What do these different commemorations have in common? Human Rights Day. Chanukkah. Winter Solstice. Christmas? Of course, they all take place in the midst of winter. As it happens, the season as such is directly associated only with the Winter Solstice. But there is something about all these special days that takes on an additional freight of meaning in the cold, dark season (in the northern hemisphere, at least!): Each one in its own way speaks of tikvah, ‘hope.’
In the case of the Winter Solstice, the hope is very simple: that the sun will return. In the case of Christmas, the hope has a very specific meaning for professing Christians: the hope of renewal expressed by the birth of the baby Jesus. At first sight, the hope conveyed by the Festival of Chanukkah also has a very particular meaning for a particular people, as for eight days, commencing on 25th Kislev, we commemorate the events of 164 BCE, when the Maccabees reclaimed, restored and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem that had been desecrated by the Assyrian Greek overlords.
And yet, alongside the significance of that particular moment for our people, Chanukkah conveys a wider more universal message of hope: Tyranny will be overcome and the oppressed will go free. That message of hope is proclaimed for our own time most powerfully by Human Rights Day, which falls on December 10th. Inaugurated in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly, the purpose of Human Rights Day is ‘to bring to the attention of the peoples of the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’ (http://www.un.org/en/events/humanrightsday/). The UDHR itself was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th 1948, and was a direct response to Nazi tyranny and the Sho’ah. In a sense, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world said, ‘Never Again!’
Sadly, despite the thirty ‘articles’ of the declaration, a new world order rooted in universal human rights did not emerge in the years that followed. On the contrary, despotic regimes have continued to tyrannise and persecute their opponents and vulnerable minorities, and to perpetrate genocide. And so, the second half of the 20th century was marked by mass murder in the Soviet Union, China, Biafra, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda – to mention only the most extreme examples. And now, in the 21st century, those who would impose their tyrannical will on others continue to rampage – most recently, the Islamic State insurgents. It is easy to lose hope. That is why we must continue to light Chanukkah candles, increasing the light day after day. That is why it is essential that we mark Human Rights Day, and commit ourselves to the task of pursuing human rights in every place. B&HPS, in common with many Liberal and Reform congregations throughout the world, will be observing Human Rights Shabbat. May the hope of liberation be realised for all peoples bimheirah b’yameinu – speedily in our days. Chanukkah Samei’ach!