Sermon Saturday Morning
- SHABBAT SHALOM
- On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my neighbors, on both sides of my house, got together and started putting up their Christmas lights. Lorraine always makes her house festive and beautiful without going over the top. This year, in exchange for help in putting up her own lights, she worked on my other neighbor’s house as well so I now have on both sides of my home beautiful reminders of the spirit of this holiday season.
- You don’t have to go far to find homes lit up for the holiday season. Between now and January, many neighborhoods are beautifully decorated. This week, however, new decorations went up, decorations in honor of Hanukah. I know that there are some homes that go all out, putting up lights and displays in honor of our festival of lights. It makes a certain kind of sense to decorate our homes with lights at this time of year. Hanukah celebrates light during the darkest days of winter. On that one level alone it seems appropriate on Hanukah to “light up the night”.
- Rabbi Lori Foreman, a colleague of mine in New York, once noted that there was a time, long before electric lighting, when people spent most of their nights in the dark. We are so used to having all the lights we need in our homes, but in the not too distant past, candles were just a small circle of light in the darkness. When the sun went down, candles would give people a chance to finish whatever they may be working on, but it was unusual to stay up late. Candlelight could not push back the darkness for long. People would just go to bed early and wake again at first light.
- Hanukah was the major exception to this. The holiday may actually be older than the story of the Maccabees. There is a Midrash that the first human beings, Adam and Eve, got more and more concerned as the days grew shorter. They thought that perhaps the world was coming to an end; that eventually the sun would disappear never to return, leaving them and all the animals in perpetual darkness. Adam then lit a candle to bring some light back into the night. Each night he lit another candle and soon he noticed that the days were getting longer again. At first he thought that by lighting the candles, he had reminded to sun to come back to the world. Eventually he realized that the length of the days and nights were just part of the natural order of the world. He continued to light the candles, however, as a sign of anticipation of the return of light to the world.
- Historically, Hanukah is a very complicated holiday. We like to think of these days as a commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks. It is not that easy. The war the Maccabees fought was as much a battle against the Jewish people who had adopted the religion of the Greeks as much as it was against the army of Antiocus IV. It some ways it could be seen as a religious revival among the pious against those who had assimilated themselves into Greek culture.
- On another level, Hanukah marks the beginning of a theocracy in Israel. For a thousand years, the house of David ruled in Jerusalem and the descendants of Aaron, served as priests in the Temple. The Hasmonian dynasty, begun by Judah Maccabee and established by his brother Simon after the war, was the first time the priests had taken on the kingship of the Jewish people. They easily succeeded in establishing Judaism as the official religion of the land, but they insisted that Judaism should be what they said it should be. The Hasmonian dynasty for example, was not supportive of what the Rabbis thought Judaism should be. Later Hasmonian kings, especially Alexander Jannai, persecuted the Rabbis. Many Rabbis were killed in these persecutions. Later Hasmonian kings engaged in a civil war that eventually lead to the hated Romans coming and taking over the country. No wonder later Rabbis were not very fond of Hanukah as a commemoration of the Hasmonian victory. The story of the jar of oil is a nice way of deflecting the meaning of the holiday away from the bad feelings the Rabbis had for the priest/kings of the Hasmonian dynasty.
- Maybe Hanukah is also about Judaism delayed. The Temple was rededicated after being defiled by Antiocus. Long history taught the Jews that the standard re-consecration ceremony was usually done the week before Sukkot. Hanukah, with its eight days, could be a delayed celebration of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The eight days were seen as a familiar way to traditionally mark the renewal of the sacrificial service in the restored Temple.
- In the end, the story of the last jar of oil, which should have lasted one day, but through a miracle lasted eight, has now become the real meaning of Hanukah. The little light that grows each night until the darkness is defeated, could symbolize the few Maccabees who grew in strength until they were able to defeat the dark power of the Greeks. Or maybe it is the small light of faith that overcomes the dark forces that drive us away from God. Or perhaps it is the light of God that illuminates our journey through the darkness of our world; a small flame that grows and grows until our path in life becomes clear. Or, perhaps, like Adam and Eve, the candles represent our hope that no matter how much darkness there is in the world, lighting candles will push back the darkness until the light of day returns.
- My friend Rabbi Yaakov Thompson in Sunrise, wrote this week in the Jewish Journal, “I believe this is the most inspiring aspect of Hanukkah. We celebrate the bravery of a group of our ancestors who had to face a monumental decision: What does being Jewish mean? Is it only a label, one that can be discarded if need be? Is it something so deep that I refuse to live without it? Most of us are lucky enough not to have to face that question ourselves. What is incumbent upon us is to reflect on the courage of those who did face such a decision. When we celebrate Hanukkah, we celebrate the strength of their faith and the resolve of their decisions.”
- We do face the decision of how to live Jewishly every day. When we decide to come to shul on Shabbat, we are making that decision. When we decide to put our Hanukia in the window for all to see, that too is a decision to live a Jewish life. We decide to live our Jewish life any time we light Shabbat candles, invite friends to a Shabbat dinner, spend the day in shul on Yom Kippur and when we hold our own Passover Seder. When a member of our congregation tells me that they will NOT be in shul on Shabbat because friends or family will be coming to visit, that too is a Jewish decision, a decision to put Judaism aside for the day. But faith is not something we can have one day and ignore another.
- Many times I am asked by those who attend synagogue regularly why so many of their friends choose not to attend services. I suppose that there are many excuses given by Jews who don’t want to be connected to their faith. When we don’t want to be involved, one excuse is just as good as another. Rabbi Thompson reminds us that this too is a decision, one that makes assimilation possible and a decision that will undermine all that Judaism stands for. There were two sides in the fight of the Maccabees. There were the Hellenists who decided that it was easier to live a Greek life rather than a Jewish one; and those of the pious who refused to say that their faith was, in any way, inferior to that of the surrounding culture. At this season of the year, we celebrate the victory of the faithful over the conformists. A victory that has made all the difference in Judaism from their time until today.
- It is a good thing that we live in a free country. It is a good thing that we have the freedom to worship God as we see fit. It is a good thing that our government does not dictate to us, as the Syrian Greeks did some 5500 years ago, how we should worship and which rituals we must reject. But freedom of religion means that we have to choose every day, to see the world through our Jewish eyes and live our lives by Jewish values. When we light these lights at this time of year, and put them in the window where the whole world can see them, we are saying that we have made our choice and we are prepared to live with the consequences of our decision.
- As we contemplate the meaning for Hanukkah that we prefer, this week is a good time to go out and see the lights in our neighborhood. Not the Christmas lights that adorn the houses of our Christian friends, but to go out and see the Hanukah candles that are burning in Jewish windows in honor of this beautiful holiday. Take the time to notice your Jewish neighbors. Take the time to wish them a happy Hanukah. We don’t get the chance to proclaim our faith in public very often. Perhaps after years of persecution in Europe and around the world, we can’t be blamed if we usually keep our faith as a private matter. But on Hanukah, we can celebrate in pubic our victory over the darkness. As we walk the streets each night, let us notice how the light keeps increasing. As Rabbi Foreman writes, “These candles are a statement of hope and faith during the darkest time of the year, a visible sign to ourselves and to others of our ability to overcome hardship and adversity.”
- As we contemplate our own lights and those of our neighbors, let us thank God for the freedom to practice our faith in peace, for the determination of Jews who fought to preserve our religion in the face of every foe and let us thank God for all the miracles that God performed on behalf of our ancestors in ancient times at this season of the year. She’asa Nissim L’avotaynu bayamim Hahem lazman hazeh.
AMEN, SHABBAT SHALOM AND A HAPPY HANUKAH TO EVERYONE.