this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/5/15 about the tragic events in California –
Tomorrow night Jews around the world will gather together around their menorahs, chant the ancient blessings, light the candles, and welcome in the festival of Hanukkah. Many people say that the lighting of the menorah is one of their favorite Jewish rituals, and we know statistically it is the most observed Jewish ritual of the entire year. More Jews light Hanukkah menorahs than do anything else Jewish. In my mind it is not only because of the holiday, or the themes of the holiday – it is the ritual itself that makes it so popular. There is something about the warm glow of candles in the darkness that speaks to the human soul. Perhaps in some way we are reminded of our distant, distant ancestors, many thousands of years ago, gathered around some primitive campfire and looking towards the heavens.
It is no accident, no coincidence, that Hanukkah falls at the time that it does. Always in the early winter, during the shortest days of the year, and in the Hebrew calendar beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, at the end of the month when the moon has almost entirely disappeared from the sky. When you combine one of the longest nights of the year with one of the darkest nights – moonless – it is precisely at that moment that human beings feel the need to make light. It is a way of pushing back against the oppressive darkness, and reminding ourselves that before long the days will again grow longer, and that the moon will soon begin to wax, returning its brightness to the evening skies.
We all know the story that lies behind the menorah ritual. Some 2400 years ago the Maccabees rose up against the Syrian Greeks and were able to retake control of the Temple in Jerusalem. They wanted to relight the Temple’s menorah, but found only a single cruise of properly prepared oil. Deciding to light anyway, they were astonished when the single cruise burned for many days, 8 all told, when new oil was finally prepared. And this is the miracle we commemorate by lighting our menorahs for 8 nights. But the symbolism of the ritual has always revolved around darkness and light. Because it was one of the darkest periods in Jewish history, when the very existence of Jewish life was about to be extinguished. And that little bit of oil reminded the Jews of that time – בימים ההם – that even after the worst desecration, something pure can remain. And so throughout the ages the Hanukkah lights became one of the great symbols of Jewish hope.
There is a story about the prisoners in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp finding a way to celebrate Hanukkah. They saved little bits of fat they found in their watered down soup, they took spare threads from their clothes to use as wicks, they managed to steal a few matches, and they carved a raw potato into a miniature menorah. They gathered in the barracks, they softly recited the blessings, they lit their makeshift menorah, and a tiny light flickered in the darkness. That act was a fulfillment of the mitzvah, the commandment, to light the menorah. But it also was an act of faith, that somehow God could still be felt in their world. And it was a statement of hope, that despite all they had been subjected to, despite their terrible suffering, somewhere inside they had enough hope to bring new light into the world. In the very darkest place imaginable Jews found a way to make light, and in the space that that light created, hope could exist.
This is a week when I suspect we could all use a little extra hope. You begin to think after a while that what happened this week in California and the week before in Colorado is just going to happen, that violence in general, and gun violence in particular, is inevitable, that it is something we can’t do anything about, and that we will have to watch it happen over and over again until we become numb, until it seems like a regular occurrence, just something that is the new normal, part and parcel of life in America. Are we closer and closer to giving in to that sense of helplessness, to letting the darkness creep in and not believing that there is any way to create light?
There is a talmudic term, יאוש, that means despair. It is generally used when discussing a lost object. At what point is there yeiush, at what point does the owner of a lost object despair of ever finding it again? But the concept assumes that despair does not come easily. That people in general, and Jews in particular, cling fiercely to hope. In the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, in the Hasidic shul, the Bratslaver shul there, a sign hung on the wall: Jews Never Despair! Judaism finds yeiush unacceptable. Despair is not an option. It is no accident that the Israeli national anthem is called HaTikvah – which simply means, the Hope.
In fact I would argue that hope is the key to Hanukkah itself. Without hope, the Maccabees would have never defeated the Syrians. Without hope, the Temple would have never been rededicated. And if you think about hope, it is exclusively a future oriented idea. Imagine the person who thought to hide that vial of oil. What was that person doing? The Jewish world was in a shambles. The Temple was desecrated, unusable. There was no way any reasonable person would have thought that one day the Temple would be in Jewish hands again, that one day there would even be a reason to have that oil. But they hid the oil. And they hoped. And a miracle happened.
It is that Jew – whomever he or she was – that I’ll be thinking of as I light the menorah tomorrow night. What I need this week is some of his – or her – hope. But what we all already have is that person’s light. The light of the menorah will grow into the room in our home and seep from our window into the troubled outside world. That light will remind me of those who lost their lives this week and the week before. And it will also remind me that despair is not an option. And I will continue to hope. To hope that one day we will find a way to create sensible gun control laws in this country. To hope that our government officials will have the vigilance and wisdom, our soldiers the strength and courage, to keep us free from harm. To hope that somehow a time will come when the worship of God is synonymous with the idea peace. To hope that one day, if not in my lifetime, perhaps in the lifetime of my children, Israel will be able to exist in safety and security. To hope that somehow, in some way which I don’t even know, through my own actions and in the course of my own life, I can participate in making that kind of world a reality.
To hope that the darkness, which can sometimes feel like it is all around us, can be pushed back by the light of our lives, our traditions, and our faith. And that the ultimate light – the light of God – will grow stronger and stronger, and brighter and brighter, one day filling the world with goodness, kindness, compassion, and peace.
the middle line of the ancient priestly blessing we use to conclude services is this: יאר ה׳ פניו אליך ויחנך – may God’s light shine in our lives – may God grant us all grace