Honoring Chanukah

Hineh mah tov (see song at the end of the sermon).  “How good and pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity.”  Good … and pleasant … and these days darn near impossible!  Unity has never seemed so elusive – particularly the unity of our hearts.  If we ever needed Chanukah, we need it now.  Chanukah?  Yes.  I deeply believe that honoring Chanukah, the light of Chanukah, can be a dawn breaking on the dark days that surround us – a darkness of the soul, of the heart, and of the spirit.  We need light – enough light to recognize our common humanity.  Indeed, if Chanukah did not exist, I believe we would very much need to invent it.  Now.  But I want to be honest.  This morning’s sermon is a deeply personal sharing.  Some of my Jewish friends might consider me a bit of a heretic.  Still, I want to share and celebrate a universal Chanukah.  And yes, the Chanukah of which I speak is not the Chanukah of my childhood.

When I was a young child, Chanukah was my most favorite holiday – candles, miracles and most especially, presents!  What’s not to like?

When I became a youth, Chanukah became my least favorite holiday for the exact same reasons – candles, miracles and most especially: presents.  “And what did YOU get for Chanukah?”  A commercial nightmare.  That’s what I got.  That’s what I saw – compounded by the commercialism that overwhelmed Christmas as well.  Neither Christmas nor Chanukah seemed to hold much spiritual relevance.

In addition to commercialization, there was also the “miracle.”  A light that was supposed to last one day lasted for eight.  Assuming for the moment that the miracle actually happened: this is cause for massive celebration two thousand years later … because?

I didn’t take it seriously again for about 30 years.  And when I did, it was a very different Chanukah that I chose and still choose to celebrate.  And that’s really a part of what I’d ask us to ponder this morning.  We change.  We grow … hopefully.  We look at things differently when we’re fifty than we do when we’re twenty.  Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not so good.  But regardless, we change … and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that we change.

Indeed something that gnaws at me a bit about all of our spiritual paths and traditions is, sometimes at least, our insistence that they are timeless.  They aren’t.  They can’t be, because we aren’t.  Our eyes are different from the eyes of our brothers and sisters a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand, or two thousand, or three thousand years ago.

The basics of Chanukah most of us already know.  Quickly, tradition records that the Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed the practice of Judaism in Judea in the 160’s BCE.  The Temple (located in Jerusalem) was desecrated.  But perhaps for the first time, at least in recorded history, comes the tradition of a people who revolted over their right to pray as they were called.  The revolt, led by the Maccabees, was successful, Antiochus left Judea, and the desecrated Temple was cleaned up.  But there was only enough sacred oil to burn for one day, while it took a full week to properly consecrate new oil to be burned.  Then the miracle.  That little bit of oil lasted for eight days – long enough for new sacred oil to be consecrated.

What should we take from this, we ask?  What about Chanukah might call to us over the centuries?  Specifically, do we celebrate the military victory and the miracle, or do we celebrate the sacred right of all people to pray as they are called?  That, for me, is what changed over time.

You may not know that modern historians, as historians are wont to do, have made sushi of the Chanukah story.  What was the revolt really about?  That’s a controversial issue these days, with many historians believing it had far more to do with politics than religious freedom.  Who was really involved?  That is also a matter of controversy.  Who actually won what is still being argued in scholarly journals.  But the truth of it is … the truth of it is the truth of it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter to traditionalists, who imbue Chanukah with miracles, glorious military victories, candles, dreidels and gifts regardless of what any historian says.  Nor does it matter to me.

What?!  History doesn’t matter?  Truth doesn’t matter?  Not in this case.  When I celebrate Chanukah as I do every year, I don’t light candles to celebrate an historical event in Judaism – whether it happened or not.  When we light candles this morning, I deeply believe we light candles to celebrate not an historical fact but an important spiritual truth.

If Chanukah happened as tradition outlines it some 2000 years ago, then fine.  But if not, that’s ok too.  Because whether or not Chanukah celebrates history, it does celebrate, though it too frequently gets lost in the whoopla and presents, the birth of an idea – a crucial truth that is so very important and that I believe we so very much need.  It is the truth that all people have the right to pray as they are called, and that no king, no emperor, and indeed no president has the right to stigmatize and outlaw a people’s beliefs.

For this reason, when we light our Chanukah candles a bit later, I urge us to be holding in our hearts the call for a universal Chanukah.  At Passover, admittedly my all-time favorite Jewish holy day, we say, “If one be slave, then none of us is truly free.”  I would like to start a new tradition here at this Chanukah.  I would like us to say, “If one of us cannot pray in safety, then none of us is truly safe.”  That is the call of the universal Chanukah, that all of us have the right to pray in safety and to be respected in our prayers.

That sounds so simple, so why is it so hard?  There’s never a single all-encompassing answer to any complex problem.  But I will share with you what I believe to be one of the key issues that stands between us and the universal Chanukah.  Tribalism.  Cursèd tribalism.  Admittedly the bane of my existence.  We divide into tribes and then subdivide our tribes and then frequently divide yet again, constantly building righteous and self-righteous walls between us.

But I ask you, of what value is my religious freedom if you have none?  Of what value is our religious freedom if our neighbor has none?  It remains a supreme bafflement to me that we can speak of the majesty of God and then truly believe that God chooses one tribe over the others.  Chanukah can be a beautiful and indeed transformative holiday, but I believe only if we truly and earnestly seek a universal Chanukah, where all may worship God or no God in safety and none shall be afraid.

When I was growing up, Jews weren’t safe in so many corners of white Christian America.  Today, it’s Muslims.  And I would share with you, there is no difference.  Indeed, the very WORDS of exclusion, derision and hatred used when I was a child are almost identical to what is thrown at us now.  Only the name has changed.  Today, it is the Muslim conspiracy to take over the world.  Muslims are secretly plotting to take over the United States of America.

When I was a child, it was the Jewish conspiracy.  When I was a child, there were summer camps I could not go to because I was Jewish – though here and elsewhere, white Christian America threw in people of color along with the Jews in one big unhappy category: “not us.”  There were clubs we could not join and indeed neighborhoods where we were not welcome, and could not live.

Back in those days, Muslims weren’t even on the radar.  Today, now, they are in the crosshairs.  And we will be damned by our own inactions if we simply watch.  And worse, from my own perspective as a Jew, there are now some Jews gleefully participating in Islamophobia – as if the past never happened, as if Chanukah and religious freedom was for the Jews and no one else.  I cannot believe that.  I will never embrace that.

We are one tribe, one tribe: humanity.  For me, a universal Chanukah can lead us towards that great truth.  It can, with its candles, light the way.

But there is another truth at play here.  We can light a path, but light on a path remains nothing more than a well-lit path unless we are willing to walk it.  That, for me, is the great call of Chanukah – not only to light the path of religious freedom but to walk it.

And here is where Living Interfaith can help.  If we will not only help to light the path but then openly walk it, we can be an example.  And indeed, we have been that example.  We have been praying together, listening to each other twice a month for seven years.  But as we honor Chanukah today I have to share with you that that isn’t enough.  Not anymore.  Not with the darkness that threatens us all.  The time has come for us to spread the word.  We need to talk about what happens here.  We need to talk about the joy and spiritual reward of learning about each other, of sharing who we are safely and with mutual respect.

We live at a truly perilous moment.  Each of our spiritual traditions, even as we feel threatened, must break free of tribalism.  Our spiritual traditions, regardless of how privileged or how small, need to have each other’s backs.

My own spiritual freedom is not enough.  “If one of us cannot pray in safety, then none of us is truly safe.”  In this spirit, never has a universal Chanukah been more important.

In a few moments I will share a prayer and we will sing my favorite Chanukah anthem: “Light One Candle”.  It is as if Peter Yarrow wrote it not only with the universal Chanukah in mind, but somehow also all that is happening today.  “Light one candle for those who are suffering the pain we learned so long ago.”  “Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger not tear us apart.”  “We have come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail.  This is the burden and this is the promise, and this is why we will not fail.  Don’t let the light go out.”

I thought of this when I was at Standing Rock and we gathered before the sacred fire that must always be attended.  I thought of this again just this week as the innocents of Aleppo were being slaughtered in what the UN has called “a meltdown of humanity.”  I thought of this last night, as I learned more of what is happening in Sudan.

As Interfaithers, we are guardians of the light for all…for all.  Never has there been a higher calling … or a more difficult one.  Don’t let the light go out.


(Songs referenced):

“Hineh Mah Tov” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCzUWap9rm0

“Light One Candle” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iXadyBSiHQ

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