Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

December 18, 2005

 “A Great Miracle Happened There”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


Today we consider Hanukkah. But before the Maccabees were fighting the Seleucid kings, there had been a whole lot of Jewish history. I wish for a moment to take you back to the very beginning—even a time before the beginning.

The first human being to ever write a word was in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq. They pressed lines into clay in order to keep track of the sales of goods. The Sumerian people of Mesopotamia were the world’s first civilization. They were sophisticated farmers and mathematicians.

Our modern conception of history is inextricably linked to the written word. And so it is somewhat ironic that the Sumerians—the people who invented writing—had no sense of history, as we understand history today. In their worldview, everything that is had always been. Although they, the “black headed people” (as they called themselves), had invented writing, and farming manuals, and accounting techniques, they attributed all of these innovations to the gods, who had always possessed them. Their written histories tell of kings who reigned for thousands of years. Some of their histories tell of kings who reigned after one another, when in fact we know that those kings reigned simultaneously in different areas.

In ancient Sumer, human life was seen as “a pale reenactment of the life of the eternal heavens. [Human life] was ruled by a fate beyond our pitifully limited powers…. The gods decided. [Stars and planets]—if interpreted aright by those who had access to secret priestly knowledge…— could give some indication of what would happen next in earthly affairs. But one’s fate was written in the stars and could not be changed” (Cahill, p. 46).
Ancient peoples everywhere saw life in terms of circles—recurring action.

The Sumerians were urban sophisticates along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Wandering through the deserts were the unsophisticated Semitic nomads—the ancient grandparents of the Jewish people. Over time, some of the Semitic nomads came to live in the cities and take on the life and culture of the Sumerians. One pair of these early Semites in Sumerian were Abraham and Sarah. The Hebrews as a people begin when this couple engages in the first recorded act of someone leaving the city for the suburbs. The book of Genesis tells us that Abraham left Ur because God wished to give him the land of Canaan. We cannot know, of course, if that was Abraham’s destination, or whether it was where he landed, and legend inserted this intention into the story. But, in the words of Thomas Cahill, “out of Sumer, civilized repository of the predictable, comes a man who does not know where he is going but goes forth into the unknown wilderness under the prompting of his god…. [And, for the first time,] out of mortal imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something—in the future.” (Cahill, p. 63) In these early beginnings of Judaism were the beginnings of the radical notion that human action could have meaning.

If Abraham and Sarah had asked the sages of any existing civilizations, all would have advised that one must never over-reach. One must accept that human beings are powerless to do anything other than submit to fate and cooperate with it. Only the gods can choose. Human beings can do nothing new.

But Abraham began a new relationship between humans and God. He was a powerful chieftain with substantial wealth and wits. But he has not been given what he most longs for: a child. He complains to God that he will die accursed, because God has not granted him a child. Although he and Sarah are long past child-bearing age, God promises him that his seed will be as plentiful as the stars. And remarkably, in the ancient literature, an interpersonal relationship begins to develop between this man and this god. What does God ask of Abraham? Only everything. God promises Abraham and Sarah a son and, though Sarah laughs at the notion, their son Isaac is born to him when they are both in advanced years. When Isaac is still young, God tests Abraham. Is this relationship what God insists that it must be? This is a most demanding god. Abraham, having waited all his life for a child, is blessed with Isaac. And then God asks the impossible. He demands that Abraham sacrifice this beloved son. Only when God Abraham’s hand is in the air, ready to bring the knife down on the child, does God stay the man’s hand. Although the story is impossibly cruel to the modern mind, the message to the ancient Hebrews was clear. In the end, what this God wants is not the sacrifice of human blood, but the sacrifice of the human heart. And this is a much more difficult sacrifice to give.

Centuries later, when the ancestors of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Jacob, have settled the land of Canaan and constructed the Temple in Jerusalem, this relationship that the Hebrew God had with his people continued to be unlike the relationship of any other god with any other people. And it continued to be in constant tension with the dominant cultures. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with references to the worship of foreign gods and goddesses by the Jewish people. The Jewish people are described as constantly unfaithful to an unfailingly faithful god. Prophets, such as Isaiah and Micah and Amos and Hosea, saw a troubling link between this constant drifting toward idol worship and injustice. They saw the gods Ba’al and Astarte and Moloch as gods of human desires: gods who promised “power and riches, prestige and victory,” gods who could be cajoled into administering personal favors if the correct rituals were performed, or the correct offerings were made. Our god, the prophets cry, wants most of all for us to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly on the earth.

“There is no way of exaggerating how strange” the Jewish god was to other ancient peoples. This god had no physical representation. This god was invisible and wished from his people invisible things. Yes, there was the temple sacrifice. But what was so strange about this god of these Jewish oddballs was that he required them to have a certain heart. He strictly disallowed sexual practices, like prostitution, that were perfectly legal and normal, even divinely sanctioned by other gods. The Jewish god required mercy toward strangers and justice within Jewish society. This god absolutely forbade elevating any human being to the status of God, and strictly forbade anything that could be remotely construed as serving any other god.

By the time the Seleucid kings had invaded Israel, this strange God and his people had been through a great deal together.

The Seleucid kings forbade the Jews to perform the rituals required by their god—the observation of the Sabbath, the study of Torah, and male circumcisions, to name a few. But to put Greek Gods into the Holy Temple and then to require Jews to sacrifice to these gods—disgusting caricatures of the true God, in Jewish eyes. These gods pandered to the worst of human greed and immorality. These gods only fancied themselves gods. They were influences that lured human beings into degrading and disgusting behavior. —To be forced to serve what was most repugnant to decency—that was too much. It was like asking them to worship Satan. Mattiyahu (known as Mattathias in Greek) and his sons rallied their fellow Jews to stand up and say that enough was enough.The story of Hanukah is not found in the Hebrew bible. It was written down in two works known as the Books of the Maccabees. These scrolls survived because they had been part of the Greek scriptures which Catholic Christians hold sacred to this day. The Mishnah, where all aspects of Jewish religious life were recorded, makes only a few references to the holiday and its story. The relative unimportance of Hanukkah in early times might be due to the fact that the Hasmonean dynasty did not stay true to resisting secular influence. Some speculate that the later rabbis did not want to encourage the honoring of this family after all. But during the middle ages, the Hanukkah story began to take grow in popularity.

Jews in America today have magnified the importance of this holiday which in former times was a minor part of the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah grew in importance to American Jews as Christmas has become more and more pervasive throughout our culture at this time of year. With television and commercial forces pushing Christmas forward in American consciousness as never before, the Hanukkah story has served as a form of Jewish resistance to Christian dominance. The story is perfectly suited to this task. Although many Jewish families enjoy celebrating both holidays, and do not feel the repugnance toward Christmas that the Maccabees felt toward Greek religion, nevertheless the story of the small band of feisty Jews resisting the unethical dominance of an overwhelming power is an important source of pride and an opportunity for a minority to define itself when it is threatened by being trammeled by a majority.

There are stories like this out there in the world. Stories of how right triumphs over might. Stories of how when people are fed up with the immoral behavior of the strong, they manage to turn the tide against seemingly impossible odds. But the stories are always imperfect. They are almost never stories with perfect people who behave in ideal ways. Mattathias flew off in a rage and killed the Jew who was about to perform the forbidden ritual. This is not exactly the kind of behavior we wish our Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or UU children to follow. All of our stories have these mixtures of good and evil, right and wrong, wise and unwise, life affirming and life denying in them. The intentions, the behavior, the actions of our forebears are never purely what we wish they could be. The Christian legend of the birth of Jesus, which we will celebrate on Christmas eve, is similarly full of details that make the story flawed. We don’t believe the angel bit, or the star bit or the virgin birth bit. But the power of the story continues nevertheless.

The story of the Maccabees is a story about all the things that Arden talked about: miracles and hope and possibilities. The Maccabees had had enough. They they had heard rumors enough, they had seen enough, they had endured enough. And the price of continuing to bear the unbearable had finally become too high. They banded together. They took a stand for what they believed was decent and right. And they won.
In our own lives, there are many things that we find ourselves bearing even though we don’t want to bear. Sometimes it is our own behavior that we are tired of enduring. Sometimes it is the behavior of other individuals we are tired of enduring. Sometimes it is an illness or an emotional loss that we are tired of enduring. Sometimes it is political strong-arming that we are tired of enduring. Not all of the things that we are tired of enduring can be solved by the same solutions.

In the second book of the Maccabees, there is a story told of a woman named Hannah who has seven sons involved in the struggle against the Seleucid kings. Hannah was forced to watch while King Antiochus tortured and murdered each of them for refusing to go against the laws of their god. After witnessing six of them treated in this inhumane manner, it was the youngest son’s turn. The King urged Hannah, “Tell your last son to save himself.” The king insists that the son eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Hannah said to her son, “Follow the example of your brothers. Die rather than break the Torah commandment.” He refuses to do as the king commands.

When the young man is about to be murdered, Hannah kisses him and whispers, “Say to Father Abraham, ‘Do not pride yourself on having built an altar and offered up our son Isaac. Our mother built seven altars and offered up seven sons in one day. Yours was only a test, but hers was real.’”

This mother Hannah and her sons were tired of enduring the indignity of being asked to say and do what was contrary to what they believed. And they stood up, but it is hard to be inspired by the notion of what they suffered for their integrity.

So often, our decisions about what to fight and what to give into are difficult and require much discussion, study, contemplation and prayer. When is the risk worth the cost? Should we go along with the Seleucid kings in our lives because there is some greater good to be served by not making waves? Or, will the emotional cost to me in fighting, fighting, fighting be worth what I might gain if I win?

I spoke to a friend recently who is in a situation where she feels that she is being treated unfairly by very manipulative people. A job that she has had for many, many years is on the line because her employers are not abiding by promises that they made long ago. She said to me that she has decided to stand her ground for what she believes is right no matter what the consequences—even though it might mean her being without a job. “I asked myself,” she said to me, “whether I want to die standing up, or live on my knees. I’d rather die standing up.”

The Maccabees died standing up. Many of them sacrificed for a cause greater than themselves. There are people all over the world today who are dying standing up. Some of those wear the uniforms of their countries. Some of those are fighting against uniformed soldiers. Some are activists who are trying to unionize workers, others are exposing corruption in government, or standing up to gangs in their school.

The first Jewish US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, once said, "The Maccabees' victory proved that the Jews-- then already an old people-- possessed the secret of eternal youth: the ability to rejuvenate itself through courage, hope, enthusiasm, devotion, and self-sacrifice of the plain people.”

May we remember their courage, may we remember the miracle of a small band of people whose passion for justice triumphed over tyranny. May we do the same.


The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill “Origins” by Amy J. Kramer
The Hanukkah Anthology by Philip Goodman