Hanukkah 2013. A sermon by Rev. David M Bryce
This year Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap, with the first night of Hanukkah coinciding with Thanksgiving Day, something that reportedly has not happened since 1888 and which I am told will not happen again for nearly 80,000 years.
Now normally I like to verify facts before I use them in a sermon. However, I am not going to go through the next seventy nine thousand years on my calendar to verify this. I merely report to you what others have said.
Actually, according to Chabad.org, in the Gregorian calendar year 2070 and then again in 2165 the first night of Hanukkah will begin at sundown on Thanksgiving Day, so for many people the first candle of the menorah will be lit at the Thanksgiving dinner. That is almost disappointing—it is not as dramatic as saying that it will be 79,000 years before these two holidays overlap again.
A brief and, perhaps, unnecessary history:
Thanksgiving is a celebration of survival, a harvest festival which supposedly dates back to the dinner and giving of thanks of the Puritans in Plymouth nearly four hundred years ago. They had left England because they wanted to worship in their own way, and England was controlled by other religious forces who would not allow that.
Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today is purportedly a recreation of a feast that acknowledges the fact that a small number of settlers had lived through a terrible year but now had sufficient larder to get them through the coming winter.
There had been an earlier thanksgiving feast celebrated by the settlers in the colony in Jamestown, but we will not mention that here.
Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1863 in the midst of a terrible civil war, and that was the first in a direct line of what has been an ongoing national celebration of harvest and of the giving of thanks.
Hanukkah celebrates the time when the people of Judea rose up against the Seleucid Greek Empire in a struggle for religious freedom. This occurred in the 160’s BCE, about two thousand one hundred and eighty years ago.
The Seleucids under Antiochus IV Epiphanies had suppressed Jewish religious customs and had polluted the Temple in Jerusalem. Under the leadership of the Maccabees, a portion of the Jewish people rose up in rebellion and drove out the Seleucids. They reclaimed the Temple and purified it on the 25th of Chislev in the year 164 BCE.
In the First book of Maccabees, an ancient text preserved in the Catholic Bible, the Maccabees declare celebration of Hanukkah to be eight days, but no reason for that is given.
In the book titled Second Maccabees, it is stated that because the people had been at war and had not been able to celebrate the Festival of Succoth at the proper time, the purification of the Temple was celebrated as Succoth, and so Hanukkah was modeled on the Festival of Booths, which lasted for seven days, to be followed by an eighth day, a day of solemn assembly.
Now Succoth, as most here will know, is both a commemoration of the time of wandering in the desert following the Exodus, but it is also the Jewish Harvest Festival, so one could say it is the Jewish Thanksgiving.
It is even possible (though not proven) that the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth modeled their Thanksgiving celebration after the Festival of Booths. Though it is similar to the Harvest Home festivals of England, while they were still in England the Puritans had apparently rejected the Harvest Home feast as non-Biblical. And t Harvest Home festival in England had become a time of drinking and gambling, things the Puritans did not like. And so it may be that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are each modified versions of Succoth. If so, it is fitting that they occasionally occur at the same time.
And so where does the flame of eight candles on he menorah come from? That story is in the Talmud, though where it originated I do not know. Here is the pertinent section of the Talmud (the Asmoneans are the Maccabees):
What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited.
anonymous (2007-12-23). The Babylonian Talmud, all 20 volumes in one file. (B&R Samizdat Express. Kindle Edition.
There is a brief discussion in the Talmud about the proper way to light the menorah:
Those who seek to fulfil the law in the best possible manner should light according to Beth Shamai the first night eight flames, and every following night one flame less. And according to Beth Hillel the reverse–the first night one lamp, and be increased by one on each succeeding night. Said Rabba b. b. Hana in the name of R. Johanan: “There were two sages in Zidon; one did according to the decision of Shamai’s school, and gave the reason that the ‘Hanukah lamp is to be lit in the same manner as the sacrifices of the feast were offered, 1 and the other according to the school of Hillel, with the reason that holy actions should show (emblemize) increase and not reduction.
anonymous (2007-12-23). The Babylonian Talmud, all 20 volumes in one file. (Kindle Locations 1434-1439). B&R Samizdat Express. Kindle Edition.
I rather like the idea of beginning with eight lights and watching the menorah get dimmer each evening as that seems somehow more in keeping with the idea of watching the small bit of oil continue to burn while waiting for it to flicker out; and yet experiencing the ongoing miracle of the light continuing.
That is the brief and incomplete history of both holidays. What ties them together is a desire for worshipping in one’s chosen way and a celebration of thanksgiving for being able to do so. Each of the events commemorated by these festivals in their own way contributed to our ability today to worship as we choose—or not to worship at all, to have and enjoy religious freedom including the freedom to be non-religious.
There is not really a direct line between these as neither the Puritans nor the Maccabees were interested in other people’s freedom. Each group was insisting that its way of worship was the only valid one. However, over time the story of their struggles merged into the struggle for religious freedom for all.
I give thanks this day that each of these groups won their struggle and that we today have our religious freedom.
In each case it was unlikely. Logically, the Maccabees should not have won their war of independence. The enemy they faced was far too strong.
And the Pilgrims of Plymouth arrived in New England in November and in Plymouth in December. Not a good time to plant crops. Hunger and disease made it unlikely that they could survive. Fortunately for them the kindness of the local inhabitants kept them alive. (That is a kindness we have done little to reciprocate.)
The religious freedom we have does come from these two events. For me religious freedom is the first freedom, not only because it is the first freedom named in our bill of rights, but because if someone can decide that you will believe in God, can decide which God you will believe in, and can decide how you will worship that God (for instance, imposing their prayers in pubic schools), all of your other rights are ephemeral. You will have freedom of speech only to the degree that their God allows it; you will have freedom of assembly on if their God feels that is acceptable; you will have freedom from cruel and unusual punishment only to the degree that their God accepts this. And whoever is deciding which God you will worship will also be deciding what freedoms God allows you to have.
So I am grateful that we freedom of religion, and that only happens with separation of religion and state.
There are people today who, like Antiochus, are striving to have just one recognized religion. They are those who insist, for example, that banners in stores must say “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays”, and who maintain that somehow the phrase “Happy Holidays” is part of a “war” on Christmas. But this is just an insistence that their religion be dominant, that their religion be the only one recognized; that is, that their religion be the at least socially established religion.
And truth be told, there are those within Unitarian Universalism who want to do something similar. We are fortunate, I believe, to have a religious tradition where people with many different beliefs about God and the universe are welcome. There are some within our tradition who would change that, who either would have us all believe in God or who would have us all be atheists. Like Antiochus of old they believe that their beliefs are what all should believe.
And truth e told, I, too, struggle with the Antiochus within me. I “know” what is “right”, and if people would just listen to me all would be well with the world. That is Antiochus within.
I have a deep appreciation of religious freedom; I am thankful to those in the past who worked so hard to bring about our ability to be who we are and to express our faith as we believe we are called to express it.
My expressions of thanks to them include the call to work for the ongoing guarantee of religious freedom for all; not just for myself, but for all others.
There are other lessons from these stories, lessons from the lives of those who lived these stories.
May we face the difficulties in life like Pilgrims and Maccabees, who both had faith and who acted upon that faith.
Like the pilgrims we, too will face times of shortage and hunger.
Perhaps it will be physical hunger when we literally do not have enough to eat. If we are fortunate there will be people to take pity upon us and to provide us with food and knowledge that we may once again support ourselves.
Perhaps it will be emotional hunger when we long for connection with others or with ourselves. The message of Plymouth is: Believe that this longing will be fulfilled and hold on until it is.
Perhaps it will be spiritual hunger when we long for connection with the divine or the transcendent. The message of the story of the Pilgrims is, have faith; keep striving and know that this, too shall come to pass.
That is also the message of the Hanukkah candles of the house of Shemai: when spirits are slowly fading, when the light of hope is dimming, when it seems that you can no longer last, count on miracles to sustain you through difficult days.
As the Maccabees overcame impossible odds, so can we. It is only those who give up who are conquered.
And in our actions for others let us be unstinting and let us act ever more strongly and intensely for, in the words of the House of Hillel, “…holy actions should show increase and not reduction”.
Few of us will face the dangers and tribulations of either the original Plymouth settlers or the Maccabees. If the could succeed against the odds they faced, we too can succeed in the trials we face.
In this season of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, let our faith be strong, let our light shine forth, and let hope live within us.