A Human Menorah
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 9, 2007
For eight consecutive nights (starting this year on last Wednesday evening), the candles of the menorah are lit to symbolize the eight days of rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 137 BCE—“Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication”. It is a time for joy and celebration; a time for merriment and gift giving and games. It is also a time when the Jewish people are asked to remember what a dedicated few were once able to accomplish against a mighty empire.
I think that that it is important, whether we personally have Jewish ancestors or not, to take time during the rush of the Christmas season to consider the festival of Hanukkah as well. I think it is right and proper, and important, for us to remember the Maccabees and their story, for it is a precious legacy to Western civilization, whether we’re Jewish or not.
The victory of the Maccabees is so much more than the triumphal conclusion of one more long and drawn-out guerrilla conflict. Hanukkah marks, more importantly, the victory of freedom—and religious freedom in particular. It doesn’t celebrate the Maccabees’ superior military tactics, or their overwhelming weaponry, of the skill of their forces. Rather, Hanukkah celebrates the spirit of their commitment to a sacred cause, which inspired a few dedicated souls to persevere, and eventually to triumph, in the face of overwhelming odds and great difficulties. That’s a story written not just in ancient scripture, but deep upon the human heart.
It is easy in mid-December to bemoan the fading of the light. It is easy, too, to dwell upon the sad litany of human folly that litters the chapters of our human journey upon this earth. The ways which human beings have found to kill, maim, oppress, repress, exploit, cheat, dominate, enslave, and harm their fellow creatures are hard to ignore. Nor should they be ignored. But it is easy to get mired in them, and to come to believe that the light within the human soul has gone out, if ever there was a light shining there.
But Hanukkah-- and Christmas-- and all of the other festivals of light fostered by our human ancestors over the years— remind us, year after year, that that sad litany of war and mayhem and violence tells only, perhaps, about half of the story (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) of our human sojourn on this earth.
For yes, we have seen the face of evil in human existence. In this age of mass media, you would have to be blind from birth not to have seen it. But we have seen the face of the angelic and the divine there, as well. In our own lives, in our history as a people, in our common human epic, we have also seen the many blessed faces of the holy—blessed souls who have met us along the pathways of our lives, along the road of history, in a magnificent diversity of races and ages, speaking an amazing variety of tongues, holding to the tenets of a wondrous assortment of faiths. The vast panoply of human goodness and courage and creativity can take out breath away, too, as we watch it dancing, and hear it singing, from so many unexpected places over the epics of our lives.
Yea, though we walk through the darkest valley, hope abides.
In the bleakest, gray years, hope abides.
Amid our deepest disappointments, hope abides.
Mark this well, my friends: The redemption of the world is always borne by men and women—and children, too—like us: human beings, no more than that—but not one bit less; no less than fully human, fully alive; no less than fully open to the potentialities of the Spirit working, moving, transforming each and every moment of human history; each and every moment of our living; transforming the often-dull and turgid prose of human existence into the vibrant, dancing, singing poetry of life.
The lights of the great human menorah shine still:
They shine with the light of creativity: For some of us it might be Picasso, or for some of us it might be Bruegel. For others of us, it’s Springsteen, or Bono, or the Beatles. Or Shakespeare. Or Hemingway. Whoever the person is—whatever the source—there are awesome shining lights of human creativity that shine on like crazy diamonds, glinting forth from our human menorah.
The second candle of the menorah burns for freedom: the freedom to create; the freedom to express ourselves from the heart of our beings; the freedom which declares that we human ones are creatures who ought to decide our own destinies.
How that candle of freedom shines forth in our own history! It shines in the memory of all those blessed souls who declared that it was wrong for one man to hold another in the chains of slavery. The words of the great Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker echo down to us: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Parker wrote, “but it bends inexorably toward justice.” Add Parker to our great human menorah. And add John Brown, whom he supported. And William Lloyd Garrison—and Sojourner Truth—and Harriet Tubman—and Frederick Douglass. Add Old Abe Lincoln. And the slaughtered on the fields of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Spottsylvania – American lights for freedom, all.
And light a candle for truth—and for those who have dared to speak the truth. Who have dared to say the emperor has no clothes; or who will no longer maintain the lies and untruths of their time and place and society. Light a candle for Mandela, whose quiet grace and dignity led a nation away from the abyss of violence and bloodletting, and onto the road toward promise and possibility and peace. But not just for Mandela, but for all who stood with him, those whose names we may (or may not remember).
Light that truth candle for Steven Biko, and Oliver Tambo; for Desmond Tutu and Helen Suzman—for all the consciences of a troubled land, who refused to accept the Big Lie of their own day any longer. In their eyes, the candle of truth did shine—and shines still.
Next to the candle of truth, there stands the candle of justice. Light that candle for Dr. King; for Rosa Parks; for all of those who got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and who refused to stand on the bus any longer, and refused to drink from the “Colored Only” water fountain; or eat in the backroom at the coffee shop; who demanded they be served like any other paying customer—that their vote be counted like that of any other citizen—that their children be educated like any other students.
Light that justice candle for those whose lights were extinguished before their time: for Viola Liuzo, and Rev. James Reeb, and Emmet Till, for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and Medgar Evers—for all of those who through their lives, and sometimes through their deaths, launched a new American Revolution.
Light a candle, too, for those revolutionaries of the spirit who show us a more excellent way—who light that candle of peace in human hearts. “How lovely are the messengers that preach the gospel of peace.” Light that lovely candle of non-violence for Gandhi, the great grandfather of non-violence—who didn’t need guns to liberate India’s millions. He didn’t need bombs; he didn’t need implements of torture. Because he had so much more: he had humor, creativity, stubborn persistence and discipline. He knew that human liberation was not just of the body, but of the mind and the soul as well. It is peace which fosters that liberation. It was the way of non-violence—Satyagraha —soul force-- which Gandhi had—and which Nehru had—and Jinna—and all of India’s humble men and women, and those of Pakistan—which transformed the world, and turned history’s next page—and which bequeathed the promise of peace to their descendants. To them was bequeathed the promise; they must now make it real.
Light a candle of defiance, too, for those who have walked in their footprints. Light a large candle for the sad land of Burma in this Hanukkah season, where that unspeakably brave woman named Aung San Suu Kyi will one day lead her people out of the totalitarian darkness, and into the new light of freedom. Aung San Suu Kyi shines brightly on the human menorah of our own time, as do those Buddhist monks who refused to bow to tyrants any longer; as do all of Burma’s sore oppressed men and women. May the words of the old Hanukkah song become real in Burma over the next year: “That the day is nearing which will see/ Nations free, tyrants disappearing.”
Light that candle of defiance for all of those who have decided to cast off fear and stand up for their beliefs. For Walesa and Havel and Sakharov and all those who brought down the Wall. For the students and workers and ordinary men and women of the Ukraine and Serbia and Uzbekistan and places we’ve never heard of who will stand together in the frigid, cold streets, or stand together in the blistering heat; who will go without food; who will defiantly demand for their nations a place in the sunlight of democracy. In these places—and more—the lights of Hanukkah still shine as brightly as ever.
Light another candle too—a candle of faith; for those whose most deeply-held beliefs have moved them to seek a better world; to bear any burden; make any sacrifice; even pay the ultimate cost, if need be, with their very own lives.
Light a Hanukkah candle for St. Edith Stein—daughter of Abraham, brilliant philosopher, Carmelite nun—who stood bravely by her people even unto the end, and died with them at Auschwitz. Light that candle, too, for Rev. Albert Trocme, a French Protestant pastor in the small town of La Chambon in the south of France, and for his wife, Magda. “A German woman knocked at my door one evening,” Madame Trocme wrote later. “She said she was a German Jew, coming from northern France, that she was in danger… Could she come into my house [she asked]? I said, ‘Naturally, come in, come in.’” By the end of the war, the Trocmes and the other townsfolk of La Chambon had sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
For all of those whose faith moves them to invite the stranger in—in spite of all danger—because not to do so would be to deny the voice of God in their souls—light that brilliant candle of real faith in this dark world that needs it so badly.
Finally, light that ultimate candle for that spirit which we call by many names—which we picture in so many different ways—which means something a little different to each of us. Light a candle to remember that all of these human gifts we hold within us—gifts of creativity, and freedom, and truth; defiance and justice and peace and faith—dwell within us, but were not created by us. They were created by a force greater than us; poured forth across the world; given to us that we might share them, to, just as widely as we may. So, we light a final candle for the Gift of Life—and for the Spirit of Life in which we live, and move, and have our being.
The hope of Hanukkah is ultimately a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face; it bears a face like any of ours. It is a divine gift passed down to us by fragile human hands—like ours. The hope of Hanukkah is a gift from God, but it only comes alive if we live it as those we have celebrated this day have lived it.
These precious men and women represent just the tiniest fragment of our great human story. There are so many angels of the human spirit, angels of hope. Men and women, sometimes with extraordinary skills, sometimes not, all somehow inspired by some spark from heaven, or some spark deep within their souls, to put aside the easy well-worn path of lukewarm living (day in, day out; neither hot nor cold; full of little sound and little fury and so little meaning)—put it aside, and find within themselves, a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, a little more hope.
Remember: The spirit that was within them also lives within you and me. It is within us right now, waiting in this season of Hanukkah (this season of Advent), to come alive, to bear fruit, to grow—as the perennial seeds lie buried, waiting, in this season of winter—waiting for their time of new life to come once again.
This is the deep lesson of Hanukkah: faith lights the lamp of hope, which is kept burning only through the oil of love.