Sermon, Shabbat Vayeshev 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
December 20, 2019
I don’t know how many of you spend time viewing the parody versions of popular songs for Hanukkah on YouTube. This is not exactly a noble pursuit, but it is a highly entertaining one. The best of them right now are the Star Wars Hanukkah put out this week by the a capella group Six13, and a re-run of last year’s great version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, also by Six13, who seem to have captured the Maccabeats’ crown of top Hanukkah parodists. The Star Wars Hanukkah somehow uses all the best musical themes of the Star Wars’ movies into the Hanukkah blessings and several popular Hanukkah tunes. I’m not saying that Judah Maccabee’s triumph over Antiochus was precisely the same as Luke Skywalker’s victory over the evil Empire, but kind of… He certainly had the Force with him. In any case, these music videos capture the essence of the Hanukkah story, the victory of the few over the many, the ability to rise in revolution against an oppressor who denies us liberty to be who we really are.
The truth is that the parodies also capture the nature of our own contemporary struggle against assimilation, the tendency we have to get swallowed up into a larger culture that doesn’t necessarily understand or accept other views or beliefs. If anything, American society at this time of year, when we are supposed to be sharing goodwill towards one another, tends towards a monolithic approach to popular and religious culture. But we Jews have always been something different, a unique culture, and belief system, a people who believe in one God and the greater mission we have to further justice in this world. We confirm that uniqueness through our ethics, our texts, our prayers, our rituals, our music. It is a kind of sacred dream in which we have persisted for 3800 years.
This Shabbat we begin reading the great story of Joseph in the Torah and, Sunday night, we will begin to celebrate Hanukkah. In a beautiful and meaningful way, they connect. And they are all about exploring unlimited potential—or really, seeking to fulfill your dreams, in a pragmatic way.
As we approach the festival of Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Jews over their Syrian Greek overlords who wished to destroy their religious and political freedom, we remember another time when practical dreaming overcame huge obstacles. Nearly 2200 years ago a small group of dreamers insisted that their religious freedom mattered more to them than life itself, and that they would fight and struggle and work to overcome seemingly impossible odds to claim it. And their victory—not easily, but over years of fighting and working and, yes, dreaming—meant that today we can celebrate that freedom by praying and living as we wish. Without the events that Hanukkah commemorates there would be no Judaism today—nor any Christianity nor Islam for that matter. The Maccabees dreamed of freedom and fought to achieve it for all of us.
And, much earlier in history, in this week’s Torah portion dreams also play a central role. Our Biblical ancestor Joseph dreamed of personal greatness, but through tribulations he learned that dreams are only achieved through work and struggle. And so, he came to interpret others’ dreams, and eventually to act on them in pragmatic ways. His actions eventually reunified his family and brought him back together with his father and brothers: a personal dream that became the genesis of our entire people.
To me, Judaism is pragmatic idealism, practical dreaming. As Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, said, “Im tirtzu ein zo Agadah—if you will it, it is no dream.” To make a dream come true you must always work in practical ways to make them real. That certainly has been true of our own dream here at Congregation Beit Simcha, and it is true for every dreamer who seeks to change the world for the better—even a small portion of the world. Dreams alone don’t get it done. But of course, if there is no dream in the first place nothing ever changes, and we never improve the world.
I think it is particularly important for young people to realize that it is their dreams, and their own ability to hold onto those dreams, that will drive the future of this society and our world.
This has been a strange and threatening time for Jews. In the past fourteen months we have seen synagogues brutally in Pittsburgh and San Diego—and then just last Shabbat it was one in Beverly Hills, California, of all places, with scrolls desecrated and acts of hatred perpetrated, a few short days after a New Jersey kosher market was shot up. We can no longer ignore that Jews are being murdered by Anti-Semites right here in America. Anti-Semitic rhetoric has cascaded on the right and the left. It is a disturbing time for our people in this incredible land of Jewish opportunity, this golden country that America has been for our people nearly since its founding. The dream has had some overtones of nightmare lately, hasn’t it?
But the best response to such times is not to shrink or hide, nor is it to abandon our dreams. In fact, the opposite is true.
This kind of awful challenge emphasizes the fact that it is especially true that at times of darkness it is crucial to believe in the power of dreams. Without our Jewish ability to dream beyond the obvious, to believe in greater and higher ideals and better realities than the present ones, we would never have survived to carry on our mission.
The great poet Saul Tchernikovsky wrote a poem 125 years ago that he called his creed: it is called Sachki sachki al hachlomot, laugh, laugh at my dreams:
Laugh, laugh at all my dreams!
What I dream shall yet come true!
Laugh at my belief in humanity,
At my belief in you.
Freedom still my soul demands,
Unbartered for a calf of gold.
For still I do believe in humanity,
And in human spirit, strong and bold.
And in the future, I still believe
Though it be distant, come it will
When nations shall each other bless,
And peace at last the earth shall fill.
The reality is that we need to remember always to dream of how things can be, and then we must work to achieve those dreams. For when we do so we have the capacity to fulfill all the unlimited potential that God has implanted within us. We can achieve truly great things, and make this a better, more just, freer, holier world.
Holding fast to our dreams gives us the strength to move beyond our fears, to embrace our proud heritage and seek to help it grow and flourish, to spread its ideals of justice, decency, faith, courage and good to the world. This is particularly true at this time of year. Like our ancestors, the Maccabees, like our patriarch Joseph, even a bit like the heroes and heroines of Star Wars, perhaps, we have a responsibility to live up to our dreams, and continue to work to make them real in this society, and in all societies in this world.
May this be God’s will, and especially, may it be ours.