Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights.
I was reminded this week, in an email from the Jewish Theological Seminary, about a very strange passage in the Babylonian Talmud.
Avodah Zarah 8a
When the first human being saw that the days were getting shorter and shorter, he said: “Oy! Woe is me; maybe because I have sinned the world is getting dark and is going to return to chaos!” … He got up and spent eight days in fasting and prayer.
When he saw that the winter solstice had arrived, and that the days were getting longer again, he said: “this is just the order of the world”. He went and celebrated a holiday for eight days.
So first we have to imagine that we are the first person on earth and that each sunset is a surprise and each sunrise a welcome miracle. After all, it will take many sunsets and sunrises until we can say, “This is just the way the world is organized; this is just the order of the world.” But slowly, as the year marches on, the days begin to be noticeably shorter. Perhaps “the way of the world” is that each day is shorter until there is no more daylight left. When that happens, the world will be cold and dark, just as it was before creation began. The world will be Tohu VaVohu –chaos, as it was before God said, “Let there be light.”
Pagan history is full of examples where people would light fires to “remind” the world to get light again each winter. And each year, the fires worked, and the days began to get longer again. Perhaps this is the basic situation that early human beings found themselves dealing with as the Winter Solstice approached. The historian in me notes that the origin of the Christian “Yule Log” that would burn for many days is just Christianity borrowing a pagan winter practice and making it fit their theology.
And maybe this pagan practice is the source of our Talmudic passage as well, recreating the mindset of the people in the year before humanity calculated the seasons of the year. Our passage from the tractate, Avoda Zarah, the tractate that describes how Judaism will deal with pagan beliefs, addresses this primal concern that the days are getting short and may never become long again.
The Rabbis of the Talmud, however are less interested in what the pagan people around them were thinking in the winter and were more concerned about how Jews faced the short days of December. They noted that, yes, it is a concern that the days are getting shorter and Adam, the first man, dealt with his fears by fasting and praying to God to bring back the light. But once our ancestor figured out that, in our world, the normal thing is for the days to get longer and shorter, he stopped worrying about it and found in that fact a reason to celebrate. Was Adam the first human being to celebrate Hanukah? Maybe, but it would be thousands of year until the Maccabees would rise in revolt against the Syrian Greeks and oil would burn for eight days. Still, there is a primal atmosphere around Hanukah, that goes back to our most basic fear of the dark and our thankfulness for God’s light.
In this week’s parsha, we find Joseph stuck in the darkness of his prison. It seems that every stage of his life, at every moment when there is a little bit of light, Joseph is cast back into the darkness again. He is his father’s favorite child but ends up thrown into a pit. He is sold as a slave and rises to the manager of the house, but a false accusation gets him thrown into prison. He rises to be the personal assistant to the warden of the jail and gets to help a high-ranking official who promptly forget about him as soon as the official is freed from prison. Joseph begins this parsha hopelessly stuck in the darkness.
In just a few quick verses, Joseph is freed from prison, washed up, given a new set of clothing and brought before the one man in all of Egypt who can free Joseph from prison and from the darkness. Joseph shares his wisdom with Pharaoh, and with this one act, becomes the second most powerful official in Egypt. Joseph is given riches, a new wife, a new name and a new life. The darkness is gone, and Joseph is basking in the light, responsible for saving the lives of everyone in Egypt from the famine that will soon descend on the land. In Joseph’s light, all of Egypt will be spared the darkness.
So maybe it is Seasonal Affect Disorder that leaves us feeling so gloomy on these long dark days of winter. We leave our homes when it is still dark outside, go to work and by the time we return home, it is dark again. It seems as if we never get a chance to see our homes by the light of day.
And all too often, the daylight hours are not much help. The sky is often cloudy and grey. The wind is cold and biting. The temperature is below freezing so we must bundle up before we can even venture outside. Between the rain and the snow, there is precious little time to bask in any sunshine.
In the middle of all of this is the festival of Hanukah. Hag Urim Sameach, the joyful Festival of Lights. We face the darkness outside our windows and light candles, one more each night, to turn back the black night and to shine a light into our lives. It does not take all that much light to push away the shadows. One candle at a time, we bring more light to the world; we bring more love to the world, and we bring more hope to the world. Like our oldest ancestor, Adam, we face the darkness with faith that the light, the brightness of the sun, will soon return.
Light a candle and miracles can become possible. A young man, stuck in prison becomes free in the blink of an eye. A band of rebels fighting to practice their faith suddenly recapture the heart of our religion, the Temple of Jerusalem. A small bit of oil miraculously lasts eight times longer than expected. One of the great things about a candle is that it can spread its light to ignite other candles and yet, its own flame is never diminished.
Perhaps in all of this is the lesson that we too can bring the light of our own lives to shine in this world and bring hope and faith to push back the evil darkness. Each time we share our light, it does not leave us diminished, but it leaves us as brilliant as before, but now there are two lights; then three; then four and soon darkness is in full retreat like the night that scatters in the face of the dawn.
Adam, the first human being; Joseph, the favorite son sent to prison; the Maccabees, the first fighters for religious freedom; they all teach us that no matter how dark life may seem at times, no matter how small the hours of daylight may be, light is never very far away. We must never give up on what is right and never believe that hope is impossible. Light the candle, start a fire burning in others and soon the darkness in life will be scattered.
We read in Hallel today, Ze Hayom Asah H’ Nagila v’Nismecha Bo. This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice in it. It may seem to be a gloomy and bitter cold day of winter, but never doubt, that soon the light will return, the green shoots of springtime will bring life and color to the greys of winter. We may not be able to see the first signs of spring, but we can know that underneath the snow and frozen ground, the first traces of spring can be found. In just a few weeks we will see the sun stay in the sky longer. Life does not stop in the winter, it just goes dormant to prepare for the springtime that will inevitably come.
The lesson of Hanukah is to never give up on our few small candles. The night may be long and dark, but we can shine a light in the darkness and for so many people, it will make all the difference in the world. Our little candles can help the world remember the values of freedom, of faith, of life and of Hesed/compassion. As long as we don’t give up, a miracle is always possible.
May God bless us on this joyful holiday with laughter, with love, with hope and with light as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom. Hanukah Sameach
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, December 16, 2017.