Chanukah is the celebration of the Maccabee victory in the second century BCE over Antiochus of Syria. Antiochus had forbidden Jews to practice their religion and had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Specifically, Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Temple after it had been scoured and again made sacred. When I was a child, Chanukah meant only one thing to me. Presents! Happily, I grew out of that. Chanukah then became the celebration of a miracle. When they rededicated the Temple, so the story goes, there was only enough consecrated oil to last for one day. But the ritual to consecrate the oil took seven days. The miracle? Oil that should only have lasted one day lasted for eight. That’s when Chanukah lost me. Miracles have never been my thing.
I gave up on Chanukah and didn’t celebrate it for years, many years. But there came a time in my life that it occurred to me that Chanukah stood for much, much more than a miracle. I’m not sure any more, but I think it was listening to the song that we will sing shortly, Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” that I was moved to reconsider. And it occurred to me like a thunderbolt of understanding that Chanukah celebrates the first time in recorded history that a people revolted over the right to pray. It’s important to remember that much of history never gets recorded, but still this seemed important. The right of each of us to approach the sacred as we are called, and to pray … or not … as we are called. Ever since then, I have indeed celebrated Chanukah.
This year, particularly, I believe we need Chanukah. For me, the great question of Chanukah is, are we celebrating a Jewish holy day that celebrates a Jewish victory? Or are we celebrating a Jewish holy day that celebrates humanity’s right to worship as we are called. Not surprisingly, it is this second interpretation that both engages me and fills me with hope. For if, as a Jew, my interest in religious freedom stops at my own, it makes me a rather small human being and, as I read the Torah and Talmud, a rather small Jew. But if I look at Chanukah and the victory of the Maccabees as a human victory, not simply a Jewish one, then we create the hope of the Universal Chanukah that I deeply believe we are called to.
Today, at this moment, it is not the Jew’s right to pray that is so endangered in the United States, but that of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Chanukah is, for me, about justice, not simply for Jews but for all. This, certainly, is what “Light One Candle” is about. And since it has been my experience as a choir director that for a congregation singing a hymn it’s harder to concentrate on the words, I would like to sing “Light One Candle” for you. I would ask you to join me in the chorus: “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years. Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.” Let’s start then, with the chorus.
(a link to “Light One Candle” performed magnificently by PP&M)