Sermon by the Rev. Lynn Ungar given Dec 5, 1999 at Second Unitarian Church of Chica
I know that Chanukkah is only a minor Jewish holiday, a sort of a footnote in the ritual schedule of the year which fills in a big blank space between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the fall, and Passover in the spring. But in my assimilated half-Jewish Unitarian Universalist family Chanukkah was one of the few Jewish holidays we celebrated, a kind of consolation-prize Christmas so that we wouldn’t feel left out when we saw our Christian cousins unwrapping bales of booty under the Christmas tree. I’ve since learned that that was, and is, the case for a lot of assimilated Jewish families. It may have been a consolation prize for the carols we didn’t believe in and the tree we didn’t have, but in reality, I always suspected we got the better holiday. My cousins got the orgy of presents under the tree, and Christmas dinner, which was really lunch, featuring turkey and ham and jello salad. We, however, got the sweet frustration of waiting for sundown, wondering how that particular short winter day could seem so long. There was the gratification of seeing the piles of presents in my parents’ room -- one pile for each of us four kids, eight presents in a pile. There was the fun of poking and prodding and trying to figure out which of the eight was the real present, knowing that the rest were only trinkets. There was the sense of hard work rewarded, as we took turns grating potatoes into the big metal bowl (a tradition which, I might add, I cheerfully gave up the moment I acquired a food processor), and there was the warm, brown smell of potatoes and onions as Dad fried the latkes. There was the treasured task of arranging the candles in the menorah -- blue and white, the Chanukkah colors, the first night, when there was only one candle, plus the shammes. But as the nights went on and the number of candles grew there was plenty of scope for artistic play. And of course, there was the real ritual, the lighting of the candles, the scarce sense of a ritual that was real: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotah v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah. The prayer was said, whether we believed it or not, and whether we believed it or not a kind of magic spread through the room as we sang “Rock of ages let our song, praise thy saving power...” Maybe it was the anticipation of presents, but both Jeanne and I remember from our childhood years something very precious, dare I say sacred, about those candlelit moments.
And beyond it all, there was the story, the tale of the battle for religious freedom and the miracle of the oil. It wasn’t til many years later that I learned that there were actually two stories. The first, presumably historical, one comes from the book of the Maccabees, a text that didn’t actually make it into the Hebrew canon and is, ironically, known to us only in Greek, the language spoken by the people who are the bad guys of the story. It tells the tale of the Jews in a time when they were ruled by the Syrians. For a time they were left to follow their own ways, until the king Antiochus came to power. Antiochus followed the Greek religion, and he demanded that the Jews do likewise. When many of them refused, Antiochus sent his soldiers to march into Jerusalem. They stormed the Temple and tore down the Holy Ark, putting a Greek idol in its place. The soldiers went from one town to another, enforcing the king’s orders that only Greek customs be practiced, and killing all who refused. When they came to Modi’in, a town not far from Jerusalem they built an idol in the marketplace and ordered all Jews to bow down to it. The town leader, Mattathias, refused, and escaped with his five sons and as many as would follow them into the hills. Mattathias was old and sick, but before he died, he appointed his son Judah as the new leader of this rebel band. Judah was nicknamed “Maccabee,” hammer, and his followers became known as the Maccabees. The Maccabees weren’t trained soldiers, but they had, as they say, the home court advantage, a knowledge of the mountains and valleys in which they were fighting and a fierce dedication to their cause. So it was that the Maccabbees reached Jerusalem, turning back the Syrian soldiers. And when they saw their holy Temple ramshackle and descrated, the Hebrew soldiers turned builders and cleaners, and so it was that, three years to the day after the Syrian invasion of Jerusalem, the Jews rededicated their temple with eight days of celebration, and the Maccabbees proclaimed that their eight-day festival should be celebrated in joy for all the years to come.
The second story comes from much later, in the gemara, the later section of the Talmud which records the wisdom of the great rabbis. Only here does the story appear of the Jews finding only enough consecrated oil to burn the sacred lamp in the Temple for one day, and of how that oil miraculously burned for eight days, until there was time for more to be pressed.
So what, then, is the real story, the real miracle? Is the real miracle the military victory of a small band of guerilla fighters over their far more numerous and powerful oppressors? Is the miracle the power of one man to change history by standing up for his beliefs and his people, by refusing to let himself be defined by those who were ready to kill him for his differences? Is the miracle the persistence of those who were unwilling to simply give up, who managed to create a new world through their determination to keep seeing their vision of the right until that vision became real? The miracle of the Maccabbees is certainly the miracle I was raised with, the notion that right can prevail against all odds, if you are only willing to stand up for what you believe. It is the kind of miracle we need, a miracle for our time, the reassurance that might does not make right, that even when we are overwhelmed by all the ecological and social woes of our time, that a committed band of people who are really willing to stand up for the good can prevail.
But if that is the miracle of Hanukkah, why did the rabbis make no mention of it in all of their detailed and learned argument? Why didn’t the Maccabbees make it into the official canon of the Hebrew scriptures? In a religion so dedicated to story, how did this one manage to just kind of wander off? It is, of course, never possible to know for sure, but history offers some pretty substantial clues. The Maccabees were far from the last Jews to rebel against their oppressors -- they were simply the last who succeeded. Indeed, in an ironic twist, the Hasmonean kings, the descendents of the Maccabees, were the very ones who invited the Roman Empire to become protectors and overlords of the Jewish kingdom, paving the way for the ultimate Roman conquest. And unlike the Maccabean uprising, rebellions against the Romans led only to crushing defeat and the imposition of harsher and more brutal forms of government. The rabbis saw that military miracle as advocating a form of power that was essentially foreign, Gentile. The power of the rabbis was that not of rock, but of water, the ability to flow and to give from moment to moment, yet strong enough to carve rock in the long run. They focused their attention away from the human miracle and toward the miracle of the divine -- the light that burned and burned and was not consumed. As a later commentator suggested, the single bottle of oil symbolized the bare minimum of spiritual light and creativity within the Jewish people, even at their worst moments of apathy or despair. The ability of that single jar of oil to stay lit for eight days indicated that with the help of the Divine that tiny light of hope or truth or love could grow and be sustained forever, since the number eight is the symbol of infinity.
So what miracle will you take? Which, if any, is worth believing: the ability of people, through their own efforts, to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, or the ability of something beyond us to carry us through when our own strength fails? The greatness of the Humanist tradition lies in its faith in human beings, in our capacity to learn and grow and choose to live lives dedicated to love and honor and truth and compassion. The greatness of Theist traditions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam lies in their faith that we human beings are not alone in the world, that we are sustained by a love infinitely greater than ourselves. Dyed in the wool Unitarian Unversalist that I am, I guess I’d have to say that for me the answer is both, that the role of religion is always to hold us in that tension between doing the hard work which justice demands of us and resting in the knowledge that we are held by a universe which is always beyond our comprehension, but which, for unknowable reasons, sustains the infinite variety and creativity which we call life.
I do believe in miracles. I have no doubt that the unforseen, even the unthinkable, breaks forth all the time. I have no doubt that our effort, our goodwill, our dedication to justice and truth and compassion, have everything to do with how miracles come to be. Perhaps miracles don’t just happen through our determined effort -- goodness knows that evil has prevailed in the face of any number of dedicated people of goodwill. Certainly we can’t expect miracles to just pop up and save us from our trials. Whatever the divine may be, and however it works, I’m pretty sure that it isn’t something like Superman that comes swooping in to snatch us from the jaws of doom every time we reach the dreadful, climactic moment. Perhaps miracles, more than anything, happen in that middle space when our vision shifts and we see by a different light. Perhaps the Chanukkah miracle happened not simply because some people fought back, nor simply because God intervened and made the oil burn longer. Maybe the miracle came when the Jews dared to think of themselves as free people, in spite of all the external evidence to the contrary. Maybe the miracle happened when they dared to believe, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, that what they had was really enough. The word miracle comes from the Latin mirare, to see. Having a miracle is having a vision.
Some years ago I saw a video about a crisis that happened in Missoula, Montana. It started in the ordinary way that these things do. A family, part of the very small Jewish community in their town, put a menorah in their window for Chanukkah. Jewish tradition says that the Chanukkah candles should be placed somewhere they can be seen from outside, as a witness and a joy to all who pass. Well, these Chanukkah candles were witnessed, all right. And in the all-too-ordinary, ugly way that these things happen, the house was vandalized. Swastikas and derogatory remarks about Jews were spray painted all over the house, and a rock was thrown through the window. The extraordinary part of the story started with the editor of the town’s newspaper. They ran a story about the vandalism, but they did more than that. They printed a full-page picture of a menorah, and asked that people post the menorahs in their own windows. Which the majority of people in Missoula commenced to do. Rather than simply saying “Oh, too bad,” or getting together and muttering about how awful those neo-Nazi’s are and promising to run them out of town, the people had a shift of vision. They understood that their job was not to pity the frightened family and not to revile the unknown vandals. Their job, as human beings, as people of faith, whether that faith be in human possibility, God, Allah or whatever -- their job was to be present, to be in solidarity, to stand up in the power of love and say “Whatever you do to my neighbor, you do to me.” They saw both the problem and its solution by a different light.
We live by the light of the Chanukkah candles, light which, by religious law, the Jews are forbidden to use for anything except enjoyment. You do not study or work by the gentle light of the candles in the menorah -- their light is a reminder that sometimes our job is simply to watch in gratitude and awe. However, the light we enjoy is always that of one more candle than the days of Chanukkah we have celebrated, for there is always the light of the shammes, the servant candle which does the work of bringing light to the others. Without our effort, our willingess to serve, the candles would never be lit. If left to our own small powers, which do not extend to the miracle of oxidation, the candles would never burn.
When I think about the Chanukkah story, the real miracle seems to me to rest not so much with the guerilla warriors who fought for freedom nor with the divine intervention which allowed the scant oil to burn for eight days. My money in this miracle goes with the ordinary folks, women, children and men, who walked into that filthy, descrated, empty temple and started to clean. What they saw when they walked in the door must have been a shock -- their beautiful holy of holies looking more like a barn than a temple. One look and they must have known that the days of glory for the Jews were over. There could be no question that this brief military victory would bring back the days when their people ruled in majesty and might. But they also saw something more than rack and ruin. They saw that life would go on -- not the way they wanted it to, but the way it would. They saw that they had the choice to continue, to keep building, to bring beauty and hope to a place where there had only been despair. If you want to know where God is for me in this story, I’d say God was in heart of that first weary woman who took a deep breath and said to her child, “OK, honey, you start picking up the pieces of broken pottery over there while I get a bucket of water. Just think what this will look like if we all work together.”
May we welcome this holiday season with the untold power of these fragile lights, with the miracle of all we create, and the miracle of all that is created, for which we can only offer thanks and praise. May the gentle flames of Chanukkah guide us to see by a different light, beyond the harsh light of reality and past the glitzy sparkle of pretense, into the warm glow that we call faith and hope and love. Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’handlik ner shel hanukkah. Praised be thou, eternal God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with thy commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukkah lights.