Surviving survival

1.

 

Today is the fifth day of Hanukkah.

On each of the eight days of Hanukkah, observant Jews light the candles of a Hanukkah menorah, lighting one additional candle for each evening. This evening, five candles will be lit in addition to the one helper candle that lights the rest.

Hanukkah is a joyous holiday - a celebration. It marks the relief and joy of surviving and overcoming oppression. 

 

The Hanukkah story dates back to the second century BCE. Jerusalem was at that time occupied and ruled by the Syrian empire. Unlike more benevolent occupations, this one came to forbid the Jews from practicing their religion. In the most galling of actions, the occupiers profaned the holiest of Jewish places - the great temple of Jerusalem. They carried out sacrifices of pigs on the temple altar and they instituted the worship of the Greek god Zeus in that sacred place.

The Israelites had had enough. A rebellion arose and a revolutionary army formed. Under Judah Maccabee - Judah the Hammer - they fought the powerful Syrian occupiers. Eventually, after a few years of battle, the rebels succeeded in liberating the temple. 

The joy of that victory was tempered by the condition in which the holy temple was found. The struggle would not be over until that centre of Israelite life could be restored.

So the people began the difficult work of rededicating and purifying the temple. A new altar was built to replace the one that had been defiled. New holy vessels were created. The refuse and stench of years of alien sacrifices was painstakingly removed.

And at last, they needed sanctified lamp oil to burn through the night each and every night. But, to their great disappointment, they could find only enough oil to burn for one day. The story goes that this small amount of oil burned for not one, but eight days - long enough that newly sanctified oil could be prepared and provided. 

Thus the eight day festival was created to mark the rededication of the temple, the restoration of the religious practices of the Israelites, and the wonder of oil that burned eight times longer than it should have.

And the people celebrated in joy and in relief, as would any nation that had survived and overcome such a trial. 

As would any of us who had overcome an existential threat in our own lives.

Hanukkah is a time of celebration. 

We have survived. 

The enemies have been overcome. 

We are free.

We can go on.

 

For many nations and for many individuals, stories like that of Hanukkah - our stories of survival - our stories of overcoming adversity - our stories of throwing off oppression - these are among the most powerful and important links with which we forge our identity. 

They tell us about our strength. They teach us of hope and possibility. They remind us about our resilience. They tell us that we are able to overcome.

But these stories tell us not only about our strength and our possibility. They also teach us to see the world as a dangerous place where enemies await and must be defeated for our survival. They teach us hardness.

 

 

2.

 

I grew up the son of Jewish parents. We lived in a fairly secular jewish household in an overwhelmingly Jewish town. We celebrated the major holidays and I had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony when I turned thirteen.

I also went to Sunday school, so - although we had a Christmas tree and Santa Claus brought gifts each year - I had ample opportunity to absorb something of Jewish culture.

What I learned was a story of oppression punctuated by occasional victories. The Syrians in the second century BCE were not the only ones who tormented us. There were the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians before them. And after that, there were the Romans and centuries of ongoing persecution by Christians in daily life and the hellish times of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and a variety of pogroms in eastern Europe.

And then, there was the holocaust. Six million killed.

This is the story I learned. This was the story that helped to create a tender spot within me.

And we - the survivors - said “never again.”

Never again would we be the helpless victims.

And then - the story continued with a note of hope - with the possibility of an end to millennia of torment - “and then, there was Israel.” For more than 20 centuries, the Jewish diaspora - the nation without a home - had included in their Passover celebrations the words “next year in Jerusalem.” At last, it appeared that these ancient words would be fulfilled. At last, we had a home. No longer would we be the despised minority amid a majority that - at best - tolerated us. No longer would we be at the mercy of rulers who could turn on us whenever we became inconvenient. We had a home and it was called Israel.

That new story told of a British Empire that gave us a piece of nearly unoccupied and infertile land. And when European nations refused to take the survivors of the Nazi horrors, those broken people were able to go home to this patch of desert - a patch that was our home in ancient history.

And there, we set to work. And with our hard labour and our ingenuity, we made the desert bloom. Where there was nothing, there were now orange groves and dates and olives. 

And the Arabs wanted to kill us. Simply because they had hated us for millennia, the Arab nations launched assault after assault in an attempt to destroy the state of Israel. Amazingly and almost miraculously - they failed. We survived and we came back stronger and more determined each time.

It would be hard to convey just how powerful this story is to me, even now. Even as a grown man in a multicultural society, my sense of safety in the world is in some sense tied up with the story of oppression, survival, never-again, and Israel.

And I am not alone in feeling this way. This is the story told by a people and to that people. It is a story of terror and oppression. It is a story of survival through determination and hardness.

Among the lessons of this story are that we should never trust anyone. They are out to get us. 

And the lesson that we must defend ourselves because no one else will.

 

Needless to say, this story has another side to it - a side that is poorly represented in Israeli consciousness - a story that has, in opposition, to the story I just told, led to generations of war, hatred, and oppression. Apparently, that barren land was not considered either barren or unoccupied by the people who were living there. When Arab armies attacked, the story they were telling themselves was not “we hate Jews” but rather a story of “yet another invader in our midst.” They had no space for the story of the poor holocaust survivors finally having a home, and we Jews had no space for the story of centuries of western persecution of Muslims and Arabs.

And these deeply ingrained, powerful, stories persist to this day. They motivate the  attitudes and actions in a deeply troubled part of our world.

The oppressed becomes the oppressor. The oppressed - having been hardened and repeating “never again” - loses the capacity to understand the stories of the the others.

Arabs and Israelis are certainly not the first to fall into this pattern. Sadly - they will not be the last.

 

The Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust would not have been in that role had it not been for the humiliating and devastating crises that hit them between the world wars.

The Christians who persecuted the Jews had their own persecution story. It was the Romans who threw Christians to the lions - who persecuted and slaughtered them - who murdered their leader, the man they came to understand as their God. The Christian story - even as Christians number more than one billion today - continues to be tied up with persecution and suffering. Is it any wonder that they are prepared to strike out as though they were a powerless few?

 

The stories of oppression and survival are stories that - all too often - harden a people and leave no room for a full understanding of others. Instead, we are led to reduce the world to good and evil, to black and white. We are led away from the subtleties of human nature and toward a simplistic view of us vs. them. The stories can leave no room for compassion - no room to understand and feel the suffering of another.

Survival can teach us to erase compassion from our hearts.

A world without compassion can not survive. 

 

How can we survive survival?

The answer lies in transforming the tender spot to become, as Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem would have it,  place in our brains where hate won't grow.

The answer lies in the very hard work of growing compassion. Compassion is the key to our understanding one another and approaching others as human beings rather than as “other” or as “enemy.”

 

You may know of the author Karen Armstrong. She is a former nun who, having failed at the monastic life distanced herself from religion and took up journalism, only to find herself becoming a remarkable and prolific religion writer. Karen Armstrong’s tremendous study of the world’s religions has led her to identify compassion as the single, essential, heart of religion. Her “Charter for Compassion” is an attempt to rally the world around compassion. 

 

What is compassion? Breaking the word into its roots, compassion is literally to suffer with. When we are compassionate, we come to understand and even experience the struggles that another carries. And when we understand one another well enough to have compassion, the hardness within us eases. Working together becomes possible. Hatred melts away. 

There is no simple route to compassion. It is difficult and can be painful to put ourselves in another’s place and to begin to understand and feel their suffering and their frustration.

How much more difficult is it then when that act of compassion requires living into a story that directly contradicts our own story? And this is what we must do if we are to address the deeply held attitudes and assumptions that drive hate and war.

 

This is no less true for individuals than it is for nations. Have we not all been wounded in ways that have made us hard - that have made us angry - that have made us say “never again” to perceived dangers in our own lives.

 

It is through compassion that the hard heartedness we carry can begin to soften. It is through compassion that we can begin to understand. It is through compassion that we allow ourselves to recover the gentle humanity that brings happiness.

 

“Compassion” says Karen Armstrong “is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day.” 

 

May this community be a place of practice. May it be a place where we can practice the ways of understanding, of compassion, and of love.