Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Miracle of Hope

[This is a version of the sermon I gave on Friday night]

Last week, Rabbi Richard Birnholz had a column in the Jewish Press. In it, he juxtaposed and compared two ancient, Jewish stories: the Chanukah story and Masada. I had never seen these two stories linked before, but doing so was interesting, and revealing. First, a quick review of the stories. We’ll start with Hanukkah, since it came first.

The full story is actually quite complicated and interesting, but here’s an incredibly simplified version that will suffice for now: our people were being oppressed by the Syrian-Greek empire. Led by King Antiochus, they were imposing a foreign form of religion on our people (which is something that we’ve never appreciated, to say the least). A rebellion started, led by Judah the Maccabee (“the Hammer”). It was, to say the least, a ridiculously audacious act. There was almost no chance of success — what hope was there for a small band of under-armed, untrained Jews against the mighty Imperial Army? But, of course, they were successful — they drove the Greeks out, reclaimed and rededicated the Temple, and established Jewish sovereignty in the land. It was, quite literally in their eyes, a miraculous victory.

Masada is a very different story. This time, it was the Roman empire which was oppressing us. Towards the end of their brutal suppression of our rebellion, a group of fanatics took over the fortress at Masada. It was a impregnable palace built years before by King Herod. Up there, well supplied, they were able to survive three years of siege by the Roman legions. But, it eventually became clear that there was no hope — they were going to fall to the Romans, soon. Death would be the best that they could hope for, probably. More likely, torture, slavery and God knows what else were in store for them. So, they made a desperate decision, and committed mass suicide, rather than be taken by the Romans.

Rabbi Birnholz compared these two stories as a way to talk about how difficult it is to know when to fight, and when not to fight. How, looking in our past, we find examples of both. It’s impossible to say that “Jews always fight back” or “Jews never fight back.” It’s more nuanced, and more complicated, than that. He was talking about it particularly vis-à-vis Israel and its current dilemmas, but it applies more widely, of course.

But, the juxtaposition got me thinking about another valuable insight from this comparison: one is a story about hope, while the other is a story about giving up hope.

Masada is, at the simplest level, the story of a people who had no more hope. I want to make it clear — I’m not judging them for this. I’m not going to stand here, 2000 years later, in the comfort of my own synagogue, and say that they didn’t the wrong thing, or the right thing. That’s a discussion for another time. What I’m saying is that, clearly, this was the act of the people who felt that there was no possibility of any kind of victory, save for this one — the victory of denying the Romans the victory that they wanted.

For many years, Masada was an important symbol in Israel — members of the Army were sworn in there, and declared “Masada shall never fall again.” That sentiment is still alive in Israel, but they’ve become more reluctant to use Masada as a symbol. Again, without judging the actions of those people, there’s been a growing discomfort with using this terrible, desperate situation as a symbol. Is this what we want to evoke and remember at some of our most powerful, sacred moments?

Compare that to the story of Chanukah. This is a story of a people who had every reason not to hope. But, in spite of that, they never lost faith, and they never stopped hoping. The war itself was an act of audacious hope. There really was no way anyone could have expected them to win. By all rights, it should have been a minor rebellion, completely unnoticed by the larger empire, and lost to history. But, it wasn’t. It was one of the most improbable victories you’ll ever read about.

Chanukah is about a lot of things — the balance between religious fundamentalism and acculturation, for example. But, at its core, Chanukah is about hope in the face of hopelessness. That might be one of the great lessons in all Judaism: the fundamental, absolute necessity for hope, no matter what. The constant, ever-present possibility of miracles, so long as we believe that they might still happen.

We’ll never know what would have happened to those poor souls on top of Masada if they had decided to surrender, or fight back. We do, however, have a pretty good idea of what would have happened if the Hasmoneans hadn’t fought back. There would have been no victory, no Temple restored. It could have been the end of the Jewish people, and even if we had survived, we certainly would not have our annual celebration of their great victory and so, tragically, there would be no excuse to eat fried latkes and doughnuts all week! The Maccabean victory relied on quite a few factors, but it began with hope. Without hope, nothing is possible.

I may have finally come to realize the true meaning of a famous rabbinic aphorism. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlov once said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to be afraid.” There are always good and valid reasons to be afraid. To lose hope. We live in a world which, sometimes seemingly constantly, gives us ample reason to fear and doubt. We can pick up the papers and read about war, famine, looming financial crises, potential environmental catastrophes, superbugs and drug-resistant diseases, and more. We can look around our own lives and see people who have lost loved ones, lost their livelihoods, lost everything. We can look anywhere we want to and, without a bit of melodrama or paranoia, find lots of reasons to be afraid, to be absolutely, unequivocally sure, that there is no hope.

But, there’s one thing I can tell you for sure. If you let that fear overtake you, then there is no hope. You’ve already lost. The only way to live is to acknowledge the chasm — acknowledge the very real pitfalls and the dangers — and then take a step forward, anyway. We don’t pretend that the dangers aren’t there; we just choose to move ahead, in spite of them. Miraculously, we rarely fall.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the godfather of what we now call Modern Orthodox Judaism, noticed that the first born Jew, Yitzhak, was named after laughter. His parents, Abraham and Sarah, had grown so old that when God tells Sarah she’s going to have a baby, she laughs. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, at her age (and, frankly, she’s more concerned with Abraham’s age than hers!). So, when she eventually has a baby, she names him after that laughter. That’s because, Hirsch teaches, from our first moments, our people’s history has been so ridiculous as to be laughable. Our patriarch and matriarch didn’t have a child until they had reached a ridiculous high age. The idea that we could survive 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering the desert, conquer a hostile land, establish a kingdom — it’s laughable. Survive 2000 years of exile and dispersion — and not just survive, but thrive? Laughable. Revive a dead language? Drain the swamps, make the desert bloom and create a modern state out of almost nothing? Survive the death camps and outlive Hitler? Become one of the great military powers of the world at the same time that those who remain outside of Israel become a thriving, vibrant people? Ridiculous, and utterly hopeless.

That’s who we are — we are the people who regularly do that which is so impossible as to be laughable. We are the people who never lose hope, no matter what.

The Maharal of Prague has a beautiful teaching about Chanukah. Why, he asks, do we talk about an eight day miracle? When the Hasmoneans entered the temple, they found enough oil for one day, but it lasted eight. We all know the story. But, that’s only a seven-day miracle — that first day wasn’t a miracle, at all. It was just lighting a light. That’s true, the Maharal says. But, before we could get to that seven-day miracle, we needed another miracle, first. You see, there was no reason to think that lighting the light was a good idea. They knew there was only enough oil for one day. Lighting the menorah and letting it go out, would have been a major religious violation. Logic would have dictated that they simply wait another week, until there was sufficient oil.

But, they were unwilling to wait. They were unwilling to delay rekindling the menorah, and their sense of holiness, for one more moment. And, despite having no reason to think that it would work out well, they trusted that it would. They acted on hope, even when the world gave them little reason for it. On days two through seven of Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of the burning. But, on the first day, we celebrate the miracle of the lighting.

On the first day, we celebrate the miracle of hope.

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