Sunday, December 9, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church of Portland, Maine
Sunday December 9th, 2007

READING: 1 Maccabees 4: 34-59

When I was a child, growing up in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School, I always had a lot of fun when we were given the opportunity to celebrate Hanukkah as part of our Sunday School curriculum. We lit the candles in the Menorah, we played with Dreidels, we heard the story of the lamp that burned for eight straight days, when there was only a one day supply of oil. In the predominately Catholic neighborhood where we lived, "The Feast of Lights" seemed like our Unitarian-Universalist answer to Advent — not only did it avoid a lot of problematic issues like the Virgin Birth, but it also introduced us to the whole idea of cross-cultural celebrations of the Winter Solstice: the coming of Light into the world, in the season where nights are long and darkness reigns, and it had the added advantage of eight straight days of presents. (In our house that particular tradition only lasted one year, by the way).

I always had a little trouble, though, understanding this business about the lamp that burned for eight days in the temple. After all, a one-day supply of oil is a one-day supply of oil; if the lamp burned for eight days, obviously that was an eight-day supply: someone simply must have made a mistake when they were doing the inventory. I just didn't see what all the fuss was about. Maybe there was a clever priest (or more likely, a sexton), who was somehow able to adjust the flame and stretch the supply, make the oil last longer than it should have. Or maybe they just asked around, and everybody pitched in what they had. I mean, isn’t that what people do in times of crisis?

But there was nothing particularly miraculous about that; my mom used to do that sort of thing all the time. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” You don’t have to be a native Mainer to appreciate the importance of a little old-fashioned frugality, combined with a generous helping of Yankee ingenuity. I guess I always just had a very strong humanist streak from a very early age, because it was years before I was able to understand that the flame of the Menorah was only a symbol of the real miracle. The temple had been defiled, but the faith had endured, and triumphed. This is the real miracle of the Feast of Dedication.

Let me share with you a little more of the history behind the the story of Hanukkah. In 167 BC the Selucid emperor Antiochus IV ordered the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem to the worship of Zeus. The Selucids were one of three dynasties which had emerged from the remnants of Alexander the Great's empire following his death a century and a half earlier. Based primarily in what is now Syria, the Selucids were almost constantly at war with a second post-Alexandrian dynasty, the Ptolemies, who were based in Egypt. Even in that day, there were already significant Jewish communities in both Babylonia (which was controlled by the Selucids) and Alexandria (the capital of the Ptolemies); life in the diaspora had already begun; while Judaea, the original home of the Jewish people, served as something of a strategic buffer between these two Great Powers of the ancient world, and was constantly buffeted by the ebb and flow of their political and military ambitions.

Controlled by the Ptolemies until the start of the second century BC, Judea eventually came under the hegemony of the Selucids following their decisive victory over the Ptolemies at the Battle of Banyas, which took place near the headwaters of the Jordan River. To a significant degree, this development was welcomed by many of the Jewish inhabitants of Judaea, because the Ptolemies had been great Hellenizers, which is to say they were fond of introducing Greek customs and practices into the cultures they ruled. The Jewish community in Alexandria, for example, had been deeply influenced by Greek philosophy; and it was their Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint, that would eventually become a key factor in the rapid spread of Christianity among the Greek-speaking Gentiles of the Roman Empire.

Selucid rule, on the other hand, appeared to promise the practice of a more authentically Hebrew Judaism, such as existed in Babylonia. But this expectation was not to be borne out. Roman influence in the Eastern Mediterranean was growing; in order to pay for his increasingly expensive military adventures, as well as shield his empire from the threat of Rome, Antiochus IV greatly increased the level of taxation in Judaea, plundering the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem, and also cracking down on dissident Jewish groups who resented the burdens imposed by their Greek-speaking rulers, and who sought the freedom to manage their own affairs. In order to pacify the region, Antiochus IV accelerated the Hellenization of Judaea, siding with those Jews who were sympathetic to Greek ideas and culture, and doing everything within his power to eliminate the practice of Judaism as a distinctive religious faith.

This is the background of the Maccabean revolt. The Maccabees were insurgent guerrilla fighters who took to the hills in order to resist these changes. Their leader was initially a priest named Mattathias Maccabaeus, who not only refused to offer pagan sacrifice in the Jewish temple where he served, but also reportedly killed the first Jewish apostate who had attempted to do so. When Mattathias himself later died, leadership of the guerrilla army fell upon the shoulders of his oldest son, Judas Maccabaeus, who was eventually able to drive the Selucids out of the city of Jerusalem, and re-dedicate the temple there to the worship of the Hebrew God Yahweh, as we heard in the passage from the First Book of Maccabees I read earlier this morning. This is the origin of Hanukkah — the Festival of Dedication — the only major festival in Judaism not explicitly rooted in the Torah.

There are some major ironies contained within the story of Hanukkah. The Maccabean revolt was a war fought for the purpose of religious liberty — the only such revolt of its kind recorded in ancient history — yet the Maccabees themselves were hardly the religious liberals of their day. They were more akin, perhaps, to modern religious fundamentalists in their attitudes and practices; and I suppose if you were Antiochus IV, you might even have called them terrorists. Likewise, the only records of their achievements which have survived were written in Greek, most likely by members of their rival Jewish community in Alexandria. Although the Maccabees were able to defeat the Selucids at Jerusalem, their position there was anything but secure; thus, a few years later, they entered into a military alliance with the Romans — an act which was virtually to ensure the eventual subjugation of the Jewish people, and the loss of a national Jewish homeland for 2000 years. By the time of Christ, it was Rome who ruled in Judaea; in 70 AD Roman soldiers demolished the temple which Judas Maccabaeus had fought so hard to reconsecrate — only a portion of a single wall, now known as the "Wailing Wall," was left standing.

Yet the flame of the Maccabees still burns. And the ironies, tragic ironies, still continue. Deep down in my heart of hearts, I have always been something of a closet Zionist. Perhaps this stems, in part, from having had a Jewish grandfather (on my mother’s side), but whatever the source, I’ve always taken pride in the independence of the modern state of Israel, and in the contributions of Judaism in general to Western thought, culture, and civilization. The flame of the Hanukkah Menorah symbolizes the light of that contribution, as well as the persistent struggle of the Jewish people to preserve their religious faith and practice in the face of 2000 years of almost constant anti-semitic persecution and oppression. Zionism reflects the burning aspiration of Jews for a nation of their own, a place to call home.

But there is also a shadow cast by Zionism: a shadow which those of us who consider ourselves friends of Israel are sometimes reluctant to explore. Hanukkah is a celebration of Light and Hope, Joy and Compassion — in many ways it represents the very best of what religion has to offer us here in this world. Even (or perhaps especially) in the context of a “global war on terror,” there are no doubt still many Jews, many people of faith all the world over, who are deeply troubled by the Israeli government's recent history and policies regarding the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, and who continue to hope for a permanent and lasting peace based on mutual tolerance, reasonable accommodation, and sympathetic understanding. The role of Oppressor does not come naturally to the Jewish spirit; and this too, is a lingering irony of the legacy of the Maccabees, whose military victories ultimately brought ruin to their nation.

In his Hanukkah story "The Power of Light," Isaac Bashevis Singer tells of two Jewish children, David and Rebecca, hiding in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto following its destruction by the Nazis during the Second World War. On the first night of Hanukkah, David finds some matches and a candle while foraging in the rubble, and returns to their hiding place to share his discovery. Singer writes:

...Now David pronounced the benediction over the Hanukkah candle, and Rebecca said "Amen." They had both lost their families, and they had good reason to be angry with God for sending them so many afflictions, but the light of the candle brought peace into their souls. That glimmer of light, surrounded by so many shadows, seemed to say without words: Evil has not yet taken complete dominion. A spark of hope is still left.

For some time David and Rebecca had thought about escaping from Warsaw. But how? The ghetto was watched by the Nazis day and night. Each step was dangerous. Rebecca kept delaying their departure. It would be easier in the summer, she often said, but David knew that in their predicament they had little chance of lasting until then. Somewhere in the forest there were young men and women called partisans who fought the Nazi invaders. David wanted to reach them. Now, by the light of the Hanukkah candle, Rebecca suddenly felt renewed courage. She said, "David, let's leave."

"When?" [David asked.]

"When you think it's the right time," she answered.

"The right time is now," David said. "I have a plan."

For a long time David explained the details of his plan to Rebecca. It was more than risky. The Nazis had enclosed the ghetto with barbed wire and posted guards armed with machine guns on the surrounding roofs. At night searchlights lit up all possible exits from the destroyed ghetto. But in his wanderings through the ruins, David had found an opening to a sewer which he thought might lead to the other side. David told Rebecca that their chances of remaining alive were slim. They could drown in the dirty water or freeze to death. Also, the sewers were full of hungry rats. But Rebecca agreed to take the risk; to remain in the cellar for the winter would mean certain death.

When the Hanukkah light began to sputter and flicker before going out, David and Rebecca gathered their few belongings. She packed the remaining food in a kerchief, and David took his matches and a piece of lead pipe for a weapon.

In moments of great danger people become unusually courageous. David and Rebecca were soon on their way through the ruins. They came to passages so narrow they had to crawl on hands and knees. But the food they had eaten, and the joy the Hanukkah candles had awakened in them, gave them the courage to continue. After some time David found the entrance to the sewer. Luckily, the sewage had frozen, and it seemed that the rats had left because of the extreme cold. From time to time David and Rebecca stopped to rest and to listen. After a while they crawled on, slowly and carefully. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks. From above they could hear the clanging of a trolley car. They had reached the other side of the ghetto. All they needed now was to find a way to get out of the sewer and to leave the city as quickly as possible.

Many miracles seemed to happen that Hanukkah night. Because the Nazis were afraid of enemy planes, they had ordered a complete blackout. Because of the bitter cold, there were fewer Gestapo guards. David and Rebecca managed to leave the sewer and steal out of the city without being caught. At dawn they reached a forest where they were able to rest and have a bite to eat....

After a week of hiding by day and traveling at night, David and Rebecca met up with a group of Jewish partisans hiding in the forest. It was now the final night of Hanukkah, and the children played dreidel on the stump of an oak tree while others kept watch. More and more refugees joined them, and slowly they made their way to Israel, assisted by the Haganah: an organization which worked to smuggle Jewish refugees out of Nazi-occupied Europe and into the Holy Land. They finished school, married, and found a small house with a garden in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Singer concludes his story by writing:

...I know all this because David and Rebecca told me their story on a Hanukkah evening in their house in Ramat Gan about eight years later. The Hanukkah candles were burning, and Rebecca was frying potato pancakes served with applesauce for all of us. David and I were playing dreidel with their little son, Menahem Eliezer, named after both of his grandfathers. David told me that this large wooden dreidel was the same one the partisans had played with on that Hanukkah evening in the forest in Poland. Rebecca said to me: "If it had not been for that little candle David brought to our hiding place, we wouldn't be sitting here today. That glimmer of light awakened in us a hope and strength we didn't know we possessed. We'll give the dreidel to Menahem Eliezer when he is old enough to understand what we went through and how miraculously we were saved...."

I’ve always liked to thing that this child, Menahem Eliezer, would be about my age this Hanukkah. No doubt he has long since learned the story of his parents' escape and rescue; no doubt by now he has children, and perhaps even grandchildren, of his own, with whom he has also shared the dreidal, with its four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, he, shin -- "a great miracle happened there." And this holiday season, may we as well share in the miracle of the Flame that wouldn't die, recalling even in this season of darkness our essential connectedness to the whole of humankind, and our renewed dedication to the timeless principles which allow our faith to endure.