A Great Miracle - NOPE
Lights of the Season
Rabbi Barr's Christmas Eve Sermon
Listen to the audio of the sermon transcribed below -
On Christmas Eve in 2007, Rabbi Robert Barr delivered the Christmas Eve sermon at First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati. The sermon is below.
Before tonight, the closest I ever came to a Christmas Eve service was driving by a church on my way to a Chinese dinner and a movie. For many Jews, that is our Christmas Eve ritual. It is thus with a great sense of honor and privilege that I stand at this historic pulpit.
When Reverend Dittmar first asked me to preach the Christmas Eve Sermon at First Church, I thought she was pulling my leg. Actually, over the years, I have told her all about my pent up Christmas Eve sermons. I don't know if it's just an occupational hazard, but every time I think about a holiday, Jewish or non-Jewish, I begin to craft a sermon in my head.
Maybe it all started when I first saw Cary Grant in the Christmas movie The Bishop's Wife. Grant played an angel who came to earth to help a harassed bishop, played by David Niven, who was trying to raise money to build a new cathedral. In the final act before the angel disappeared and was removed from everyone's memory, he rewrote the bishop's Christmas Eve Sermon. I still remember the bishop as he read the sermon realizing that it wasn't the one he wrote, but not knowing where it came from. I suppose it was at that moment that I wanted to become a ghost writer for a Christmas Eve sermon.
But tonight, I'm not ghost writing or haranguing my non-Jewish colleagues with the sermon I would give. I'm giving it! As I considered Reverend Dittmar's invitation, I realized that there would be detractors, those who claim that issuing an invitation to a rabbi to preach on Christmas Eve was wrong, and there would surely be Jews who would speak ill of what I'm doing right now. But your minister took a bold step to bridge the gap that so often divides people. Although we frequently speak of this season as one of goodwill among people, regrettably this can be a season that in fact highlights divisions.
Too often today religious differences have become more important than our similarities. There are those who claim that only their particular religious perspective is true, and thus all others are false. Those who identify with no religion are often accused of being the source of disharmony and problems in our nation. People of good will and strong morals are not determined by the label that they apply to themselves but rather the actions that they take. We may celebrate different holidays, we may include different stories in our people's histories, but we are bound together by our common understanding that the human mind and heart, while fallible, ultimately determine the future, ultimately decide our fate upon this earth.
I am here in hope of bridging any divide that might separate us. I believe that we must see the world from each other's perspectives. We don't have the luxury within a world which grows smaller each day to imagine ourselves as islands. To see the world from a different perspective is not easy, yet when we move beyond our self-imposed limits, the safe boundaries that we have created for ourselves, we can begin to build upon our differences to make a healthier and more just society.
So what can a rabbi say on Christmas Eve? That is the question that members of Congregation Beth Adam asked when they heard I was going to be here. It is a question I have wrestled with since Reverend Dittmar issued me her invitation. Since that day, I've considered the Christmas story and what it can say to me, to see what lessons I might draw from it that is respectful of its origins and to my experience.
Looking to see what brings us together, I find in the stories that serve as the foundation of Hanukkah and Christmas a core similarity that speaks to me from across the generations. Before we explore the similarity, however, it is important that I speak about how I approach Biblical texts, whether a story is founded in the Hebrew Bible or in the New Testament. As a rabbi trained in the methods of modern biblical scholarship, I read the stories of the ancients not as a single historical narrative that describe events as they actually happened, but rather as texts written by human authors who were wrestling with the issues of their day.
These ancient documents are composite works that interweave history, legend, law, myth, political struggles, allegory, ancient rules to live by, even religious conflict. Accepting that the ancient texts are human and not divine allows us to understand the age, the context, and the people who composed them. Looking at the text in this way also frees us from having to justify or be bound by the ancients' misjudgments.
I know from teaching with Reverend Dittmar that a scholarly approach to texts is one that is celebrated at First Unitarian Church. You also see the stories of the ancients as great tales that taught important lessons, even when the events described are often more fiction than fact.
When we encounter these tales in this way, we read the stories to see what insights we may gain, knowing that religious stories continue to be created in each and every generation. No age has a hold on all truth or all wisdom - ethical or moral. No one generation knows the secrets of the universe. We know that we too will someday be ancestors, that generations after us will look to our words and actions. They may see at times our greatness but also where we have fallen short. History is a dance between one generation and the next, never fixed for all time, ever changing, growing, evolving into something better than what had existed before.
Tonight is Christmas Eve. Although Hanukkah this year has been over for many nights now, looking at the Hanukkah story starts us on our journey.
We start with the story of oil, a vessel of oil that was to last one day but lasted eight. Let me say clearly that this is a myth, a complete fantasy so obviously created by the rabbis of a later generation that we can date when the story came into existence. The rabbis propagated this tale for a reason. The story of Hanukkah had already been written down in the Book of Maccabees, but the rabbis weren't satisfied. That story didn't meet with their approval or their needs. So the rabbis turned a very human event, a story about a military victory, into something it wasn't -- a tale about a miracle.
By doing so, they tried to eliminate a value that is essential to the Jewish experience, a value that has continued to raise itself up throughout Jewish history, that the future rests upon us. The future is dependent upon the actions of people based on our sense of right and wrong, our willingness to act, to stand up against injustice, to comfort the sick, and to clothe the naked. The world is transformed through human action.
Thus when the great rabbi Hillel was asked to encapsulate the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot, he didn't speak of belief, nor of what will happen when we die. He simply said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary."
When I consider the story of the birth of Jesus and know that there have been thousands of different interpretations over the generations (and that a rabbi speaking about this powerful tale on Christmas Eve treads on sacred ground), I read the story as a message about being human and the power that lies within us to transform the world.
As those who read the ancient texts as metaphor, it is incumbent upon us to ask what may seem to some a heretical question but seems to me the obvious one. Why did those authoring the story decide to describe Jesus and all he was to represent in human terms? The authors could have described the messiah as an angel or some other celestial being not yet known to humankind. The messiah, like the God of the Bible, may have never been seen, but only revealed through word or sign. The authors of this story made a decision to cast the messiah as human. Theirs was a conscious act - deliberate, determined. I draw from this a powerful message, one often ignored and overshadowed by the discussion of the divinity of Jesus. The message which I draw is that the future of humans lies not in the hands of the gods but rather in the hands of people.
The authors of this tale further created a powerful and disturbing image with contrasts that are sharp and clear. The story begins with a pregnant woman and her caring husband looking for a place for her to give birth, but there is no room, no place for this outcast family. This is a strong image. We can all imagine what it would be like to need a place to rest, to lie down, exhausted, and yet to find all the doors that we knock upon are closed to us.
Surely, the authors of this myth, this tale passed from old, could have spoken of their finding a glorious spot for the child to have been born, a place rich in beauty and comfort. If a miracle in the sky could signal the birth of this child, than certainly a miracle could have occurred so that this outcast family could have given birth to this child in a more appropriate place than a manger.
Thus we must ask: Why the manger? Why a place for animals, an unworthy place for any person to be born, rich or poor, leader or follower? To me it suggests that the authors of that tale understood, as we do today, that there exists in society a divide between those who have and those who have not. In every age there are those more fortunate and those less so, those who live on the edge of despair, those who do not know where their next meal is coming from, those who are not even certain that they will have a roof over their heads when the winds of winter blow, a place to reside even when they are to give birth.
And then, to capture all the hopes and dreams and the possibilities for the future, they chose not a god or titan or angel, but they picked the image of the infant, the most vulnerable person in our society, totally dependent, helpless, who looks to adults for food and safety. With any baby, there are unknown possibilities, unknown recognized potential, unimagined greatness. When we see an infant for the first time, no one can predict the child's future. While we may know that children born to poverty and hardship have a difficult life ahead, we hope that perhaps they can break the cycle. The newborn, the infant, represents the hopes, the dreams, the potential that exists within one human life, to transform all that he or she encounters.
It strikes me that both Hanukkah and Christmas declare in the bleakness of winter that hope is found not in the farthest reaches of heaven, but rather in the compassion of the human heart, the durability of the human spirit, and the wisdom and insights of the human mind. The hope for the future lies within people, young or old, who may celebrate one holiday or another, born in luxury or on the edge of poverty. The message passed from generations, but often ignored because it places great responsibility upon each of us, is that the hope for the future lies within the community of people.
To emphasize this message, the lighting of fires, be it candles for Hanukkah or the lights of Christmas, has become our symbol. Our ancestors who pre-date any of the religious traditions of which we speak tonight used their minds to tame fire and raise us up from the status of other animals. With fire as our tool we warmed ourselves, cooked our food, and brought light to the darkness. Fire is not only a tool, but a symbol of our human ability to reason, to think, to transform the world around us to meet our needs.
And so we live within a delicate balance. We hold in our hands fire with its awesome power to destroy and to wreak havoc. But with this fire, we also have our ability to tame destructive forces and use them to improve the world in which we live, not only for us, but for people everywhere.
At this time of year we are called to live up to our human potential to transform a world wrapped in darkness to one made better by the light. Let us and all who value justice and peace accept the responsibility that rests upon us. The hope of the future lies in our hands and in the hands of those who recognize that by working together, celebrating our similarities rather than arguing about our differences, we, like our ancestors can bring light where there has been only darkness.
As we pass the flame of the candle to one another, may we be keenly aware that we pass among us more than fire. We pass among us our symbol of hope. Through the fire of passion for justice and equality that burns in our hearts and souls, we can dispel the darkness of ignorance, the shadow of despair, the gloom of poverty, the night of violence.
The flame that we pass reminds us that in a place where there is no humanity, we can strive to be human. On this night when we gather together as a community and as friends, let us renew our commitment to push back the darkness so that the light of hope and reason shine ever brighter.
And let me wish each of you a very Merry Christmas.
Why is the holiday spelled so many different ways? Is it Hanukkah, Chanukah, or Hanuka, or something else?
Because Hanukkah is actually a Hebrew word, it's transliterated in different ways into English. So, spell it however you want!
Why does the date of Hanukkah move? Some years it falls in early December (and sometimes even November!) and some years it's closer to Christmas. What's that about?
Hanukkah always falls on the same date on the Hebrew Calendar - it's the 25th day of the month of Kislev. But, because the Jewish calendar is both solar and lunar (whereas our standard calendar is just solar), the dates on both calendars don't correspond directly. So, the Jewish holidays move around a bit on the secular calendar. It's confusing.
What is the holiday of Hanukkah about? What are we celebrating?
Hanukkah is a story about practical politics and a military victory. Antiochus was a Syrian king who ruled over the Jews living in Judea around the time 168 BCE (168 years before the year 0). Antiochus wanted all of the groups in his domain to be Hellenized - to adopt Greek culture. But, the Jews resisted. The Syrian-Greeks (Seleucids) desecrated the Jewish Temple and a war ensued for about 3 years.
The Jews who decided to fight back were called the Maccabees (AKA Hasmoneans) and their leader was Judah Maccabee. Eventually, they emerged victorious and had an 8 day celebration. That's why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 days.
A few hundred years later, the rabbis of the Talmud concocted a story about a miracle of oil. They wrote in the Talmud (codified around the year 500 CE) says that when the Greeks entered the Temple, they destroyed all the oil in it. When the Hasmonean/Maccabean dynasty prevailed, they searched and found only one bottle of oil, sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day, and yet a miracle came about and the oil lasted for eight days.
Of course, that's the story most of us learn about Hanukkah... but the reality is that it's just a story - a legend. There's no historical accuracy to the oil tale.
The written materials from closer to the actual events are not in the Talmud - but the Book of Maccabees I and II. There we learn about a letter sent around the year 125 BCE from the Hasmoneans to the leaders of Egyptian Jewry which refers to the holiday as "The festival of Sukkot celebrated in the month of Kislev (December)." So, it turns out Hanukkah was originally celebrated for 8 days because of Sukkot - the Jewish harvest holiday in the fall each year which is an 8 day holiday. Since the Jews hadn't been able to observe Sukkot while they were at war with the Syrians, they then celebrated the holiday when they finally rededicated the Temple, after the Maccabean revolt.
How do I light a Hanukkah menorah (AKA Hanukiyah)?
Two famous rabbis argued about this question approximately 2,000 years ago. Rabbi Shammai said we should begin lighting all 8 candles and remove 1 candle each night. This was connected to the holiday of Sukkot (since a decreasing number of sacrifices was brought to the Temple each day during the 8 days of Sukkot). Rabbi Hillel said we should begin with one candle and add an additional candle each night. He said we should light an additional candle each night as a sign of the increasing holiness.
Hillel's opinion usually wins out - so the tradition today is to add a candle each night - and to put the candles in from right to left and light them from left to right. But, then again, the tradition is also that there are lots of opinions - so light it however you want!
What do we eat on the holiday of Hanukkah?
To emphasize the story of the miracle of oil, we eat a lot of food fried in oil. The most common foods are latkes, which are potato pancakes. They are eaten with sour cream, applesauce, jam, or sometimes ketchup. Other popular Hanukkah treats are jelly donuts (sufganiyot in Hebrew). Chocolate coins, called gelt, are a popular treat during the holiday as well. They symbolize the tradition of gift giving.
How do you play dreidel? And, what's a dreidel anyway?
Dreidels are four-sided tops. Each side has a Hebrew letter on it which represents a word from the phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham" - which is Hebrew for "a great miracle happened there." Like latkes and jelly donuts, this is to remind us of the legend about the miracle of oil. In Israel, the dreidel reads "A great miracle happend here" - instead of there - because that is where the story says the miracle occurred.
To play dreidel, each person begins with a few M&M's, pennies, or other small candy. Each person puts one of their pieces into the center to create the "pot." When it is your turn, you spin the dreidel and see which side it lands on. The letter you land on determines the next step.
- Nun (the skinny letter with a straight line at the bottom): Nothing happens
- Gimel (the skinny letter which is not flat at the bottom): Get everything in the center
- Hay (the letter that has two vertical lines and one horizontal line at the top): Get half of what is in the center
- Shin (the letter with three vertical (or diagonal) lines connected to a line on the bottom): Put one additional piece into the center.
THE FORGOTTEN HANUKIYAH By Rabbi Robert B. Barr
Once there sat a small Hanukkah Menorah (Hanukiyah) in an old antique store. The Hanukiyah had been in the store for many months. It had been there for so long that the owner of the store had forgotten all about the Little Hanukiyah. (To let you in on a secret - I don't think that the store owner knew that the Hanukiyah was a Hanukiyah - he just thought it was a funny looking candle stick!)
Well, the Hanukiyah was never dusted, or polished, or even wiped just to get the cobwebs off. And so it got dirtier and dirtier - with more and more cobwebs growing between its fingers.
The Hanukiyah sat on a very high shelf. From this spot the Hanukiyah could see everything that happened in the store. Every time the bells over the door jiggled, the little Hanukiyah would look to see a customer walk in and wander around the store - admiring the many beautiful objects that were there.
It was very hard for customers to decide what to buy - because there were so many things to choose from - but every once in a while - a customer would let out a big gasp - when they found something they just could not live without. They would pick it up very gently as they carried it to the owner of the store to pay for it.
But no one ever gasped when they saw the Hanukiyah - in fact most people never even noticed the little thing - because it sat so high up and was so covered with dust. But, that didn't stop the little Hanukiyah. Every time a customer would come anywhere close to where it was sitting, the little Hanukiyah would try to shake the dust from off its shoulders and try to stand a little taller so that someone would notice - but no one ever did. Nobody wanted the little Hanukiyah and it was very sad.
As the weeks passed, the little Hanukiyah grew sadder and sadder - and when it was sad it would try to hide in a corner. And from where it hid it watched as the other candlesticks were being sold and carried out by their new owners. It seemed like people bought every kind of candle stick - big ones and small ones - brass and silver - some held only one candle - others held two or three - one even held seven candles - but no one even looked at the little Hanukiyah. It just sat in its corner all alone feeling sad.
The Hanukiyah wondered why nobody wanted to buy it - it began to wonder if maybe it was the way it looked. So late one night after the owner had left the store, the little Hanukiyah decided to find out what was going on and why it wasn't wanted. So that night when everything was very quiet, the little Hanukiyah began to wiggle and wiggle and wiggle - harder and harder until it had slid along the shelf. (Remember though Hanukiyahs have fingers - they don't have feet.) And after a lot of work, the Hanukiyah finally reached its goal. There it stood before a big shiny tray in which it could see its own reflection.
As it examined its reflection, the Hanukiyah noticed something strange - it didn't look like any other candle stick it had ever seen in the shop. All the other candle sticks could hold 1, 2 or even maybe 7 candles - but the little Hanukiyah could hold nine. The Hanukiyah leaned closer, to get a better look, at the nine candle holders - 8 were all the same height, while the 9th one - the one in the middle stood taller than the rest.
For a long time the Hanukiyah just stood there looking at its reflection, wondering why it was so different. As the sun began to rise the little Hanukiyah knew it was time to go back into its corner. And so the Hanukiyah began to wiggle its way back to its spot, thinking that it looked strange, and not wanting anyone to see, the Hanukiyah hid behind a large plate.
The Hanukiyah stayed behind the plate for days, it just stood there moaning and groaning because it was ashamed of looking different. The little Hanukiyah stood gathering dust and watching as the spiders built elaborate cobwebs between its fingers. Sad, dusty and web-covered, the little Hanukiyah hid behind the large plate, hoping never to be seen again.
One day the bells over the door jiggled, and the little Hanukiyah peeked from behind the plate and was startled by what it saw. There was the biggest candle holder it had ever seen - and this enormous candle holder had 9 places just like it had. This new big candle holder was brought in for its annual cleaning and polishing.
The little Hanukiyah shook with joy as it looked at the new candle holder. It was enormous - it must have stood 4 feet high and its arms stretched 3 feet across. It looked so beautiful and proud, standing there tall and straight. The little Hanukiyah just stood there and stared at it all day long.
As soon as the owner of the store left for the night, the little Hanukiyah slid from behind the plate and called out, "Hey you, over there."
Then, the large Hanukiyah looked around finally spotting the little dusty, cobweb covered Hanukiyah that was sitting up high. The large Hanukiyah smiled and they began to talk.
The little Hanukiyah had so many questions for the large one - it wasn't even sure where to begin. Finally, the little Hanukiyah said, "I've been in this store for months, but you are the first candle-holder that I have seen that looks like me, with 9 candle holders - 8 the same height and 1 which is taller - why is that? Why are we different?
The large Hanukiyah stood quietly for a moment before it began to speak. "A long time ago, in a land far from here, there lived a people whose nation was under foreign rule. In time, the foreign rulers became crueler and they forced the people to adopt a new religion. But the people would not have it. They believed in freedom and that no once could force another how to think or believe. They tried everything to convince the foreign rulers that freedom was important to them. But nothing worked.
Finally, from among the people a small army arose who were willing to fight for freedom. (Though fighting is not the best way to solve a problem, in this situation it was the only way.) Because of their courage, dedication, and belief that what they were fighting for was right, they eventually won. After winning the war, these people rededicated their temple - and held a celebration which lasted eight days.
"Wow!" exclaimed the little Hanukiyah. "I've never heard that story before."
"That's not all," continued the large Hanukiyah, "ever since then, about 2,000 years, the Jews have celebrated the victory of their ancestors with the lighting of candles for 8 nights. You and I are the special candle-holders which they use for those 8 nights."
"Nah - really?" asked the little Hanukiyah.
"For sure", replied the big one.
"I'm really glad you told me all of this", said the little Hanukiyah. "I was beginning to feel pretty strange around here. I couldn't figure out why I was so different. But, one question - that all sounds really good - but if this celebration lasts for 8 days - why do we have 9 places for candles?"
"You are very observant little one" answered the large Hanukiyah. "The extra candle holder - which is taller than the rest is for a special candle called the shamash - which is lit first and used to light the other candles."
"This is amazing" said the little Hanukiyah. "I didn't know that being different could be so exciting. I only wish that I had known this earlier - then I wouldn't have had to stand behind this plate for so long gathering dust - which I'm allergic to. Achoo!"
"Remember" said the large Hanukiyah, "always keep your head high and your arms outstretched, because we are very important - we help Jews to celebrate their holiday of freedom and courage."
And just then, the shopkeeper opened the door and entered the store. Both of the Hanukiyahs kept absolutely still and didn't make another sound. And the shopkeeper had no idea that the two of them had talked the night away.
A strange thing happened though... the shopkeeper noticed the little Hanukiyah. He reached up and took it from the shelf and gave it a good polishing. Now the Hanukiyah was clean and shiny, and it stood so tall and proud knowing why it was different.
That same afternoon two children came into the store - noticed the sparkling Hanukiyah - and bought it right away. Taking it home, they placed it in the center of a large room table. Everyone who saw the Hanukiyah admired it. Together everyone gathered around as the candles were lit. In their soft glow, the children sang their songs and played with their spinning dreidels.
And the little Hanukiyah was proud to be a part of their celebration. And there it stood with its head high and its arms outstretched.