Friday, December 26, 2008

Light One Candle

So, tonight I was once again the lay leader for services at Congregation Adas Emuno, and this being the Sabbath that falls during Chanukah, we began with the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah. Actually, I began by noting that the Menorah is in one sense symbolic of the Burning Bush, which was when God first spoke to Moses (according to the story related in Exodus, of course). Later, in conjunction with God giving the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, he provides specific instructions for setting up a Sanctuary, an Ark, and then a Menorah:

And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knobs, and its flowers, shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candle-stick out of the other side thereof; three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knob and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knob and a flower; so for the six branches going out of the candlestick. And in the candlestick four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knobs thereof, and the flowers thereof. And a knob under two branches of one piece with it, and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of the candlestick. Their knobs and their branches shall be of one piece with it; the whole of it one beaten work of pure gold. And thou shalt make the lamps thereof, seven; and they shall light the lamps thereof, to give light over against it. (Exodus 25:31-37).

I noted that the six branches parallel the six points of the Shield or Star of David (also known as the Seal of Solomon). The seventh lamp is the Shamash, the helper (yes, I already went over this in a recent post, Eight Lights). There are additional instructions about how to make the sacred oil for the lamps:

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning; [it shall be] an everlasting statute for their generations, from the children of Israel. (Exodus 27:20-21)

The Menorah was central to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and contemporary synagogues and temples typically have a six-branched Menorah (typically electric now) and an Eternal Light that is supposed to always stay on. The Menorah is a symbol of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem (the First destroyed by the Babylonians, the Second by the Romans), and also of Judaism and the Jewish people, and it is also used by the State of Israel (see Eight Lights). The light itself symbolizes enlightenment of course, both of the intellectual and spiritual variety, and it also symbolizes spirit itself, a symbol of the divine.

I then noted that on Chanukah we have a special Menorah with two extra lamps. It is a holiday of lights to mark the winter solstice, and according to tradition, we are celebrating the miracle of one day's worth of oil burning for eight days. Chanukah lasts for eight days also because it represents a delayed celebration of Sukkot, an eight day harvest festival that falls right after Yom Kippur. Sukkot could not be properly observed because the Temple had been desecrated by the Syrian-Greeks, with unclean animals and a statue of Zeus placed inside it, until the rebel Maccabees, fighting against overwhelming odds, were able to oust the conquerors and retake the Temple. And along with cleansing and purifying the sacred space, they rekindled the Menorah.

I also explained that Chanukah is also an echo of the festival of Passover, with a similar theme of freedom from oppression, and that the name Chanukah means dedication, or rededication, originally associated with the restoration of the Temple. But for us today, we ought to think about our own dedication to enlightenment and spiritual renewal.

At this point, I turned to the short Chanukah service in the prayerbooks. After lighting the candles, we recited the lyrics to "Light One Candle," by Peter Yarrow. Here's how they go:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks that their light didn't die
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know
When the peacemaker's time is at hand

Don't let the light go out!
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts

Don't let the light go out!
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

What is the memory that's valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What's the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out they've not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, this is the promise
This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out!
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.
Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!
Here is a beautiful live concert version of the song, by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

This is my favorite Chanukah song of all time!

We then proceeded with our regular Shabbat service. When it came time to chant the Mi Chamocha prayer, I noted that the Hebrew term Maccabbee, which refers to the followers of Judah the Maccabbee, and is usually translated as hammer (hence, Judah the Hammer, the military leader of those rebeling against the Syrian-Greek occupiers) is also an acronym of the first four words of the prayer, Mi chamocha, ba'elim, Adonai? (Who is like you, Lord, among the gods?). This is the oldest prayer in the Jewish liturgy, it's what the newly freed Israelites sang in the Book of Exodus after God parted the Red Sea for them and they were able to cross safely and escape the Egyptians. In its written form, the fourth word is not Adonai, that's what we say instead of uttering God's name, which is represented by the letter YHWH (the English tranlaltion is Jehovah), and the Y equivalent provides the "ee" ending of Maccabbee (MCBY).

So, when we came to the sermon portion of the service, I first asked everyone what Chanukah means to them. A few people answered, I think folks were pretty tired from the week, so I didn't push it and went on to do three readings providing differen views of Chanukah. The first was by Emma Lazarus:

The Feast of Lights
Emma Lazarus

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,

The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias' stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o'er all his clan

Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: "He received the perishing."

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah's heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie

Disfigured and polluted--who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o'ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.

Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!

As you no doubt know, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was a Jewish-American poet from New York City who is best known for her sonnet, "The New Colossus," which goes like this:

The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

That's right! This is the poem that appears on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. If you're wondering about the twin cities she makes reference to, they're New York City, and Jersey City (which is actually closer to Liberty and Ellis Island that New York is). So, anyway, let's call up a picture of Emma Lazarus, why don't we?

That's much better. As for the poem, "The Feast of Lights," was published in 1882, and reflects the growing sentiment that formally coalesced as Zionism in 1897; 1882 was the year that many Jews started to immigrate to Palestine (that's what it was called back then), mostly from Russia to escape the pogroms.

So, I then read two excerpts from an essay that Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun and National Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, published online in the Huffington Post online recently, under the title Chanukah and Christmas: When Hope Triumphs Over Cynical Realism, and you can go ahead and click on the title to read the entire essay, I'm not going to reproduce it here. I just pulled out two paragraphs to read at services that I thought conveyed a contemporary progressive interpretation of Chanukah:

The "old-time religion" that the Maccabees fought to preserve had revolutionary elements in it that went far beyond the Greeks in articulating a liberatory vision: not only in the somewhat abstract demand to "love your neighbor as yourself," "love the stranger," and pursue justice and peace, but also concretely in Torah prescriptions to abolish all debts every seven years, allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, refrain from all work and activities connected to control over the earth once a week on Sabbath, redistribute the land every fifty years (the Jubilee) back to its original equal distribution. . . .

The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who sustained a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue.

Now, I think the entire piece is worth reading, whether you agree with his politics or not, but it was a bit long to read in its entirety, and I wanted to get at the the core message, which is very much consonant with Peter Yarrow's "Light One Candle" I think.

As for the third reading, that was my poem, "Eight Lights" (which I just posted the other day in my post entitled, naturally enough, Eight Lights). When I read it tonight, I didn't say that I had written it, but my friend Michael Fishbein knew that it was my piece because he actually reads this blog (thank you Michael!), and filled the others in (we had about 20 people attending tonight), and I got some nice compliments on the poem, which is always gratifying.

So, after that, we resumed the service and closed with the Chanukah hymn "Ma'oz Tsur/Rock of Ages" and lo and behold, I found a nice version on YouTube that was recorded just a couple of weeks ago at a concert in nearby Tenafly, New Jersey:

And, well, tonight was the sixth night of Chanukah, two more nights to go! We sure don't let the lights go out, do we?

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