speak and assemble and worship as they wished. George Washington himself was said to have been stirred by the lights of Chanukah after seeing a soldier seek the warmth of a menorah in the snows of Valley Forge. And years later, Washington wrote that timeless letter we have on display today in the White House — I hope you saw it when you walked in.”
In that letter to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I., Washington said the new nation he helped launch “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
“It’s easy sometimes to take these fundamental freedoms for granted. But they, too, are miraculous. They, too, have to be nurtured and safeguarded,” Obama said.
Because Jews have been oppressed, they fight for freedom and other ideals, the president said. “It’s why Jews marched in Selma, why they mobilized after Stonewall, why synagogues have opened their doors to refugees, why Jewish leaders have spoken out against all forms of hatred.”
The two receptions highlighted two prominent Jewish voices against hatred that were silenced in the past year, Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres.
Wiesel’s children and grandchildren were guests at the afternoon White House reception, and a menorah granddaughter Shira Wiesel made in kindergarten was used for the lighting ceremony. Obama said it is the most beautiful menorah he has used “because it was shaped by the hands of a young girl who proves with her presence that the Jewish people survive.”
The menorah used at the evening reception belonged to Rina and Joseph Walden, who smuggled it out of Poland to France and on to Israel as they fled the Nazis. The Waldens’ son, Raphael, married Peres’ only daughter, Zvia.
To honor Shimon Peres, his son, grandson and granddaughter lighted the menorah for Obama.
“We hope all of you draw strength from the divine spark in Shimon Peres, whose miraculous life taught us that ‘faith and moral vision can triumph over all adversity,’ ” Obama said. “I hope it inspires us to rededicate ourselves to upholding the freedoms we hold dear at home and around the world.”