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Lighting up the Darkness in a Season of Anti-Semitism

Sermon Shabbat Hanukkah Mikets 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

How many of you have personally experienced the midnight sun, those days in the farthest reaches of the north near the Arctic Circle, in say, Alaska or Scandinavia, where the nights basically disappear—and depending on how far north you go, they totally disappear? It’s a very odd sensation the first time you look out the window at, say, 2am and it’s fully day outside. In many Baltic and other northern countries the summer solstice around June 21st is a holiday, Midsomer Day, and often the days on either side of it are also festive.

Of course, we are now in the opposite time of year, the period with the very shortest days, the time when light is more often experienced from artificial sources than from the eternal Tucson sun of other seasons. We might have 310 days a year of sun here—although not today—but our sunny days in late December are far shorter than they are in June. It’s for that reason that so many cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere have festivals of light this time of year, at the time of the winter solstice, or thereabouts. It is an effort to bring light into darkness, to illuminate artificially what the natural order has left dimmed.

This desire to light up the darkness of December is a nearly universal cultural phenomenon. It is no accident that pagans had special ceremonies for the winter solstice, in places like Stonhenge in England and in Iran and Japan and Guatemala—and that later Christians and others simply adopted their dates and some of their practices. And it is probably no accident that our Hanukkah menorah, our Hanukkiah adds its brilliant lights to this otherwise dark season. When things are darkest we simply add lights.

As most of you know, I was supposed to be here on this bimah last Friday night, but through the best efforts of American Airlines and its ever-accommodating personnel I was instead stranded in a remote terminal of the LA Airport, far from the holiness of divine light indeed... Fortunately, Maya Levy and Bryce Megdal and Autumn Wolf and our great musicians carried off a wonderful service without me, and Maya read my sermon better than I would have, by all accounts, and blessed all of our birthday celebrants beautifully. I did have the pleasure of coming back late Friday night and giving Dave Lugers an 80th birthday blessing, as well as sending my son Gabe off on Birthright with a blessing as well. And then I flew back to LA afterwards. But those were actually not my only airport experiences last week.

Actually, today is the first day since a week ago Thursday when I have not had to be at an airport, either flying to and fro somewhere or picking up or dropping off someone at an airport or both. In six days I was at either Tucson International Airport or Los Angeles International Airport a total of 8 times in 7 days. So not going today? This may shock you, but frankly, I didn’t miss the experience at all… In any case, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the airport yesterday; or actually, it was in the cellphone waiting area at the airport as my dad and I sat in my car waiting for my daughter’s call that her bag had arrived and we could pick her up. A stranger came up to my open window and said, “Do you mind if we chat? I’m bored and I need to talk to someone.” She must have been very bored indeed…

We exchanged pleasantries, the woman recognized me from a life-cycle event I officiated at some years ago, and we soon ended up talking about the sad state of the world and the high level of anger present in the media and in political and popular discourse these days. We agreed that this was pretty bad, and we might have reached a new nadir in the realm of public discourse. And then she unexpectedly said, “Do think this is the end of days? Is the world about to end? I think it might be! I don’t ever remember a worse time.”

I answered, as I habitually do when asked about this, “I’m pretty skeptical about that sort of thing. People have been predicting the end of the world for a really long time, and as messed up as things may appear, it doesn’t seem to me we are particularly close to the end of the world now.”

Fortunately, my daughter called at that moment and my dad and I we were able to escape the interaction… So, the end of the world might not have come, but the end of that conversation fortunately did.

But the question she raised brought up the subject of just when things were this bad before—and the many times they have been much worse. There are, indeed, really bad things happening in many areas now, and we are right to be concerned and to seek to address them with courage and conviction. But a lot of hostility on social media and crazy news channels and ridiculous things going on in politics? That hardly qualifies as the worst of times, in Dickens’ phrase, let alone the end of days.

In my own memory, the worldwide financial crisis of 2007-2009 was terrifying, and economically things were truly awful for quite a while for many, many people, and some have never recovered. After 9/11, 18 years ago, our entire understanding of the world was shaken to the core, and our sense of safety and security completely upended; we entered two wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Iraq, shortly thereafter that we are still enmeshed in. Back in the 1970s and early 80s we experienced a combination of national malaise, hyper-inflation and recession, and then watched Americans suffer as hostages endlessly in Iran. The Vietnam War split our country nearly in two, with riots in the streets; in the 1960s race riots roiled the cities. And so on. In fact, we were probably much closer to the end of the world back in the early days of nuclear weapons in the 1950s than we are now, when children trained for atomic attack by huddling under school desks, as though that would help in the event of a nuclear cataclysm. And the 1940s saw the most murderous war in human history and the Holocaust of our people in Europe.

And anyone who says, “Anti-Semitism is the worst it has ever been!” simply doesn’t know anything about history, even recent history. When was it worse to be a Jew in Europe, in the 1930s and 40s or now? When was it easier to a Jew in America, in the 1930s or 40s or now? When were you more likely to face discrimination and quotas, in the 1950s or 60s or now?

It’s true that Anti-Semitism is on the rise here in America and worldwide, and the three violent, fatal US Anti-Semitic incidents that have taken place in the past 14 months mark this as a very dangerous period indeed for our people. But it’s not the end of days. It might, however, be time to reexamine our commitment to our own Jewish identities. And this darker time of year is probably the exact time we need to do so.

For decades now, we American Jews have been worrying about the future or our community. We have survived centuries and even millennia of persecution. We have survived Anti-Semitism in every society in the world. We know how to exist when we are attacked and scorned, how to maintain our own identity in the face of virulent and evil bigotry and racism.

But could we survive in an open society in which we were fully accepted? Could we be loved out of existence, assimilated completely into the American melting pot so that we simply disappeared? Could American Jews be so normalized as to stop being Jews at all?

Those questions, which were at the heart of so many conferences, books, Jewish symposia and fundraising drives—“Will your grandchildren be Jewish? Give now to protect the Jewish future!”—these questions now seem completely out of step with a world in which synagogues and kosher markets are shot up, where a Jewish Holocaust survivor can have his Judaism publicly questioned by a Catholic attorney, in which neo-Nazi propaganda on the one side is matched by Anti-Semitism masquerading as Anti-Zionism on the other.

It might not be end of days. But it does require a response, doesn’t it?

You know, we always read the story of Joseph at the season of Hanukkah, and the juxtapositioning of these two great narratives strikes me as particularly appropriate. In both of these stories our heroes sink into the depths of oppression and degradation, followed by dramatic, meteoric rises to the heights of redemption, power and success. Both tales tell of Jews hiding their identity, seeking to assimilate into the dominant culture, before being forced to publicly acknowledge their religious and national identity. And both Joseph and the Maccabees had to overcome intense resistance, and even violent persecution, from their own people in order to triumph.

The one aspect of both of these classic Jewish storylines that is neglected is the fact that Jews had a hard time deciding whether to step up and acknowledge their own Judaism or simply go along with their persecutors and hide their identities. Joseph himself takes on an Egyptian name, clothing, and persona. Mattathias actually kills a Jewish collaborator with his own spear before fleeing to the hills, shouting, “Let those who follow God come with me!” It’s tough to decide whether to step forward or hold back in dangerous times, and not everyone will choose to step forward.

Twenty-six years ago I served as the student rabbi in Billings, Montana when Anti-Semitic activity took place. It’s a long story, and I can tell you about it at greater length some other time, but the gist of it was that the non-Jewish community provided incredible support to the Jewish community through a time of great trial and trouble. But that same Jewish community, internally, was divided about how to respond to the attacks. Half wanted to just, well, hide. And half wanted to shout their identities louder, from the rooftops.

My friends, this is the season when we need to step up our Jewish pride, when, in darker times, it’s our job to shine greater Jewish light into our own lives and into the world. And then the candles of our Hanukkah menorah will burn ever brighter, and we will, like Joseph and the Maccabees, ultimately triumph.

This is the time of year to make those commitments, to live your Judaism proudly, openly, with joy and dedication. This is the time to live more Jewishly, and to be more open about it. That is the greatest victory over the Anti-Semites. That is the way we triumph over those who would compel us to cease being Jews or disappear. That is the way we bring greater illumination to these increasingly shadowed times.

May the lights of our own Jewish flames, in this darker time of year, shine ever brighter in each of your lives.

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