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Light One Candle – 12/9/2012

The story goes that 3 pious travelers were making their way over the mountains. The journey was long, their reserves were meager, and it came to the point that all they had left to eat between them was a single slice of bread. All three of them believed in the power of dreams to provide divine guidance, and so, rather than quarrelling over the last bit of food, they agreed that they would wait until morning. They would consult their dreams, and choose who should receive the bread based on that.

The next day, the first traveler made this report, “I dreamt of a far away land of plenty, overflowing with abundance and every pleasure and experience that I have turned away from in my lifelong quest for truth. In that place I met a wise man who told me, ‘You who have renounced the world in pursuit of the divine, you who have given up more than any other, you are the most deserving of the last slice of bread.”

“How odd,” the second traveler said. “In my dream I saw the life of holiness that I have led up until now, and I also saw into the future, when I shall be a great teacher after whom many important students shall follow. And in this dream I, too, met a wise man who said, ‘You have a great destiny before you. To complete it you will need strength and sustenance, and so it should be you who receives the last slice of bread.”

“That is strange,” said the third traveler. “I envy you your great visions. As hungry as I was, I slept fitfully last night, and did not dream at all. I was so hungry in fact, that I woke some hours after midnight. And that’s when I ate the bread.”[i]

So often in life there appears to be a tension between the spiritual and the practical. Between the world of ideals and the world as it simply is. Between the wondrous possibilities contained in dreams and the harsh reality of an empty stomach. This tension is always at play when we talk about religious stories and traditions and it is particularly relevant to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah which began last night.

We heard one version of the story earlier, and you may already have been familiar with its shape. How, 2200 years ago, the Greek-Syrian king Antiochus outlawed the Jewish religion, and officially replaced it with his own. How a faction called the Maccabees led the people of Judea in a rebellion, and won against long odds. And how, when the Maccabees reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough oil to keep the eternal flame there lit for one day, and yet it miraculously lasted for the eight days needed to make more.

This is the story being commemorated this week in Jewish households all over the world, and in the homes of some of us here today. At the same time, for most of us here, Hanukkah is not a holiday that we practice in our homes and its story is not one which we feel deeply connected to. But even if you fall into that category, there are still at least three reasons this should matter to you: As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm that there is wisdom to be found in all the world’s religions, which means we need to take a spiritual interest beyond what we’re already accustomed to. And, the commitment we share as a congregation to teach, learn, and work to, from, and with each other, means that what matters to one of us matters to all of us simply because it matters to one of us. Some of us celebrate Hanukkah, so all of us have an interest in what it means. And finally, this particular holiday happens to several topics that are very dear to us as Unitarian Universalists.

Now, it is also a matter of our religious practice that when we care about something – an idea, a story, a tradition – we examine it deeply. Not to tear it down but to try to really understand and internalize it, rather than glossing it over with an easy, pat explanation. And so, I want to dig a little bit deeper into the Hanukkah story with you now, particularly around this tension between idealism and practicality.

The first item: this is a story about a struggle for religious freedom: a people’s traditions are banned, their scriptures and their holy places are seized, and so they are forced to fight in order to worship as they wish. And, the Maccabees who led that struggle were themselves examples of profound religious intolerance. The revolt, as described in the first Book of the Maccabees, began when Mattathias, the literal and figurative father of the Maccabees, was commanded by one of Antiochus’ officials to make an offering to the Greek gods. Mattathias refused, and when another Jew agreed to make the sacrifice in his stead, Mattathias killed both that man and the official who had given the order. Jews who collaborated with the Greek authorities, or simply adopted Greek customs or religious practices were targeted by the Maccabees throughout the revolt and after it.

As spiritual descendents of the early Puritan colonists here in Massachusetts, we should have some appreciation for this sort of history: a people yearning to be free, but confusing freedom with the opportunity to oppress others. And right now in several countries in the Middle East, including Syria, revolutions are in various states of progression, all of them messy, conflicted, and without any one side being entirely pure and perfect. But the human determination to be free is powerful, and enduring, and worth celebrating. Even though the chaos of revolution can be tumultuous and dangerous, it is preferable to the certainty of a profound, entrenched injustice. As Frederick Douglass said, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”[ii]

On November 17, 1989, a group of university students held a demonstration to commemorate the death Jan Opletal, a student killed fifty years before by the Nazis during their occupation. Riot police intervened to break up the event, and there was a great deal of violence. After words, the word began to circulate that a student had been killed by the police, echoing Jan Opletal and stirring up popular resentment towards the repressive government. More and more people took to the streets, and by the end of the year, the government had fallen and new, free elections had already been held.

All of that happened despite the fact that no student was actually killed during the demonstration; it was just a rumor, and nothing more. The story of what had happened before during the Nazi occupation was so powerful that just the idea of its happening again helped push the country into revolution. It didn’t come out of nowhere, of course; the government of Czechoslovakia was notoriously repressive and its people had long called for reform and freedom. Eventually, a moment and a story emerged the matched the need of the people.

Hanukkah is a celebration of this sort of moment, and of this sort of story, even if that story is more necessary than strictly true. Hanukkah is a post-biblical holiday; the Books of the Maccabees were written too late, and were perhaps too troubling, to be included in the Hebrew Bible. They still exist, though, and their account is the basis of the Hanukkah story – with one exception. The describe the injustice of Antiochus, the uprising, the war, and the restoration of the temple. But there is no mention of any sort of miracle involving oil. That item doesn’t appear in any source until about 600 years after the Maccabean revolt, in the Gemara, a section of the Talmud. When we think of Judaism today, we think of a tradition that is really defined by the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and custom. The early rabbis who created it had good reasons to dislike the Maccabees: their violence, over-zealousness and intolerance, and the new injustices that they created after they won the war with Antiochus and established their own government in Judea.

So the rabbis promoted another dimension to the holiday, beyond a simple military victory. Whether they invented the story about the oil, or just magnified an existing folk tradition doesn’t really matter – putting that question aside, think for a moment about the story itself. Put yourself in the place of the characters. You have spent years fighting a war – it is ending, but not necessarily won. You have just regained the temple, then the holiest and most essential site in Judaism, and found it desecrated. And even though you don’t have everything you need to restore it to the way it was before, you decide to try. Why? Because you just assume that if you begin the work, God will complete it for you? No. Because you have decided that it is worth attempting what is right, even if the only reasonable expectation is failure.

The man elected president in the wake of the Czechoslovakian revolution, Vaclav Havel, described such an outlook in this way. “Hope,” he wrote, “is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”  It means “an ability to work for something because it is good.”[iii]

It is said that, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ The phrase is sometimes attributed to the American politician and Unitarian Adlai Stevenson, who did say something similar in his memorial for Eleanor Roosevelt. But years before that it was the motto of the Christophers, a Roman Catholic inspirational organization, and it came to them as a translation of a much older Chinese proverb. One light may not seem to mean much in the empty night, but it may sometimes be enough. When the lonely lighthouses of New England were first installed along the coast, they certainly meant a great deal to the sailors who depended on each one to mark direction and distance. And in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when Samwise Gamgee held out the Philial of Galadriel in the pass of Cirith Ungol, its light drove off Shelob, the shadow spider, at a vital moment. (Perhaps you can tell that I am excited about the prospect of the upcoming Hobbit movie.)

For all the fanfare that Hanukkah gets in the modern United States, where one has to shout to be heard occasionally over the incredible volume of Christmas, it is basically a very simple holiday. It’s about lighting candles in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. Hanukkah begins on the last new moon before the Winter Solstice: in the Northern Hemisphere, the time when the night is longest and there is the least amount of light possible in the sky.

Lighting the candles of the hanukkia, the special menorah used for the holiday, is a symbolic act of hope. It is ridiculous to expect that some wax and a few bits of string will hold back the cold unknown of the night. Just as it is ridiculous to expect fuel to burn 8 times longer than it should. Just as it is ridiculous for a small, ill-equipped band of people to expect their revolt to overthrow a powerful, well-armed government. And yet, year after year, century after century, candles are lit, and people take to the hills or to the streets, to lay claim to the freedom that all people deserve.

The spiritual should never be used to distract from or dismiss the real needs of the practical. But nor must practicality be permitted to excuse us from following the ideals that the spiritual puts before us. Whether there can be expectation of success or not, there is always reason to hope: to seek to know what is right, and to attempt it. To light one candle, even if it must burn alone. Because only with such a beginning can one light become two, and two become three, and three become enough to brighten the dark and to hold back the night.



[i] This story from the Shattari Sufi order is attributed to Muhammad Gawth Gwaliyari.

[ii] Frederick Douglass, “Reconstruction”, Atlantic Magazine, December, 1866.

[iii] From Disturbing the Peace, 1986.


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