With Chanukah beginning the evening of December 2nd, the light shed during this joyous holiday brings welcome perspective on life these days.
The Menorahs that we light remind us of God’s blessings and miracles that saved us as a people against all odds from the might and power of the Syrian branch of the Greek Empire, as the Maccabees vanquished them and reclaimed the Temple and Jewish rule in 165 BCE.
The holiday as we know it turned on a story written some 70 years after the events and likely one of the very few examples of Jewish custom based on story rather than fact. Had the holiday followed the facts and celebrated the deeds as recorded by the Maccabees then it is highly unlikely the Jewish people would have continued to exist.
After the decline of Greece, Rome came onto the scene. Were they to have encountered a Chanukah celebration that focused on the triumph of the few over the mighty, and the discomfiture of the previous dominant power, in all likelihood they would have moved sooner than later to do what the Greeks failed to do and crush our courageous warriors.
Cleverly, our sages zoned in on the story they found in a small manuscript, the Scroll of Antiochus telling of the miracle of oil we know so well. In so doing, they turned all the energy, from the power and strength of the Maccabees defending their land and the people’s existence, to the Spirit of God’s Presence in saving the people, symbolized by a small cask of oil lasting 8 days. A military event was transformed into a spiritual celebration of God’s miracles in saving the people, and the future.
When you ponder so many distressing conditions in the world, most recently the wildfire that destroyed Paradise and displaced thousands of folks and broadened its impact with the hazardous air that covered the extended Bay Area, and beyond, you are reminded of how fragile our controls are.
In the aftermath of the massacre of the Shabbat attending folks in Pittsburgh and the outpouring of support by so many communities, with the local Muslim community in particular raising significant funds for those stricken, we are confronted by the contrasting realities of power and might wreaking havoc while the spirit of empathy, love and support grows in directions of healing.
B’nai Israel was on the receiving end of such an outpouring when we held our service of memory and healing with people of many different spiritual and faith communities joining in. That energy continued with our interfaith Thanksgiving service attended again by folks of a variety of traditions and St. Paul’s new rector Reverend Annie Pierpoint Mertz accentuating the importance of the ongoing bond between B’nai Israel and St. Paul’s and her commitment to see that their church assertively fights anti-Semitism.
The message of Chanukah transcends the logistical reality that had the Maccabees not won their impossible war there would have been no daughter traditions emerging centuries later, i.e. Christianity and Islam. The deeper and abiding lesson of Chanukah, which the rabbis of Roman times intuited is that even with the military prowess of the Maccabees (for many years, if not still the case, instructors at West Point taught their hit and run strategies to cadets), the future would not be assured by might alone, but by the Spirit, as in God’s Presence, that can affect attitude, energy and commitment to address challenges, no matter how impossible or overwhelming.
Such Spirit does us well to tap into in these alarming times, when we don’t know where the next threat may come from, whether a fire, or flood, or earthquake, or a human created disaster as seems to happen almost daily with shootings and attacks. With inundation of unsettling and frightening acts in so many different ways and avenues of life, the one unseen, unheard and unaccounted for energy and force that can tip the scales and even help us regain balance, is the Spirit of God’s Presence. It manifests as we each try to help those stricken, with our own ways of support (i.e. cash and gift cards for food and clothing is most needed in the Paradise community).
The urge and commitment to care is what allows us to move forward with the Spirit, that God is with us as we strive to be forces for good. Chanukah reminds us and enjoins us to tap into that Spirit and find hope in knowing that whatever forces are at work to disrupt our lives, God is also a factor to be reckoned with, in a very good way, as we harness teachings of kindness, caring and helping, where we can, to turn what is bad to what can become good, as humans pursue Shalom.
I look forward to celebrating Chanukah with you, both on December 2 and at the holiday concert December 8, as we engage the teaching of Zachariah the Prophet (chapter 4, verse 6), imparting God’s comfort: “Not by power, nor by strength, but rather by My Spirit, says God”; that is the means by which to prevail.