Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah

There is a closely guarded secret about Hanukkah that is rarely discussed or even revealed.  It is this.  Within a generation the heroes of Hanukkah, the Maccabees, became so consumed with their successes and their apparent ability to bring about miracles that they persecuted those who disagreed with them, even other Jews.  The opening battle hints at this dark truth.  The Maccabees first killed another Jew.

"A Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer a sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command.  When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred.  He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar.  At the same time he ran and killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar." (I Maccabees 2:23-25)

This is similar to our struggle today.  There are those who believe that faith means they are right and all others are wrong.  There are those who always burn with righteous anger and would kill those who disagree with them.  There are those who can only be right if all others are wrong.  And then there are those who believe that faith is meant to inspire, to call us to do better, to bring a measure of healing rather than anger to our world.  The list of those who see faith as a fire that must consume all non-believers is far too long.  Let us resolve on this Hanukkah to be among those who instead use faith to warm those around us.

Michael Fagenblat, a contemporary philosopher, comments, “Living with miracles is risky business.  After all, a candle can start a raging fire.  As much as we are asked to see the miracle of Hanukkah, we must therefore also find the right place for it in our lives.”

It is not that I don’t believe in miracles.  I certainly hope and pray for them, most especially for those who are facing life threatening illnesses.  Unlike Hanukkah’s heroes I believe miracles come to heal individuals rather than to thwart history.  The Maccabees believed that God’s hand only favored them and protected their like-minded followers.  The Rabbis of old therefore refashioned their miracle from one about a military victory into one about the oil lasting for eight days.  They recognized the danger of seeing things as the Maccabees did, of believing that only they were right and all others wrong.  The rabbis by contrast embraced a plurality of ideas and responses to historical crisis.

What does Hanukkah mean to me?  It is about being proud to be Jewish in a world that is not.  It is about having the courage to bring Jewish values to those around us.  By doing so we might very well rewrite history.

The miracles of old continue to inspire me and warm my faith.  I must however be on guard that they never become a consuming fire.  I rely on the glow of the Hanukkah miracle.

My friends and colleagues at CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) suggest the following ritual.
This Hanukkah especially, with many questions about the future of America, Israel and the Jewish people looming large for so many people, we need the vision that comes from looking at things in the light of our Hanukkah candles.  We need to see possibility where most see none, envision options while most bemoan their absence.

Here’s how: Candlelight softens hard edges, it warms and invites imagination.  People come together and often, in a moment of quiet, see the very best in themselves and each other when gathered around an open flame.

This year turn off the lights in the room and allow yourself to see by Hanukkah light, if only for a few minutes.

By the glow of the candles, think about a seemingly insurmountable challenge in your life, in the life of the Jewish people, or in the life of our nation.  Then allow yourself to imagine a response and how you might contribute to it.  That’s what the Maccabees did when they dared to make light when others deemed it impossible, and we can do the same.  That what it means to see things in Hanukkah light.
Allow the Hanukkah candles to warm your faith and those around you.  Allow these candles to inspire your beliefs and give you the courage to bring Jewish values to the world.

Chag Urim Samayach!—Happy Hanukkah!

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