Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tebowing for Hanukkah

What follows is my recent sermon about the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, delivered on Shabbat Vayeshev, December 16th.

Nes Gadol Haya Po.  A great miracle happened here.  This is what is written on dreidles in the land of Israel.  Millennia ago the small, outnumbered Jewish army led by the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks and recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem and of course rededicated it to Jewish worship.  According to the rabbis the holy oil necessary for this ceremony lasted eight days rather than the expected one.  The miracle of oil!  But the victory of the small army over the larger, better equipped and supplied, army was no less a miracle.

I have been thinking about this story as we approach Hanukkah, the holiday which begins on Tuesday evening.  I have been thinking especially about miracles.  What is that we really believe?  A lot has recently been written about this question.  In fact more questions about faith and belief have appeared in the sports sections than the paper’s other sections.  These articles are by and large about Tim Tebow, about his beliefs and his public prayers and of course the Bronco’s miraculous wins. 

I don’t know how many people watched Sunday night’s game of the Broncos vs. the Bears.  It was quite the miracle. The Broncos were down by ten, in fact 10-0, until about four minutes left in the game.  Then Tebow led his team to a touchdown.  With no time outs remaining and no way to stop the clock the Bears seemed sure to be able to run out the clock.  But then a veteran running back, Marion Barber, ran out of bounds and stopped the clock giving the Broncos time for a few plays.  The Broncos now had a little less than a minute to score.  With three seconds remaining their kicker kicked a 59 yard field goal to tie the game.  Chicago won the toss to gain first possession in overtime and again was nearly in field goal range to win the game when Marion Barber made another mistake and fumbled the ball.  Tebow led his team to field goal range and the Broncos won 13-10 in overtime.  A great miracle happened here!  By the time overtime began I gave up on my many Chicago friends and started praying along with Tebow for his Broncos to win.  After all who prays for a loss? 

Prior to Tebow’s starting as quarterback, the Broncos were 1-4.  Now with him at the held they are 7-1 and leading their division for a playoff spot.  Such appears the power of faith and the power of prayer.  But what is Tebow is really praying for?  Does he pray, “God let my team defeat our opponents and win this game.”  Such would seem an improper prayer.  Judaism would counsel us that we should only ask God for that which benefits all.  One cannot pray for one’s own success if it comes at the expense of another.   In football Tebow and his Broncos’ success comes at the expense of the other team.  Marion Barber might especially need our prayers for strength and courage far more than Tebow does.  May Marion Barber rise above his mistakes and become an even greater human being.  To be honest our prayers should never be about being a great football player, or basketball player or baseball player or any player for that matter.  Instead they should be about being a better person.  Yet it is human nature to pray for the winning side. It is certainly human nature to pray for what might be called, my side.

I remember some of the prayers I have uttered when watching the Jets.  There have been many times over the years as I watch the Jets game and especially in those final minutes find myself praying as the other team lines up for a field goal or last attempt at the end zone, “Miss it.  Miss it.  Miss it.  Please.  Please.  Please.”  Of course sometimes my prayers appear to be answered and other times not.  It occurs to me that perhaps we are the most religious when rooting for our side.   Then again, how can it be a good prayer if my success, or my team’s success, depends on someone else’s failure?

To be fair Tebow states that he is not praying for a win.   He also has repeatedly stated that football is only a game and that God does not care who wins.  His example continues to remind us that faith and prayer are meant to be inspiring and can also apparently inspire others to greatness.  For this teaching we owe him a debt of gratitude.  In a world where there are far too many examples of the abuses of religion we are grateful for his reminder that faith can inspire and help us become better. 

We should also be thankful to him for another reminder.  As we approach the holiday of Hanukkah that was all about being able to be Jewish in the public square, Tebow reminds us that it is good to pray in public.  Some might be uncomfortable with his public displays of overt devotion, of Tebowing as it is called, but Hanukkah was about the struggle to proudly declare I am Jewish.  The Hanukkah menorah is after all supposed to be displayed so that others can see it, so that the miracle is publicized.  Hanukkah is not supposed to be celebrated behind closed curtains.

Faith is meant as inspiration.  It is meant for the world to see.  For Tim Tebow’s reminder about this I commend him.  The fact that he appears to pray after his successes and others’ failures I fault him.  I am waiting for what might be his greatest example, to see his public devotion, embracing the other team in prayer, after his team suffers a stinging defeat.  Nonetheless he has taught us that faith is meant as a goad for us to do better, to improve our world, to better ourselves. 

Faith does not mean waiting around for miracles.  We must bring them about.  We must not wait for God to perform miracles.  Miracles are first and foremost in our hands.  This is what Tebow teaches us.  He is not just praying.  He takes to the field.  He appears at his best when he faces the most challenges.  In the fourth quarter when most others might give up, he becomes better and appears to bring about miracles.  Others seem to resort only to their prayers.

Like any good Jewish book our prayerbooks recounts many miracles.  These books are not meant to sit on your shelves or to be read quietly in your room.  You can’t just wait for a Mi Chamocha moment to happen to you. Don’t wait to sing this song of redemption. You are supposed to carry your prayerbooks with you.  Then whenever you need a little extra inspiration you can find it there in its pages.  If you just sit in a room and pray for God to rescue you then you will find far fewer miracles in your lives. This is also what Hanukkah reminds us.  The Maccabees led the charge.  They did not hide in caves waiting for God to fix their world.  They did not sit quietly pouring over the words of their prayers.  They made the miracle.

On Hanukkah we recite the blessing, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days.”  The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asked why we say this blessing for the Hanukkah miracles and not for the greatest miracle of all, that of Passover.  Being a rabbi he answers his own question.  He says that it is because the Hanukkah miracle was dependent on our actions.  It was not dependent on God alone.  On Passover God alone split the sea and battled the Egyptians in that defining Mi Chamocha moment.  On Hanukkah we brought the miracle; it was dependent upon our own success.  We did not wait for miracles to be done for us.  We brought them to the world.  God inspired us.  We did the work.

This is the most important lesson of Hanukkah.  We look to past events for inspiration.  But when we start to believe that miracles are happening here and now it gets dangerous.  It is dangerous because then we stop doing the hard work of getting into the game ourselves.  Then we try to let God do all of the heavy lifting for us and pretend there is no weight on our own shoulders.  God does provide much inspiration.  But the lifting has to be done by ourselves. 

In the end that is why the better dreidle is our dreidle rather than Israel’s. On our dreidles it says, “A great miracle happened there.”   It keeps the miracle at arm’s length.  It keeps miracles as sources of inspiration rather than a crutch.  It reminds us that we have to do the hard stuff ourselves.  God will inspire us.  But our hands make the miracles.

Thus, if you want miracles to happen here you only have one choice.  Take to the field yourself!

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