2019 is drawing to a close. What a year it has been. Surely, climate sceptics have taken note of yet more extreme weather events: raging fires – still raging in Australia; torrential rains – including, in Britain. A 16-year-old prophet, calling out the governments of the world has delivered the verdict loud and clear: Climate change is here and must be the top priority of every nation now if the planet is to recover and have a future. And how did the governments of the world respond to Greta Thunberg’s challenge at the recent UN climate change conference held in Madrid earlier this month?
That’s right: they weren’t listening – for a change …
And then, on the home front: the ongoing Brexit drama – and the verdict delivered by the outcome of the General Election: with an 80-seat majority, the re-elected Conservative government now has the mandate to ‘get Brexit done’.
Whatever you think of the election, however you voted, there can be no doubt about the power of three-word slogans. ‘Take back control’ ensured a majority for Brexit in the referendum of June 2016. ‘Get breakfast done’ achieved the same result for the Conservative party in the General Election. Each three-word slogan – just four syllables apiece. Surely, a very special gift to Dominic Cummings must have been at the top of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Christmas presents list.
Yes, if we’ve learnt anything in the past three-and-a-half years, it is that if you’re in the business of trying to persuade people, utilise a three-word slogan and repeat it again and again – and again…
So, as we celebrate the festival of Chanukkah by kindling the flames on the nine-branched Chanukkiyyah night after night, let’s proclaim our own three-word slogan: Increase the light.
Increase the light. That is our task. We can’t leave it to governments. Increase the light: a message to each one of us. A simple message for complex times.
Life was rather complex back then, of course, too. The struggle against the tyrannical regime of the Assyrian-Greek Emperor Antiochus IV, led by the Hasmonean family that became known as the Maccabees, lasted from 167 to 140 BCE; that is, 27 years. Chanukkah celebrates the first major victory, when, in 164 BCE, after a three-year guerrilla campaign, Judah the Maccabee and his brothers – all the sons of Mattathias, the priest of Modi’in – retook the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, cleansed it, rebuilt the altar of unhewn stones, lit the m’norah, the seven-branched candlestick, and rededicated the sacred space – hence, the name of the festival: Chanukkah, which means ‘dedication’.
According to the first Book of the Maccabees, following the rededication (I Maccabees 4:59):
Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept with gladness and joy in due season, year after year, for eight days from the 25th of the month of Kislev.
The two books of the Maccabees – the first presents the most reliable historical record – make no mention of the miracle of the one-days’ supply of Temple oil with the seal of the High Priest that lasted for eight. We all know the story. And that’s what it is – a story, created by the rabbis centuries later, who, dismayed by the way in which Hasmonean family became corrupted by power following the establishment of an independent Judea in 140 BCE, did not wish to glorify them.
The less romantic explanation for the eight-day festival was that the guerrilla fighters had missed the seven-day festival of Sukkot, and Sh’mini Atzeret, the eighth day of ‘conclusion’. As we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (10:6):
They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the festival of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before at the festival of Sukkot they had been wandering about like wild beasts in the mountains and caves.
The contrast between the straightforward reason for an eight-day festival and the miracle tale of a single day’s supply of oil for the Temple m’norah that lasted for eight is astonishing. So, how is it that the miracle tale won the day? After all, unlike the priestly Hasmonean family that came to rule the independent state of Judea, the rabbis did not have any political power. However, they did gain supremacy in one particular arena: the power of the word. The presentation of the miracle tale, included in the Babylonian Talmud, edited around 500 CE, begins with a question: Mah Chanukkah? ‘What is Chanukkah?’ It’s as if the reason for Chanukkah is not already known. What happened to the two books of the Maccabees? Responsible for deciding the Canon of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbis excluded the Books of the Maccabees from the sacred text. And so, the rabbis’ miracle story became the only story; not just, ‘the only story in town’, but, in time, the only story around the Jewish world.
By the way, if you’re interested, you can find the Books of the Maccabees in the Catholic version of the Bible – along with the Book of Judith, with its grisly tale of Judith’s beheading of the Assyrian Greek Captain Holofernes, which was also excluded by the rabbis from the Hebrew Bible.
The rabbis didn’t just succeed in trumping history with a miracle tale. They underlined the message of the miracle with the selection of a passage from the Book of Zechariah, chapter 4 as the haftarah for Shabbat Chanukkah – that is, the reading from the N’vi’im, the books of the ‘prophets’, which follows the Torah reading. And so, in every congregation, including here at BHPS, in every Jewish denomination across the world today, the message of Zechariah will ring out: ‘Not by power, nor by might, but by My spirit says the God of heaven’s hosts.’ (4:6).
These words can’t compete with a very easily remembered and repeated three-word slogan, but they come close. Which brings me back to the present and the message of Chanukkah today. The words of Zechariah proclaim the supreme power of God. But the message we need to take away from the stupendous success of the rabbis’ miracle tale is less about the power of the spirit of God and more about us and the power of our spirits. With our spirits, inspired by the eternal spirit that infuses each and every human being, we can increase the light.
Increase the light. Sounds good – but how do we do it? How do we even start? As Chanukkah approached this year, I thought about the challenges we face in our efforts to increase the light, and identified eight gaping lacerations in what Claudia Gould has called ‘the wounded world’:
1. Poverty and homelessness and the global economic system with its inherent exploitation of the world’s poor
2. Domestic and Sexual abuse and trafficking
3. The mental health crisis – in particular, amongst young people
4. Racism and Xenophobia – and, specifically, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
5. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia
6. The marginalisation and exclusion of people with disabilities
7. The global refugee catastrophe
8. The climate emergency
Yes, I wrote down this list of horrors. I could have added more items – but I was determined to keep to eight – each one a focus for the nightly candle-lighting. But then, of course, I felt totally overwhelmed. What can I do? What can we do in the face of the scale of the task before us? How can we even begin the work of tikkun olam, repair of the world?
And then, my thoughts turned to the nightly candle-lighting. Such a wise and uncomplicated ritual: increase the light, flame by flame. There are enough fires raging, consuming everything in their wake. Chanukkah calls us to increase the light, incrementally, night after night. In the midst of the dark, to kindle a flame. Not a flame that has any practical application. Unlike the Shabbat candles, we are not supposed to make use of the light of the Chanukkah flames. Our task is, simply, to kindle light and proclaim the miracle of the unquenchable spirit. That’s why the ritual includes putting the Chanukkiyyah in the window – where, of course, the reflection doubles the impact.
So, let us take heart and spirit from the nightly flame-kindling ritual of Chanukkah and resolve to ignite flames of Hope through our acts of repair, night after night, day after day. In the words of the Jewish feminist poet Marge Piercy: ‘Every dawn, I choose to take a knife / to the world’s flank or a sewing kit, / rough improvisation, but a start.’
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
28th December 2019 – 30th Kislev 5780
Maccabee means, ‘hammer’. ↑
Tractate Shabbat, page 21b ↑
From her Aleinu poem, 2003, which is included on p. 35b in the first draft Shabbat morning service of Siddur Shirah Chadashah, Liberal Judaism’s new prayer book. ↑
The last verse of Marge Piercy’s poem, ‘The task never completed’. From: The Art of Blessing the Day. Poems on Jewish Themes. Five Leaves Publications, 1998, pp. 82-83. Also included on p. 36a in the first draft Shabbat morning service of Siddur Shirah Chadashah. ↑