Hannukah - to Dream the Impossible Dream
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 6, 2015
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient reading is from the Babylonian Talmud:
What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev the eight days of Chanukah begin, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient [oil] for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit the lamp therewith for eight days. The following year these days were declared a Festival with the recitation of … hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
Our modern reading is from the chapter “The Meaning of Hanukkah” from the book "Becoming a Jewish Parent" by Daniel Gordis:
One more point about Hanukkah: When the Maccabees finally succeeded in removing the Greeks from the Temple and found that there was only enough oil for one day, it might have made sense not even to try to relight the eternal light. They could have waited until they had prepared enough oil to keep the fire burning – after all, they hadn’t put it out. The issue... here, may not be the miracle as much as the point that what we don’t try will never work. Maybe the miracle was not so much the oil but the Maccabees’ conviction, their fortitude, their commitment even in the face of a “reality” that should have told them that what they wanted simply wasn’t possible.
When the sun sets this evening, the date on the Jewish calendar will be the 25th of Kislev. The Festival of Lights, commemorating the miracle of the lamp that burned for eight days, will begin. Many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story of Hanukkah.
According to Rabbi Arthur Wascow, Jewish historian and scholar, Hanukkah dates back to the struggle led by the Maccabees – a family from the priestly tribe – against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel and against Hellenized Jews, from 169 to 166 B.C.E.
The Maccabean war was a fusion of both an anticolonial war and a civil war. Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of the Syrian branch of Alexander the Great's empire, had decreed that all local religions, including Judaism, be rooted out. Jewish customs, rites and laws were outlawed on pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices came to be held in the Holy Temple and in shrines throughout the land. Many Jews, filled with admiration for the worldly wisdom and power of the Hellenistic culture, followed these decrees and obeyed the proclamations of Antiochus.
Others though, were filled with rage at the oppressive decrees and with revulsion at the cooperation of their compatriots. They rallied under Mattathias, the priest, and his five sons—who came to be called the Maccabees, meaning hammer. After three years of guerrilla warfare against the regular armies of Antiochus, the Maccabean forces won. Now led by Judah Maccabee, they recaptured Jerusalem and set out to rededicate their Holy Temple.
When the Temple was put in order, there was enough oil to keep the lamp lit for only one day. As the story goes, the lamp was lit anyway, in a display of faith, hope and courage, and the one-day supply of oil somehow burned for the eight days it took to render a fresh supply of new oil.
This isn’t a Jewish congregation. We are Unitarian Universalists. What business do we have celebrating a Jewish story at all? This isn’t a Jewish congregation, but some of our members come from Jewish roots. So this story has organic roots for some of us here. But even beyond our familial connections, Unitarian Universalism draws on all the great world religions; we draw our inspiration wherever we might find it so that we might be moved, “…to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life…” (UUA Principles and Purposes)
Our task, then, is to explore the stories, to find what might sustain, inspire and uplift us. Our task is to claim that which will lift us up and through our limitations.
The elements of this Hanukkah story include a downtrodden people who have been conquered by an evil empire. They are denied their identity and their right to practice the rites of their faith. The very heart of their religious home – the Temple, site of the sacred Torah – has been taken over and defiled. Many of the once faithful begin to lose their way, even identifying with their captors.
Darkness abounds. The story is filled with implacable darkness. The light in the hearts of the people is nearly extinguished. They are all but defeated.
Yet, even when things are at their worst, when the struggle seems almost insurmountable, courage is found and hope is rekindled. And from that small light of hope, the people learn once again who they are. They learn to claim and take their place in the world. What was lost is found, and out of the immense darkness, a miracle of great light occurs.
The story of Hanukkah gives us a personal reminder to take courage, to have hope, to go the struggle and to find our way through whatever darkness into light. We each have our own life issues that we must face over and over again, until we go deeply enough, darkly enough, to accept who we are in those struggles and there to find our light, our hope.
And more than a personal reminder, Hanukkah calls us to consider our plight as we the people. I hope you know that I’m always preaching to myself as much as I’m preaching to you. And I’ve got to tell you that, as we enter this holiday season, I’m already tired. I’m tired of hearing about global warming and the threat it presents. Tired of the seemingly never-ending need to stand up for Black Lives Matter. I’m tired of our immoral wars that still have no clear enemy and far too many innocent victims. I’m tired of jihad, and ISIS, and the Israelis and Palestinians using religion as an excuse for self-serving agendas of terrorism and violence. I'm tired, so very tired, of hearing, as we all did once again this past Wednesday, questions like, "Have you heard what's happened in San Bernardino?"
I’m tired. I'm tired of humanity’s inability to recognize that none of us is saved or even safe, unless we are all saved, all safe. The holiday of Hanukkah always comes at this dark time of the year. And once again it comes when it seems hope is needed most.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, quoted above, tells another story about courage and hope, and about the need for both. This story isn’t based in ancient scripture though. It’s from his own life and from our own shared, somewhat recent, history. Even though it occurred a little over 37 years ago, it speaks of issues and dynamics very much alive and in play today. It also speaks of the hope and courage we might want to gather if, amidst the surrounding darkness, we are going to keep sight of our dreams and aspirations for a more meaningful life, for a more just and loving world. Waskov wrote:
In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by the US government (i.e. the Nixon Administration and Attorney General John Mitchell) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968.
The political landscape of our world today is overly rife with analogies that can be drawn from both of these stories. The Maccabees drew courage from their hope, and rose up to rebel against an evil empire. They were guided by a sense of being responsible, connected to something much larger than themselves. They had a sense of spiritual identity and an urgency to once again make holy their holiest of places. Arthur Waskow drew courage too, from his sense of being responsible, connected to something much larger than himself, and also from his hope in the possibilities of peace and justice should individuals and groups dare to speak truth to authority. He used his yarmulke to remind himself of his connections to that which he knew to be greater than himself.
Although the main official investigation of the Chicago Riots described it as a "police riot," the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970, Tom Hayden, Abby Hoffman, et al. figured I would be reasonably respectable and relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.
As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge, Julius Hoffman, a Jew, was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense. He browbeat witnesses, literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings. Dozens of Hoffman’s rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.
So when I arrived at the Federal courthouse in Chicago, I was very nervous – about the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony. The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. He had sung "Alice's Restaurant" to and with the crowd at Grant Park, and the defense wanted to show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.
William Kunstler, the lawyer for the defense, asked Guthrie to sing "Alice's Restaurant" so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event. But Judge Hoffman stopped him: "You can't sing in my courtroom!!"
"But," said Kunstler, "it's evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!" For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman said, "He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING."
And then – Guthrie couldn't do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times – but to say it without singing, he couldn't. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe Judge Hoffman’s rage helped disassemble him. So he came back to the witness room, crushed.
And I'm up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart. I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/ Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially "religious" situation.)
So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says, "No problem." Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on. For the oath, which I did as an affirmation, there was no problem. Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. "Take off your hat, sir," he demanded.
Kunstler erupts, "This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want – etc, etc, etc." So, I am moaning to myself, "Please, Bill, one thing I know I'm not – is an Orthodox Jew." But how can I undermine the defense attorney? So I keep my mouth shut.
Judge Hoffman also erupts, "That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!" he shouts. (Perhaps you can begin to detect a certain synchronicity in Rabbi Waskov’s experience here, not only with the events chronicled in “Alice’s Restaurant,” and in the courtroom, but also with the events told in the ancient story of the Syrians and the Maccabees.)
"Yeah," I think to myself, "that's sort of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That's the point!"
They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor – and I realize that he is watching the jury. There is one Jewish juror. What is this juror thinking?
Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge, "Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interest of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward." And the judge took orders!! He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly. (Story from the Rag Blog, slightly adapted by CBO)
We, too, live in a time when there is truth that needs to be spoken to authority. We, too, might do well to link our efforts to something beyond our immediate selves and ideologies, something more connected to whatever we might imagine as the largest common good, the great mystery that binds us all – this entire planet – together as one. We need to remember that we are not so much the ones who are being oppressed this time. The oppression is very often being conducted in our names, and unless our hope for peace and justice fuels our courage to act for peace and justice, then those oppressions, conducted for our benefit, will continue. And so we might well want to find a way to reach out, to reestablish a sense of being responsible and connected to something much larger than ourselves. We might want to find a way to reach out for whatever help might be available.
The story of Hanukkah can be a meaningful story for all of us because it is much larger than a story about a political uprising. It speaks to us on many levels, including a very spiritual one – not that politics isn’t or shouldn’t be a spiritual matter. It is. But it also speaks to us personally, as well. None of us here are without our challenges. Despite the constant commercial and cultural drive for us to show ourselves as being perfect, we know that’s not the case. Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, “Suffering is the mark of the human tribe. It is an eternal law… It is impossible to do away with the law of suffering which is the one indispensable condition of our being.” Despite any cultural or personal efforts toward denial, we are born into suffering.
I know some of your sufferings. Some of you have privileged me by sharing your struggles with me. In the short time I've been with you, I've already come to know that many of you are sick, or have loved ones who are; that some of you struggle with mental illnesses, with abusive relationships and with addictions; that some of you are unemployed and don’t know how you’re going to make ends meet. I know that some of you have broken hearts from having lost at love or having lost a loved one. I know that some of you are facing transitions, and the thought of what’s next can be so very frightening. Some of you struggle with a feeling of spiritual malaise and are searching for ways to reconnect with greater meaning.
I’m not trying to make trouble where there is none, but you know what trouble, however serious or not, you are facing. The Hanukkah story can be for each of us. It holds up the possibility of hope through courage, and the possibility of courage through hope. It is up to each of us to grab hold of the essence of this story and infuse it into our lives. We are encouraged from these two stories, to find a way to reach out and to reestablish a sense of being responsible to and connected with that something, which is much larger than ourselves. We are encouraged by them to find a way to reach out for whatever help might be available. “… from that small light of hope, the people learn once again who they are.”
How can we do that? How can we find a way, when it appears at times that there is no way? The stories remind us that there is always a way to reconnect with which is larger.
Even though I know that the word prayer is uncomfortable for a number of us, one such way might be found through prayer. It doesn’t need to be prayer that’s theologically correct or even directed toward any particular understanding of the cosmos, although it could be. It might be directed no more specifically than to the great unknown. The Maccabean sacred struggle is a sort of prayer. Arthur Waskow’s wearing of a yarmulke in Julius Hoffman’s courtroom is a sort of prayer. The only qualification for prayer, as I’m suggesting it, is that it be honest and from the heart, that darkest, deepest of places, wherein hope is born.
There’s a little book that I love called Jacob the Baker, by Noah benShea. It’s full of little scraps of wisdom proffered by a fictional baker in a little village. In a chapter titled, “Prayer Is a Path Where There Is None,” Jacob talks about the kind of prayer I’m suggesting. benShea writes:
A child was filled with a question, which like an itch demanded to be scratched.
“Jacob, what I don’t understand is how you are to decide whether to follow what you feel is right or what you think is right?”
When we are faced with situations where it is difficult to find our way, we have great need to reconnect. And maybe it is prayer that can spark a light to kindle hope, to ignite courage, to do the thing that we feared we could not do, that we could not even see. Maybe it is as simple, or as difficult, as that.
Jacob touched his own chest and said, “My heart knows what my mind only thinks it knows.”
The answer pushed the boy to another question. “What if neither my heart nor mind can help me find the way?”
And Jacob answered, “Prayer is a path where there is none.”
We are entering the season of miracles. Who are we to dismiss any path that might lead to hope, that might help us to cope, that might help us to see the way that awaits our pursuit of creating – of our lives and of our world – the beauty and the splendor and the love that they might yet be blessed with. Whatever source we might choose to inspire our hope and our courage, it needs, at least to do that – provide a path where there is none, so that we might indeed experience our connections with and our responsibilities to that which is larger than us all.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, a festival that is reached through struggle and courage, on a road through darkness leading to hope. It invites us to dream the impossible dream. The story of Hanukkah gives us a personal reminder and a collective reminder to take courage, to have hope, to go the struggle and to find our way through our darkness into light. We each have, we all have, our life issues that we must face until we go deeply enough, darkly enough, to accept who we are in these struggles and there to find our light, there to find our center, to find our hope.
So then, may our spirits be renewed and rejoined with those forces that create and uphold life. May we each be the shamash, kindlers of the Hanukkah lights. And may those lights shine back on us, lifting us up and through our limitations, guiding us ever inward, outward and onward.