“Hanukah” – The Rev. Eva Cameron

My introductory words come from the Maccabees, verses 7-13:

1. “Alas! Why was I born to see this, the ruin of my people, the ruin
of the holy city, and to live there when it was given over to the
enemy, the sanctuary given over to aliens?”
8. “Her temple has become like a person without honor.”
9. “Her glorious vessels have been carried into exile. Her infants have
been killed in her streets, her youths by the sword of the foe.”
10. “What nation has not inherited her palaces and has not seized her
11. “All her adornment has been taken away; no longer free, she has
become a slave.”
12. And see, our holy place, our beauty, and our glory have been laid
waste; the Gentiles have profaned them.”
13. “Why should we live any longer?”

I invite you to pause at this time of Hanukah and the New Year, and reflect on what is most important to you. Hanukah means rededication. And it is good, out of the busy-ness of our lives to pause and think:
•what is really important to me?
•what battles need to be fought in our life time?
We don’t have a tyrant king to struggle against yet, we do have things in our lives which are troubling and worth opposing. Think about what gives you the strength to fight these battles. And rededicate yourselves to connecting and enlivening your life with this source of inspiration and strength.

There is something very powerful about a story, a good story. It connects us to other people in other times and places: it connects us with the deepest parts of ourselves. It connects us with a long line of people across time. And a good story can put us into someone else’s shoes in such a way that we almost feel like we were there–laughing their laughs, crying their tears, mourning their losses, cheering their triumphs.

We learn differently by story than we learn other ways. A story will stay with you for a long time, and a certain little something in your life can bring you right back to that moment when you connected with the story, and felt one with the characters in it. You feel its lessons somewhere deep in your heart.

Just to remind you of what I’m talking about, I’ve got a little story many of us already know, that teaches, as a kind of example:

There was an old man, a boy and a donkey. They were going toward town and it was decided that the boy should ride. As they went along they passed some people who thought that it was a shame for the boy to ride and the old man to walk. The man and the boy decided that maybe the critics were right so they changed positions. Later they passed some more people who thought it was a real shame for the man to make such a small boy walk. The two decided that maybe they should both walk. Soon they passed some more people who thought that it was stupid to walk when they had a donkey to ride. The man and the boy decided maybe the critics were right so they decided that they both should ride. They soon passed other people who thought that it was a shame to put such a load on a poor little animal. The old man and the boy decided that maybe the critics were right so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed a bridge they lost their grip on the animal and he fell into the river and drowned. The end.

Through our laughter at this story, we also think to ourselves, “Yeah, boy have I been there! There just is no pleasing everyone!” This story in its own silly way reminds of things that have happened in our life, and each time, thereafter, that we find ourselves in such a place, this story will come popping up into our brains. “Hey, I’m in the middle of that man, boy, and donkey story,” you’ll find yourself thinking.

The Hanukah story is like that, if you can let yourself get carried away to that other time, that other place–there is a powerful message for your heart. For me, a Unitarian Universalist, what’s important about Hanukah is to remember. Its not so important to say the prayers in just the right way, to eat the latkes and make sure you’ve got the presents lined up for each night. For me, I don’t want this story to be forgotten_because it rings in my heart. Those people, so far away, so long ago_could have been me. The extras, the holiday trimmings are fun_particularly if you were raised doing them. But for the Unitarian Universalist I think it’s up to us to figure out our own ways to remember.

So I want to tell you the story. But I want you to get into it, to really imagine yourself in it. I’ve got one little thing to share with you to help get you in the mood. Now, it is easy to say the words, ‘They went out into the wilderness to live, preparing to fight for their freedom.’ And it is quite enough to imagine removing yourself from the comforts of your home, your occupation, your wife and children so that you could do this thing. Recently someone sent me this list of complaints left by people after a visit to the wilderness here in the US. I thought listening to some of them would put you in the right frame of mind to admire these men of our story.

Following are some comments left on the Washington Forest Service’s registration sheets and comment cards by backpackers completing wilderness camping trips and hikes:

“A small deer came into my camp and stole my bag of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed? Please call.”

“Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.”

“Trails need to be wider so people can walk while holding hands.”

“Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.”

“Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests.”

“Please pave the trails so they can be plowed of snow in the winter.”

“Chairlifts need to be in some places so that we can get to wonderful views without having to hike to them.”

“The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.”

“Reflectors need to be placed on trees every 50 feet so people can hike at night with flashlights.”

“A McDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.”

“Too many rocks in the mountains.”

Now, that you’ve got in your mind what it feels like to be out in the wilderness when you are used to being at home, with your wife and kids and creature comforts. I’m going to read you the story from a contemporary book Jewish People, Jewish Thought by Robert Seltzer, because I like they way the author helps us along with the history a bit, particularly for those who aren’t as familiar with the story.

In 198 BCE, after two decades of constant fighting, Judea passed into the control of the Seleucid King Antiochus III (who ruled from 223-187). Just as he was on the verge of establishing the Seleucids as the dominant power in the Near East, the Romans defeated him at Magnesia in Asia Minor (190 BCE), leading to the loss of much Seleucid territory, but not Judea. The change from Ptolemaic to Seleucid rule did not affect political conditions in Jerusalem during the lifetimes of Antiochus III and his son Seleucus IV. However, when Antiochus III’s second son Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“god manifest”) occupied the throne in 175, arrangements in Judea were soon altered. The High Priest Onias III was deposed and replaced by his brother Jason, who received permission from the Seleucid king to introduce Greek institutions into Jerusalem, such as a gymnasium for the training of future citizens of the city in the Hellenistic manner.

About three years after Jason’s appointment, a second group of Jerusalem Hellenophiles prevailed on Antiochus to give the High Priesthood to a certain Meneleus; unrest and protests broke out, but were suppressed. Between 171 and 169, Antiochus IV almost succeeded in conquering Egypt until Roman pressure forced him to withdraw. During his Egyptian campaign, a rumor reached Jerusalem that he had died; the former High Priest Jason attempted to regain control of the city with an armed force. Antiochus rushed soldiers to Jerusalem in support of Meneleus, but the turmoil continued. Thinking that a rebellion had broken out, Antiochus ordered the abolition of Jewish law in Judea. A new citadel was built in Jerusalem in which to station a pagan garrison, and an alter and a statue of the Olympian Zeus were set up in the Temple [which would have been Jewish up until then]. In December 167 BCE, sacrifices were commenced according to the new ritual. Seleucid agents and Jewish ‘Hellenizers’ went into the countryside to force the people to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime by eating pork, refraining from circumcision and the Sabbath, and turning over their Torah Scrolls for destruction.

The motives of Antiochus (quite unlike the usual tolerant attitude of pagan rulers) and those of the Jewish Hellenizers who supported the persecutions (some of whom were priests) have been a matter of much scholarly dispute. There is not indication that Antiochus prohibited the Jewish religion throughout his realm; he was probably trying to strengthen his hold on a strategic border province by backing an element of the Judean population that had showed itself willing to integrate Judea more closely into the Seleucid kingdom. He also stood to gain treasures and needed monies confiscated from the Temple. (Near Eastern sanctuaries, because of their holiness, often served as depositories for the wealth of those who worshiped there and contained many valuable gifts of thanksgiving.) In other circumstances, some Jews took to a Hellenistic style of life without becoming pagan; it would seem that various competing Jewish groups wanted to transform Jerusalem into a typical Greek city (2 Macc. 4:9), where they would have greater power locally and closer contact with similar classes in other Hellenistic cities. In any event, all Judean Jews were faced with the choice of whether or not to collaborate. Some complied, but a great national-religious upsurge catalyzed. Chapters 6 and 7 of 2 Maccabees relate stories of Jews tortured by the government for refusing to eat pork and make sacrifices to the king’s god. The persecutions of the early 160s produced the first martyrs in history: men [and women] who willingly accepted death rather than violate the injunctions of their religion. (The Greek root of martyr means “to bear witness.”)

The first [Jewish] resistors refused to fight on the Sabbath and were slaughtered (1 Macc. 2:29-38); the next stage of Jewish opposition was the emergence of a guerrilla army under Mattathias, a priest from the town of Modein, which fought defensively on the Sabbath as well as aggressively on the weekdays (1 Macc. 2:41). When Mattathias died, the leadership of the armed revolt was taken over by his son, Judah the Maccabee (possibly meaning Judah the Hammer). After several victories over Seleucid troops and having cut off the main road from the seacoast to Jerusalem, Maccabean fighters occupied the Temple Mount in 164 BCE. In December of that year the Temple was purified and re-consecrated. An eight-day festival (Hanukah, rededication) was instituted. Soon afterward, the Seleucid government gave up the policy of religious repression, but could not put down the Maccabean revolt . . . .”

The themes in this story about oppression and revolt, about repression and freedom are familiar themes. We hear about them today in the news. This story carries me inside the news, the continued barrage of stories of bad things happening to people all over the place, to one story where the names and the deeds have been recalled for over 2000 years.

The theme of rededication is also one we hear in many times and places. Its heart-warming glow and enthusiasm reminds us again and again of just how much religion does mean to people. How important it is to be able to practice religion as seems right and good to you and your people.

Also in this story is the theme of celebrating this rededication every year. Of not just forgetting about the struggles and the terror, but reminding the future generations about the struggles their ancestors endured, as well as their joy. Perhaps this is one of the most important themes_that from our history we can learn, if we only teach it to our kids.

Each year as Hanukah approaches I get this great childhood memory surging up from the past, filling me with that wondrous childhood glow of doing something really special. Although we didn’t celebrate Hanukah at home, we did celebrate it at the church. Ours was a very small Unitarian Universalist church_40 people would seem like a crowd on Sunday morning. So we kids felt like we were part of a big family of some sort. Well, each year on the Sunday of Hanukah, or sometimes on Christmas Eve_one man who had been raised Jewish would call us children around the Menorah, say the blessings and light the candles. He always told a bit of the Hanukah story, and then the best, most magical moment would occur. He’d casually reach into his pants pocket and say “Here’s a little gelt for you children,” and each of us would get a shiny, new silver dollar. I can remember the immensity of that moment with such clarity. This man, mostly a stranger, surely not one of the adults who regularly played with us kids, would just reach into his pocket and give me something so special. Each of us would get a whole dollar. And I kept mine, each year. They were so special; I couldn’t spend them it seemed.

I also remember one Christmas Eve, we gathered in the church with its dark wood and warm stained glass windows which glowed with the setting sun, and as it got darker and darker, I remember my father telling the story of Hanukah. Out of the safe darkness, in a voice very familiar, came the whole tale of oppression, tortured people, suffering and longing to be free to practice one’s own religion. In the darkness of the room the sense of doom and despair in the story was strong. The uncertainty of the Jewish band of men who gathered to fight with Judas Maccabee away from their homes up in the mountains chilled me. The jubilation of finally winning access to the Temple rang true in my ears and the rekindled flame of Hanukah truly seemed miraculous as the lights from our Menorah shone the in the darkness that night.

Now that I am older, I think back on that memory of the story and realize that there were parts of it that I just didn’t fully comprehend. I think about how much effort is put into building of a church building—the fundraising, the planning, the architecture, the builders working, the decorating_and think that as a child that reclaiming the Temple meant coming home surely_but the depth of what that meant wasn’t as strong. Many people had invested time, energy, love, and devotion in that Temple. And its symbolic nature to the people Israel is only something one grasps as one gets older. And now, I have read in 2 Maccabees graphic stories about the torture of the Jews who refused to convert, about the mothers who watched their children killed; and the story takes on a dimension that I couldn’t recognize and was shielded from as a child. A good story lives and grows with you as you live and grow.

Perhaps for all these reasons I’ve always felt an affinity to Hanukah. Not being raised Jewish_latkes and eight days of presents weren’t part of my life. But I have always felt that this remembrance of the struggles of a people for their religious freedom was a story to remember. It seems so far away, so long ago, so improbable in this land of such freedom. It is perhaps easiest just to write this story off as too disconnected with our own personal lives, with the way the world is today.

For people who didn’t grow up celebrating Hanukah, it’s easy to get caught up in worries about the foreignness of the name . . . . How is it supposed to be spelt again? Is that with a ‘Ch’ at the beginning or an ‘H’? Is that one ‘n’ or two, and what about those ‘k’s _I’ve seen it spelled so many ways! It’s easy to think, but I can’t speak Hebrew_I can’t say those prayers!

Well, I know a little secret_I’ve met plenty of people who grew up celebrating Hanukah_and unless they look up the prayers in a book, they don’t remember them either. And they stumble over the Hebrew too sometimes. Now a conservative Jew should know these things_to retain a religious practice and language is important to those whose business is being conservative. And many Jews of varying persuasions do know the prayers. But its not a given.

But for us UUs_well, what’s important about other religious events for us? That the name is spelled right, or that you at least take sometime out of your busy life to remember the story. The same is true here. Is it important to remember the prayers, to say them in Hebrew? Well, maybe if you want to be a Jew, you should learn them. But you can remember the story; you can celebrate the joy of freedom from religious persecution without any of this, this “getting it right.” For Jews, this is the celebration of the freedom of their people. For me, it is the celebration of freedom for a people and a remembrance of the first religious martyrs in western history. People who changed the face of what religious freedom meant.

When I celebrate Hanukah, it is for me, in the same way when I celebrate any other religious holiday_I do them my way. I’m glad there are people in the world who are retainers of religious practice in their old forms_but even these forms change over time. My celebration is a UU celebration, not a Jewish one–born out of a tradition shared by a man who wanted the story to live on in the children around him_the joy, the miracle, the wonder. May you too find ways to make this story live in your life. Maybe you won’t go out and buy a Menorah right away, maybe never, that’s okay. Just find your own way to share this story that it may live on in the hearts of all people who care that religions be free.

My Closing Words, today, are from 2 Maccabees 10, v. 5-8:

5. “It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev.”
6. “They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.”
7. “Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.”
8. “They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.”

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