Friends: Before I share my prepared reflections on light and darkness, I would like to mention Rabbi Lionel Blue, who died last night. Rabbi Lionel Blue was my tutor at Leo Baeck College, where I studied to become a rabbi, and he ordained me in 1989. One of the first two graduates of Leo Baeck College, the progressive seminary which was established 60 years ago after the Sho’ah – Holocaust – Rabbi Lionel Blue taught generations of rabbis, including, my dear colleague Rabbi Charles Wallach, who is also here this evening. Known to millions for his quirky, amusing, and always wise contributions to Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, which for years made Monday mornings, not only bearable, but a delight, Rabbi Lionel Blue was warm and wise, compassionate, human and profoundly spiritual.
In addition to his work within Progressive Judaism, which included writing new liturgy and co-editing prayer books with Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, Rabbi Lionel Blue was also deeply committed to interfaith dialogue and encounter, and was co-founder with Rabbi Magonet of the annual eight-day Jewish Christian Muslim conferences, which have now been taking place each year in Germany for over 40 years, and which remain a part of the curriculum for Leo Baeck College student rabbis. It is fitting that we should remember Rabbi Lionel Blue today, at this multifaith service, and express our thanks for his many gifts and for the contribution he has made to all our lives. Zichrono livrachah – May his memory be for blessing. And let us say: Amen.
We have gathered at the darkest time of the year, and as the winter solstice approaches, look forward to the lengthening days and the return of the light. And yet, we know that we cannot simply wait for light to dawn in the darkness. Each one of us is responsible for increasing the light in our lives and in the lives of others, in our country and in the world around us.
So many different cultures and religious traditions have festivals of light. The Jewish festival of light, Chanukkah, has its origins in the revolt of the Jews of Judea against the oppressive Imperial Assyrian Greek regime that ruled over the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean in the second century BCE – Before the Common Era. The Emperor, King Antiochus IV, known as ‘Epiphanes’, the ‘Revealed’ had banned the practice of Judaism. The revolt began in 167 BCE and three years later, in 164 BCE, the rebel guerrilla army recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine, cleansed and rededicated it, and re-lit the seven branched candlestick, the M’norah. The event was marked by an eight-day celebration, resembling the autumn Festival of Sukkot – ‘Tabernacles’ – which they had missed.
In later centuries, the early rabbis told a story about a miracle. When the rebels entered the Temple, they found a supply of Temple oil sufficient to light the M’norah for one day only, but a miracle happened and it lasted for eight days (Talmud: Shabbat 21b). The rabbis spoke about this miracle in order to emphasise that the triumph of the rebels was ultimately spiritual, not material. As we read in the Book of Zechariah in the Bible: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit declares the God of hosts” (4:6). And so, subsequently Chanukkah came to be celebrated with the lighting of flames on an extended M’norah, day after day for eight days: one flame on the first day, two on the second, three on the third, and so on. Whether or not one believes in ‘miracles’, the accumulating flames of Chanukkah celebrate the miracle of the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of tyranny and persecution.
Chanukkah, like other festivals of light, expresses our need to generate light in the midst of darkness. But darkness cannot simply be banished and replaced with light. We have to work with the darkness in the world and the darkness that is in us, too, to generate new creative life-affirming possibilities for relationships between people and between peoples.
We read in the Sayings of the Sages, appended to the first rabbinic code of law, the Mishnah, edited around the year 200 (Pirkey Avot 1:18): “The world stands on three pillars: upon justice, and upon truth, and upon peace.” This is a wonderful and wise teaching. There can be no justice without truth, no truth without justice, no peace without justice and truth. We know this. Surveying the events of the past year, we know that we don’t live in a ‘post-truth’ era. We live at a time when the notion of truth has lost its bearings. It is our task, as we read in the book of Deuteronomy chapter 16 (:20), to ‘pursue’ justice, and to anchor truth in that pursuit. We know that it is our responsibility, as we read in Psalm 43 (:14), to ‘seek peace and pursue it.’
The problem is that the world is not standing of the pillars of justice, truth and peace – it is falling: it is being broken by hatred and division right now in Syria and in Iraq and in so many places around the globe. The world is being blasted into shards. Of course, we want the world to stand upon justice, and upon truth and upon peace, but since the world is falling and not standing, and justice, truth and peace are in short supply, we need to use everything we have at our disposal – every charred chunk of debris, every shattered hope and betrayal – in order to rebuild the pillars of the world. We also need to use the darkness that is responsible for all the chaos, as well as the light that inspires us to hope for healing and renewal. We read in Isaiah chapter 45 (:7) that the Eternal One is the ‘Former of light and Creator of darkness’ – yotzeir or u’vorei choshech – a verse that is included in the blessing on the theme of creation in the Jewish daily morning service. Created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), each human being is challenged to acknowledge the light and darkness that is in the world and that is in us, too, and participate in the great task of repairing our broken planet. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Mayoral Service, Unitarian Church, Brighton
19th December 2016