Festival of Lights

December 11, 2009 by USA Post 

Festival of Lights,while we’re on the subject of greetings. . . Hanukkah begins in earnest today — Dec. 11 after sundown. The eight day Jewish festival of lights celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians in the second century. The emphasis on light comes from a miracle that a small amount of oil lasted to light the temple for eight days.

It’s considered a fairly minor holiday in Judaism. But to raise its importance in his community Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman, spiritual leader at Temple of Israel, in downtown Wilmington has started a new tradition.

He calls it the 8 Sites of Hanukkah, encouraging his members to visit one Web site each night of local, national or international nonprofit, learn about their vision and donate to those causes as an act of tzedakah or charity.

“Hanukkah calls us to God’s values, to assert our love, in control of our fears,” the rabbi wrote in his weekly column. “Hanukkah empowers us to redirect our lives.”

Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman sent me his sermon for Hanukkah in an email. Here it is:

On Friday, December 11, just before sundown, Jewish families around the world will light the first Hanukah candle, chanting blessings over their Menorahs (candle holders) at home and in Temples. The next night, they will light two candles, and then add another candle each night, until they light eight on the eighth night. The nightly celebration features games, especially spinning the dreidel, songs, story-telling, and food, especially latkes (potato pancakes). The origins of these practices are described later. Kids, and even adults, receive gifts, and everyone gives to tzedakah (charity). Many families add acts of community service. Hanukah candle lighting is one of the most popular Jewish rituals, for American Jews.

Why is this celebration so popular? The “reason for this season” is not a Jewish version of Christmas. Rather, Hanukah celebrates: religious freedom and pride; the triumph of right over might; the recognition of God’s presence in our lives; and a family response to the start of winter. This article will tell the story of the Maccabees and describe how human and Divine actions led to today’s partying, with games and songs and food and gifts.

Hanukah (dozens of English spellings of “Chanukah” are acceptable) does overlap with Christmas in two aspects. Both are responses to December, a dark and cold season. By the way, if the Maccabees had not saved Judaism from perishing, about two centuries before the time of Jesus, then no Jewish community would have existed as the base, from which Christianity developed.

The Story: About 2,200 years ago, the Greek Empire was divided into Greek, Syrian, and Egyptian sections, with the Syrians controlling the Jewish state of Judea, the area now called Israel. The Syrian/Greek King, Antiochus, ordered the Jews to give up Judaism and become “Greek,” eating non-kosher foods, desecrating the holy Sabbath, and worshipping idols.

A small group of Jewish farmers, called the Maccabees, led a multi-year guerilla war against the Syrian/Greek forces, driving out a much larger army and gaining political and religious freedom, especially control of the central Temple, in Jerusalem. The dedication (“hanukah”) of the Temple triggered an annual celebration on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, this year starting at sundown, December 11.

The human role: The military triumph of the small band of Maccabees has inspired fighters for religious freedom, and political freedom, over the centuries. A statue of Judah, the leader, stands at West Point today. The Maccabees became a model for modern Israel, assailed by much greater forces throughout its 60 year history. The Maccabees inspire all who seek religious freedom, an ongoing struggle throughout the world, even in America, for peoples and for individuals. The bravery, faith, persistence, and cleverness of these warriors are celebrated in the Hanukah song, “Mi Yemaleil” (“Who Can Retell”), which starts: “Who can retell the things that befell us (the Jews), who can count them? In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.”

The Divine role: Where is God in this story? Many Jews understand the Maccabees’ triumph, as explained by the prophet, Ezekiel, “not by might, and not by power, but by (the Divine inner) spirit.” Power – whether military, economic, spiritual, or political – need not lead to evil. Yet, power tends to be abused. All power leads to some corruption. Ultimately, our freedom, as well as our success in finding meaning in life, depends upon our spirit, our power to control corruption.

The story of “the oil” shows how we can recognize God’s presence. When the Maccabees sought to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem, they needed special oil to light the central lamp, which symbolizes God’s connection with our lives. Every Jewish synagogue, today, burns an “eternal light.” The Maccabees needed over a week to prepare this oil, yet could find only one day’s supply, after they drove out the Greeks. In what many see as a miracle, the tiny bit of oil lasted eight days.

We might learn that our own power for good is greater than first appears to us. If we start to work on a good cause, although our resources may feel inadequate, we find additional resources along the way. Some call this recognizing God’s presence in our lives and in our world. The Maccabees showed a similar faith, by starting their war for freedom, despite overwhelming forces against them.

Jews commemorate and publicize this “miracle,” by lighting the Hanukah Menorah (candle holder) for eight nights. Families play dreidel, a spinning top with four sides. Each side has a Hebrew letter, standing for a word in the phrase, “a great miracle happened there.” Israeli dreidels say: “a great miracle happened here.” The dreidel game involves gambling, with the spinner either adding to the pot or taking from the pot, depending on which letter lands on top. The pot is usually chocolate coins (“gelt”), but can be real money. If so, all the money goes to tzedakah (charity). Every Jewish holiday, even the weekly one, Shabbat (the Sabbath), is an occasion for helping the less fortunate.

The miracle of the oil also led to the culinary treat of latkes, potato pancakes, because they are cooked in oil. Latkes are usually eaten with applesauce, or sour cream. Latkes are the custom of most American Jews, whose families are Ashkenazic (European). Sephardic/ Mizrachi Jews (from Middle Eastern countries) eat a ritual food, cooked in oil, called “sufganiyot,” which look like jelly donuts, without holes.

A popular Hanukah song, “Maoz Tzur,” focuses on God’s central role in the Maccabean victory. The words are well known, mostly by the English title, “Rock of Ages.” The song concludes: “and Thy word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”

Hanukah today celebrates both the human and the Divine roles in the partnership between us. This partnership has a mission, which Jews call “tikkun olam,” “repairing the world,” in other words, transforming our world from how it is towards how it should be.

As we approach the darkest days of our year, as we begin the coldest season of the year, Jews observe Hanukah, a re-dedication to our partnership’s mission, a partnership with God, which is available to all peoples. We feel the warmth of the candles, see the brightness of freedom and insight, and hear the songs of faith, liberation, and peace.

A recent song, “Light One Candle,” by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) captures the Hanukah spirit. The first verse is: “Light one candle for the Maccabee children. Give thanks that their light didn’t die. Light one candle for the pain they endured, when their right to exist was denied. Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand. Light one candle for the wisdom to know, when the peace maker’s time is at hand.”

Hanukah and our current Culture: From another perspective, the Maccabees’ dedication (the meaning of the word, “hanukah”) of the Temple in Jerusalem symbolizes their successful battle to assert the best of Jewish values in place of the worst of the dominant Greek (Hellenistic) values of their time. Miraculously, a leading faction of Jews (the Maccabees and their followers) persistently resisted the powerful, apparently overwhelming, Greek cultural trends, which many Jews choose to follow.

The Greek culture, whose domination the Maccabees rejected, forms the historical basis of our current Western/ American culture. Part of our culture brings wonders — calling us to technological innovation, artistic creation, philosophical inquiry, individual freedom, and economic enterprise. Certain American trends (based not on what we claim to believe, but on how we live) run counter to our Jewish tradition (and counter to the values of most Christians and other Americans). These societal trends include: (1) alienation (emotional isolation and loneliness); (2) material indulgence (not too subtle, each December); (3) a sense of emptiness (life feels meaningless); (4) isolationism (we care little about suffering by others, who are not “us”; and (5) despair (we are convinced that things will inevitably get worse). All of these result, when our fears override our love. The Maccabees symbolize resistance to those trends.

Hanukah calls us to dedicate our live to God’s values, to assert our love, in control of our fears. That would lead to these counter- trends: (1) community (we connect to each other, based on covenant, that is, our partnership, with God, to improve our world); (2) holiness (we live by Godly values, such as increasing freedom, justice/fairness, mercy, comfort, beauty, and peace, as well as create holy relationships, those based on respect, trust, responsibility, and commitment to higher missions, such as freedom, peace, etc.); (3) the infinite value of each human life (because we can achieve #1 and #2); (4) the holy potential for goodness of all individuals, no matter where they live and no matter what group (ethnic, faith, culture) they claim as theirs; and (5) hope, that despite the tragic lessons of history, reflecting the opposite of God’s values (see #2) history need not repeat. We can change.

When we resist the “Greek” trends and dedicate to God’s loving values, we become Maccabean, that is, heroic. We see many individuals, Jews and others, who perform these heroic tasks instinctively, without recognizing how heroic they are. They care for others. They search our Torah (not just the book, but our entire tradition and all sources of learning, including our own experiences) or other sources for a life of meaning. They battle injustice, suffering, abuse, and conflict. They fight globally, and locally.

We become heroic by recognizing the miracles in our world. The story of the oil lasting eight days was not told until centuries after the Maccabees (in the Talmud, under the Roman Empire). However long we take to notice miracles, when we do, we gain the power to act as heroes.

A miracle need not be understood as an event, which runs counter to the laws of nature. A miracle may be our ability to comprehend natural laws, bringing us the modern medicine and communication. A miracle may be our ability to save our global environment, despite centuries of greedy exploitation.

A miracle may be our ability to rise above our natural instincts, to transcend trends in our society (such as the 5 listed above) and to find a life of holiness.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught (50 years ago, at the dawn of the “information age”) that we do not lack information. We lack appreciation, the ability to notice what has true value.

Many Americans, “miraculously,” have begun pursuing new paths to spiritually fulfilling lives. The trend might be called “chanukat hamakom,” dedication to finding God in all places.

Our challenge is: will we join that trend, and become Maccabees?

The Season: Chanukah starts “early” some years, or one could say, “December comes late.” Chanukah always falls on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, which occurs on or near the winter solstice, a time when the earth becomes a role model for us. Externally, nothing seems to grow, darkness lasts its longest hours, and the air starts feeling colder. Internally, however, trees and plants are adjusting, preparing for next year’s growth. The longest night means that the future holds more and more light. Cold need not depress us. Cold can stimulate.

The symbols of Chanukah respond to the season – the Menorah candles show brightness of religious freedom and insights, and the warmth of communal caring. The oil of our latkes and sufganiyot represents the oil of the eternal light, God’s presence in every place and every moment.

The winter solstice provides an apt moment to dedicate ourselves to our own internal growth, our own spiritual development, resisting the external appearances of a cold and dark world of isolation and materialism.

A Jewish myth envisions each person as a “candle of God.” By lighting and displaying the Menorah, we make public our recognition of our Divine inner light. Each night, we add a new candle, symbolically adding our light to the light of others, leading us to a more enlightened world.

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