Nations Haunted By The Past


Chalice lighting

In this place, let all people be free
Let us leave at the door the bondage of needing to have the right beliefs
The right skin
The right accent
The right education
The right belief
The right body
The right age
The right class
The right politics
The right health
Let the oppressions of the past fade away
Let all be free to be themselves
Accepted as they are
By the light of this flame, let us work for a world where all are free

Reading: The Feast of Lights by Emma Lazarus (excerpt)

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain...

Message (part 1): by Rev. Andy Pakula

Tomorrow is the first day of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.

When I was growing up in my rather secular Jewish family, Hanukkah was a special time - my sister and I looked forward to it eagerly. It was special not for any religious reason whatsoever. It was special because it was a time to get presents - eight small presents - one each night. We got chocolate coins, which was good too since chocolate was rationed in our household.

The other great thing is that we were allowed to light candles each night. We weren’t usually allowed that.

Hanukkah was not a major holiday until relatively recent times. It only became a big deal when Jews began to live in Christian-dominated areas. When they did, they sought some balance with Christmas - and especially with the all-consuming extravaganza that Christmas has become.

In my family, we had the best of both worlds. We kids got presents for both Hanukkah and Christmas. We always had a beautifully-decorated Christmas tree. Some years, we topped it with a star - a six-pointed Jewish star - and referred to it with a joking tone as a Hanukkah bush.

Hanukkah was small presents each of eight nights. Christmas was the big haul with all the great stuff Santa Claus left under the Hanukkah bush. I was confused but I got to enjoy all the holidays, which probably says something about how I ended up the way I am and doing what I do!

There is a story behind Hanukkah. The basic elements of the story appear to be true as they are also recounted by external sources. It dates to the second century BCE when Judea was occupied by the Syrian empire. The emperor Antiochus Epiphanes - the bad guy of this story - came to power in 175 BCE. His predecessors ran a fairly benevolent occupation but Antiochus Epiphanes changed all that. Under his rule, the Syrians tried to destroy the traditional religion of the Jews. The holy temple in Jerusalem was looted and defiled. This was an attack at the very centre of the Jews’ religion and way of life.

A statue of Zeus was erected in the temple and pigs – unclean animals under Jewish law – were slaughtered on the sacred altar. Jews were massacred and the practice of Judaism was effectively outlawed. But, as so often happens, the oppression designed to suppress the Jews had the opposite effect – it provoked a revolt led by a tribe called the Maccabees. Emma Lazarus again:

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,

Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;

Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,

The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

The Maccabees waged a guerrilla war against the much more numerous and well-armed occupying army.

Remarkably, the Maccabees defeated the occupiers and the temple was recaptured. And when the Jews restored the temple they realised that there was only enough ritually pure lamp oil to keep the temple lamp burning for one day - but it would take 8 days to prepare more.

And here’s the part where the eight days come in and why a candle is lit for each day - the lamp oil burned for eight days instead of just one. As Emma Lazarus wrote:

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star

Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,

And add each night a lustre till afar

An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

As splendid as these words may be - as nice as the miraculous oil story is - and as great as it was to get eight nights of gifts and a chance to play with fire - this part is a divine embellishment to a story that already has great power. It’s a story of freedom. It’s a story of great hope in which the weak and the oppressed are able to overcome the yoke of oppression and win their freedom.

This is an important story to the Jewish people - a people whose history is filled with defeat and oppression. Here, we overcame. Here, we became free.

It is an inspiring story that - lodged in our unconscious mind - can bring hope at hard times.

Happy Hanukkah. Let us remember the story of freedom in the hope that all who live in slavery or under oppression will be freed.

Reading: Jerusalem, by Naomi Shihab Nye

[The poet begins with these words from Swedish poet, Tommy Olofsson]

"Let's be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let's fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine."
-Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I'm not interested in
Who suffered the most.
I'm interested in
People getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
A stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother's doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
"I am native now."
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child's poem says,
"I don't like wars,
they end up with monuments."
He's painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it's ridiculous.

There's a place in my brain
Where hate won't grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It's late but everything comes next.

Message (part 2): by Rev. Andy Pakula

The stories we tell can shape and change our lives. Stories of hope, like that of the remarkable defeat of a great power by a small group of insurgents, tells us that the unexpected is possible. These stories burrow deep within our subconscious minds. They are unlike our rational estimates of what can be and what can not. They create a deeper and more intuitive sense of possibility. The story continually reminds us that the possibility of freedom is there even if it seems out of reach.

What do you despair of? What do you feel is out of reach? Kinder treatment of immigrants? Racism vanishing from the earth? An end to rough sleeping in London? Affordable housing? A better job? Getting along better with your partner? Healing for you or a loved one?

It is not true that everything is possible, but when the stories playing in the depths of our unconscious minds continually warn of defeat, weakness, and failure, then the possible also becomes impossible.

The hopeful stories we carry compete with the hopeless ones. It is true of ourselves, our communities, and of whole peoples.

Naomi Shihab Nye says:

I'm not interested in

Who suffered the most.

I'm interested in

People getting over it.

We - as individuals and nations - do carry stories of who suffered most. We create internal monuments to the ways in which we have been mistreated. These stories were made to help us be safe from further hurt, but they also keep conflict alive.

I don’t know the stories of any nations and peoples as well as I know my own, so that is what I will talk about today. You will undoubtedly have stories from your own family or national or religious or other traditions. I hope that hearing my stories encourages you to examine your own and how they affect your life and the larger world.

The Judaism I was taught was the story of a good people who were repeatedly oppressed and terrorised. Although there were moments of victory, like the one remembered at Hanukkah, it was not, overall, a happy or positive story. It goes like this:

We were enslaved by the Egyptians before we had our own homeland. We were occupied by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. We were exiled and scattered about the Earth.

In exile, we were the unwelcome strangers wherever we went. The moment we began to feel comfortable somewhere - when we began to feel a sense of belonging - the neighbours we had come to trust turned on us.

Throughout the Christian world, we were accused of killing God and persecuted. We were massacred during the Crusades. We were burned alive in Strasbourg in France. In parts of Italy, we were forced to live in ghettos and forced to convert to Christianity. We were massacred in Moorish Spain. We were massacred in Baghdad. We were massacred in Persia. Adult Jews and children were tortured in Damascus. We were tortured in the Spanish Inquisition. We were beaten and terrorised in state-sponsored Russian pogroms. We were targeted in riots and pogroms in Palestine. Six million of us were slaughtered in the holocaust.

This is a story I carry. It lies deep in my unconscious mind and reminds me that I am a Jew no matter how assimilated I may be and that - as a Jew - I can never trust, never feel safe, never feel comfortable, never let down my guard.

The Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto used the slogan ‘never again’. They meant that, after all that has happened - after this long story of oppression, we will no longer be the weak and easy target. We will be strong and we will protect ourselves. And closely attached to this is that we will never trust anyone else again with our safety and security.

When we look at the situation in Israel and Palestine, I have no doubt that this story carried by Jews is always in the background. The Palestinians no doubt have their own stories, both helpful and unhelpful.

For the Jews, the stories say do not trust in deals and momentary kindness. Trust only in strength.

Even I, who am not religious and have never suffered serious anti-semitism, carry a strong feeling that I am not safe. And when I hear about the rising anti-semitism here, I think of Israel as my refuge of last resort. I know it’s not fully rational but it is part of the stories I carry – and time and rationality have not been able to excise those fears.

There are more reasons, no doubt, for Israel’s unconscionable treatment of the Palestinians, but I suggest that without understanding the stories we carry, we will never fully understand and we will be that much less able to bring about peace.

In her beautiful poem, Why We Tell Stories, Lisel Mueller tells us that we tell stories ‘because the story of our life becomes our life’.

The stories we tell each other and especially ourselves can limit or expand our possibilities. They can lead us to despair or to hope. They can make us fearful and closed or they can make us brave and open to the presence of love.

Examine the stories you hold within. You may find stories that tell you that you are privileged, stories that tell you that you are weak, stories that tell you no one can be trusted. Stories that tell you the world is a kind place. Stories that tell you obstacles can be overcome with hard work. Stories that say that peace and understanding and love are possible.

Know your stories. Know the stories that shape your life. Once you know them, you begin to have the power to change the stories that hold you back.

Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us that we have the power to bring out the part of us and our stories that can lead to good - can lead to understanding - can lead to hope - can lead to love.

There's a place in my brain

Where hate won't grow.

I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.

Something pokes us as we sleep.

It's late but everything comes next.

Closing Words

The stories we tell guide who we are and will become
The stories we tell guide the direction of our communities, our nation, and our world
Attend to the stories of your life and the stories you tell
Tell stories that create strength
Tell stories that create understanding
Tell stories that create hope
Tell stories that create the courage to trust
Tell stories that show the power of love