Hannukah is observed fairly simply, as you may remember from the song Fred and I sang this time last year. Along with the songs for the holiday like those we’ve been singing this morning, we have latkes – potato pancakes; we have dreidels – wooden tops. We have candles, which we light one for each of the eight nights of the holiday, beginning tonight, which is why only the Shammas, the servant candle used to light all the others, is burning in our menorah this morning, in anticipation of next week when the whole candelabra will be aflame with light. But the simple observances are deceptive, because the holiday they celebrate is rooted in a story full of complexity and challenge. So in order to talk about what it holds for our consideration, I need to review the story.
It starts with Alexander the Great who united many countries, from Greece east as far as India and as far south as Egypt, into his grand empire. His MO was to conquer a country, allow it to retain its traditions as long as they hailed him king, and then incorporate Greek city-state structural and cultural ways into the conquered nation’s organization. This meant philosophy, medicine, libraries, sports stadia, and also some Greek or Hellenistic religious elements. The Jews of Judea explained to him that they couldn’t worship Alexander as god-king according to Egyptian prophecy and tradition because of the strict Jewish monotheistic tradition. Alexander respected their stand, and his reign ended up going down in Jewish history as a fairly benevolent one.
When he died and his generals divided his empire among them, Ptolemy took Egypt and also Judea, among other regions, and continued Alexander’s policy, as did his descendents for a few generations. This made for a largely peaceful era, but one with growing cultural tension as more and more Jews were assimilated into Hellenistic culture. Some were spending time in the agora and the gymnasium rather than the temple, and some went to far even as to ignore important rules of everyday observant Jewish practice in their families and homes.
After a time, a new high priest of Jerusalem was named, and this new high priest, Jason, was very much a champion of Hellenization. His appointment broke with tradition, he’d essentially bought his appointment from the King, and inflamed the Jews who were alarmed at these developments luring people away from Jewish ways.
As these tensions simmered, something brought them to a head. The Syrian King, Antiochus IV, also a descendent of one of Alexander’s generals, decided he wanted Judea for himself. The Ptolemies warred with him, but lost, and Judea came under his sway. His reign was fairly brutal and had no tolerance or respect for Jewish ways. He looted the temple, forced people to worship him as divine king in the temple, to sacrifice pigs, a ritually unclean animal, and filled the country and the capital, Jerusalem, with troops to enforce his rule.
On the receiving end of all this oppression and abuse, the Jews were struggling and divided. Three distinct groups were forming in response to the times. The Chasidim felt that all this persecution and suffering were signs of God’s displeasure because of all the assimilation that had been happening, that in some way this was deserved punishment, and that the only right response was to endure and be even more pious in the face of the persecution. Thus, they thought, they could earn back God’s love and an eventual change in their circumstances. The Hasmoneans were angry and wanted to fight to reclaim their land and ways, arguing that God helped those who helped themselves. The Pharisees were concerned with developing a better sense of laws and bible interpretation that might show a new way to negotiate this terrible and complicated situation. To some degree this was a version of that perennial ‘faith vs. deeds’ quandary, what is more important, what saves us, strong faith or strong deeds – prefiguring that much later debate among Christian sects. But these early Jewish sects argued with each other, and nothing happened until finally the Hasmoneans, led by a man named Mattathias and his five sons began to fight, first in a town called Modiin where Mattathias was the local Jewish priest.
Inexplicably, the Hasmoneans won their first battle, and their victory against trained, veteran and well-equipped troops seemed nothing short of miraculous. Indeed, it seemed God must be on their side, otherwise, how could this have happened? Their victory won many Jews, even many Chasidim, over to their side and swelled their ranks enough to allow them to begin a campaign to chase the Syrians out of Judea. They won the war, ritually cleansed and rededicated the temple, rekindling the sacred fire, which is what the Hannukah tradition of lighting candles celebrates.
Sometimes people think Hannukah’s timing is a recasting of a pagan solstice tradition tied to the winter season. In fact, Hannukah is the only Jewish holiday that is rabinnically-ordained rather than biblically-ordained, because it was an actual event in history. And it happens for eight days and nights, because tradition teaches that Moses took eight days and nights to dedicate the tabernacle, and Solomon took eight days and nights to dedicate the first great temple built in Jerusalem so surely that would be the right number of days and nights for this rededication so many centuries later. (Hannukah for Adults, 2003)
While the details of Hannukah’s history are layered, it’s really what happened after the events the holiday commemorates which offer the challenge. When the Jews were done cleansing and rededicating the temple, they turned to their nation. And for years and generations, things remained complicated and conflicted. The three groups within Judaism continued to disagree about appropriate priorities and responses to the issues of their days. Far from appreciating their different gifts, they struggled for supremacy, often withdrawing from each other or actively undermining each other, always to the detriment of the people of their nation. Some good men and some very corrupt men ascended to power. In some ways Judaism was strengthened and revitalized by what they went through and indeed modern Judaism can trace its roots back to this era, when Jews worked so hard to understand what laws or understandings or observances could pull their people through times of great suffering and struggle. In other ways, Judaism was undermined in lasting ways by that infighting. The popular – and legendary – tradition that says Hannukah is observed with candlelighting on eight nights to commemorate the miraculous burning of a day’s worth of consecrated oil for eight days comes from a later Pharisaic interpretation added to the Talmud, the interpretive text that goes along with the Hebrew Bible. The Pharisees offered this Talmudic story to recast the Hannukah story and undermine the role of the Hasmoneans and their extraordinary victories over the Syrian troops.
So Hannukah is holiday plagued with human flaws and frailties. But this story is history and so cannot be changed. This story is documented and so cannot be dismissed as legend. This story is real and it is still as much a story of hope as of despair, as much of justice as of persecution, as much of miracle and the real transformative power of faith as of human endeavor and the pernicious flaws in human understanding and behavior.
Almost all the great stories of Judaism feature individuals and movements that were flawed and fallible. Sarah was so jealous on behalf of her son Isaac that she asked Abraham to send them to their all-but-certain death in the desert. To accommodate her unreasoning jealousy Abraham did it. Later Abraham was willing to prove his faith by sacrificing his son Isaac on an altar, horrible to consider. Jacob, Isaac’s son, cheated Esau out of receiving their father’s blessing and took it for himself instead. Leah married Jacob by trickery, knowing he thought she was her sister Rachel. These are the matriarchs and patriarchs, held up as models for the ensuing generations. Moses initially refused God’s charge to speak for his people and deliver them from slavery. The prophet Jonah also tried to refuse God’s charge to speak to the people of Nineveh and warn them of their doom if they didn’t reform their violent and immoral ways, and then was resentful of that God didn’t follow though on the threats when the people of Nineveh indeed reformed their ways immediately. The Hebrew Bible is full of such stories of people with terrible flaws, who do petty or violent or selfish things – and yet are honored and looked to as exemplars of faith. How can this be? Here’s a rabbinic interpretation- because of course, the rabbis, inheritors of those Pharisees who were so concerned to figure out how to understand history and law as Judaism moved through time and events, the rabbis noticed this too and worked to come up with an answer to this troubling issue. Here is their answer: the bible offers these flawed people as exemplars because indeed, it is up to all of us, likewise flawed and fallible, to respond faithfully to the issues of our lives and times. These exemplars from long ago weren’t perfect – neither are we now perfect – and that doesn’t let us off the hook of being accountable to respond the best we can now, just as they with all their flaws had to respond the best they could then, to the challenges they confronted.
None of us is perfect or knows everything or is always right – but we do our best, which is all we can do, and when we do our best, that is worthy of honor, even when it won’t be perfect, it is still worthy of honor. How relevant that is for us now, to wrestle with the Hannukah story that is real, complicated, imperfect… like us. Because in the wake of the 20th century we are aware, as perhaps never before, that we live in, and because of, history. And that to discount history, or dismiss it, opens us up to reliving, in our ignorance of its lessons, most dreadful events again. What does it offer us to pair that secular understanding with the spiritual truth that it is often suffering, injustice, and wrongdoing that generate our greatest leaps of faith, understanding, compassion and inspiration?
A black Congregationalist minister and a white, Jewish UU minister were riding in a car. It starts like some old chestnut of a joke, but in fact, it is a true story, from a day in my life a few years ago. Congregationalists and Unitarian Universalists have a long history of collaboration – like the beloved Star Island retreat center, shared ministry and even sometimes shared churches. Now this Congregationalist minister was not a close friend, but I knew him well enough to esteem and like him a great deal. He was considerably older than me and had a storied career. I was honored to be riding with him to a rally at National airport in support of the workers there, who as you may know, are horribly underpaid, working long hours for poverty wages with no benefits. One thing led to another as we drive for about 40 minutes together, and somehow the conversation turned to anti-Semitism. He said with great authority “Anti-semitism doesn’t exist in this country.” I was much struck by his statement – and also by the aplomb with which he declared it. I asked him to elaborate and he explained Jews were not oppressed in the United States, that there was no institutionalized persecution of Jews now, here, and so there was no anti-Semitism.
I remember being somewhat hurt, somewhat provoked, somewhat intrigued and a lot dumbfounded by his point. I wondered to myself – is that legit? Is it a thing? Does anti-Semitism have to be institutionalized to be real? And is it, or isn’t it, institutionalized? What examples can I think of, how compelling are they, how much do they matter? My thoughts unspooled at great length as we talked. I thought of my father who grew up in WWII, tracking the war on a map on the wall, wondering if the Nazi’s would succeed in crossing the Atlantic. I thought of the desecration 25 years ago on Hitler’s birthday of the Jewish cemetery where my grandfather is buried; vandals overturned a hundred tombstones and covered the cemetery with swastikas. I thought of the majority of our family, who didn’t leave Russia when my grandparents did, and were all dead by the end of WWII, machine-gunned into a mass grave, and how my grandparents left in the first place because their uncle, the village rebbe, was gruesomely assassinated by White Russians. I thought of how often we drove past a beautiful country club near where I grew up, which, in my lifetime, wouldn’t allow Jews – or blacks – to join. I thought of how within weeks of our first joining the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in, they invited my father, who has always been bad with math and money, to serve on the Finance Committee. Oh I thought of a lot of things.
A thing I am still glad of is that I didn’t respond out of my hurt or feeling of provocation – though of course that’s where my mind jumped immediately. But because I liked this minister so much – and because he was considerably older than I, and because he was black and had spent a lifetime dealing with race and prejudice, and because I esteemed and trusted him, and because he was from another denomination, I deferred to him. Frankly, I would have responded with more authority if he had been a younger colleague, maybe white, maybe from my own denomination. And part of me wishes I had, because I also have life experience of dealing with anti-Semitism and gender bias and prejudice, and I think I had more to bring to the conversation than I offered. But also I am glad that our discussion was from beginning to end grounded thoughtfulness and consideration. I attribute that to the respect and goodwill between us. I knew my colleague didn’t mean to hurt me or be insensitive. I knew his sense of this was not rooted in hostility to myself or to my Jewish family. Knowing those things, it wasn’t even hard to stay in respectful dialogue with him as I negotiated this unexpected conversation. What is anti-Semitism, what does make it real in a society, what would make it real to him, what could I share of my own family’s experience which make it real to me? We ended in a place of disagreement but not disaffection or disconnection. L’esprit de l’escalier is that experience of leaving a conversation and then thinking later of a perfect remark we wish we’d made in the moment. I think often about that conversation with my colleague and wonder what I could have done differently, what I could have said to pull him around to my understanding. But more important to me is that we ended with our relationship intact, able still to build on it and understand each other better. Maybe one day yet I’ll pull him around to my take. And in the meantime we stay yoked together in our efforts to grow beyond the prejudices within and beyond us, all those empty deceptions that tell us only way somebody goes up is when another goes down.
And now as in the days of Hannukah, in a time of national suffering and turmoil, when daily we hear about corruption and oppression that blow our minds and twist our hearts, history – and Hannukah – have a lot to teach us. One thing they teach us is how imperative it is to stand up for what we hold sacred – which for us is compassion and respect for all. Another thing they teach us is that victories so unlikely and vast that they appear miraculous are possible – they happen – when we help make them happen. One more lesson from the Hannukah story is that we who share values and beliefs have got to honor what we share all the more when, inevitably, we encounter those differences which will always exist among us, between us. Because if we allow differences to drag us into disrespecting and undermining each other, we plant a bitter crop that yields a harvest none of us wants to reap.
There is so much in Hannukah that deserves our celebration and recognition: courage, vision, commitment, self-sacrifice, brilliance. There are also those perennial challenges of human nature: arrogance and selfishness, cruelty and betrayal, all those unwelcome guests at our table.
Come down from the hills, declare the fighting done…
Try to remember a life gentled by daily acts of domestic faith.
Remembering our brokenness, let us look to wholeness, even holiness, knowing there is nothing more sacred than freedom, life and that harvest they sow, peace.
You are the stuff from which miracles are made.
Shammas, sacred light, fire from heaven, eternal flame,
You have much to teach us,
You are a holy light which we do not bend to any other purpose.
You are a holy light, and we are simply to watch you
We do not use you, and yet you are the servant candle, it is your very name, the one that serves.
What do we learn from watching you flicker and burn, shining and sharing your light?
You are the one who lights all the others. You literally carry and share light to all the others.
You remind us that this is the gift of faithful service, of compassion, of commitment in community.
Even one light, burning alone teaches us, how it shines brighter in darkness, a beacon that calls us and tells us welcome and goodness are waiting for us when when we add our own light to a larger flame. Together we can illuminate an infinite night.
(inspired by The Shammas at perception.inner-growth.org)
Reading: Hannukah by the Rev. Lynn Ungar
Come down from the hills.
Declare the fighting done.
Be bold — declare victory,
even when the temple is wrecked
and the tyrants have not retreated,
only coiled back like a snake
prepared to strike again.
Come down. Try to remember
a life gentled by daily acts
of domestic faith — the pot
set to boil, the bed made up,
the table set in calm expectation
that when the sun sets
we will still be here.
Come down and settle.
Unlearn the years of hiding.
Light fires that can be seen for miles,
that dance and spark and warm
the frozen marrow. Set lamps
in the window. Declare your presence,
your loyalties, the truths
for which you do not expect to have to die.
It would take a miracle, you say,
to carve such a solid life
out of the shell of fear.
I say you are the stuff
from which such miracles are made.