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In the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II, those Jews who were not immediately sent to gas chambers were forced to work at hard labor until they were physically worn out. They were fed one meal a day consisting of stale bread, watery vegetable soup and a dollop of rancid margarine.
At the conclusion of the meal, camp guards allowed the starving prisoners to jump into the empty margarine barrel and lick the sides of it. This provided sadistic amusement to guards who laughed at the sight of desperate people fighting to get a few extra calories. At one feeding area, there was one man who daily refused to engage in the frenzy. Even though he was as emaciated and hungry as the others, he would not give the guards satisfaction at watching him lick a wooden barrel.
One evening, that changed. This man who had tried for so long to hold on to his dignity, finally gave in as he jumped into the barrel and rolled around with abandon. He took special effort to smear the oily margarine over as much of his body as possible. His actions drew the attention of the camp commander as he and other guards were especially pleased to see this particular Jewish man finally broken.
Once that man returned to his barracks, he quickly tore off his shirt and pants and began to search them for areas smeared with grease. He tore his clothes apart into long thin strips. Others in the barrack were alarmed. They said he had gone mad as they tried to stop him from tearing up his clothing.
“Do you know what tonight is?” the man replied. “Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah!”
He continued to examine his shirt to find more spots stained with margarine – which he then tore apart. Later that evening he led an entire group of barracks in lighting Hanukkah flames. The wicks came from the oily strips he had torn from his clothing. The story is a true one retold by several Bergen-Belsen holocaust survivors.
Like most of you, I cannot imagine the horrors of life in a concentration camp. They must have been especially bleak places with rows of unheated cabins, muddy pathways between them, and an ever present pall of smoke and ash hanging in the air – a reminder of the brick buildings and chimneys where fellow Jews were gassed and cremated. Forced to exist in that kind of hell, few could have found anything positive or hopeful in it.
And yet the story I just related indicates that the human spirit in those camps had not been extinguished. In the depths of unimaginable suffering and terror, hope would not die. It must have been a hope in goodness, a hope in persistence, a hope in life itself that motivated this man to help many others celebrate Hanukkah.
As a minor Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, which begins in two days, has often seemed more of a response to the prevailing dominance of Christmas – a desire not to be overwhelmed by the Christian celebrations. Nevertheless, Hanukkah has itself become commercialized, trivialized and combined with other December holidays to the point where its meaning is often lost. While many scholars believe it comes from a myth – that of a miracle when one day’s supply of oil used to light a lamp lasted eight days – Hanukkah has nevertheless been celebrated because of its inherent lessons. Ideals such as faith, endurance, and hope have long defined the holiday.
While Jews celebrate Hanukkah as a story that hallmarks that religion’s survival over centuries of time, it also teaches important universal values everyone can appreciate. In a world where wars and violence happen as I speak, where diseases ravage nations, where millions live with poverty and hunger, where injustice and discrimination affect too many, where young black men are murdered in our nation’s streets for no reason and the racial divide seems to get worse, the holiday season can seem like a cruel way to pretend such problems do not exist. And yet Hanukkah asks us to remember our problems while hoping and working for their solution. For me, Hanukkah – much like the story I just told – invites us to hold on to the thin strips of hope we can muster – that all humans are, at their core – good, that a world of misery can be made better, that our own lives of hurt, grief and setbacks can be improved, that as long as people with compassionate hearts endure, there is hope, after everlasting hope.
Several contemporary psychologists have recently proposed a new theory about the psychology of hope. According to them, hope is essential to life. People cannot successfully live without it. But hope, as it is defined according to these psychologists, is not a simple emotion consisting of optimism and positive thinking. It is, instead, a cognitive sense that originates from our reasoning abilities. To have hope is to believe that the future will be better than the present and, most importantly, that one has the will and the power to make it so.
According to this new psychological research, hopeful people are more successful than others – they are happier, more fulfilled and healthier. Genuine hope comes from the ability to rationally set goals, work towards them and deal with inevitable setbacks. Hopeful people might even be cold-eyed realists and seemingly lack an optimistic spirit but they have the cognitive determination to devise strategies for overcoming the struggles that everyone faces. They have the will to work towards a better tomorrow.
And Hanukkah as a holiday clearly embodies that ethic. As the original Hanukkah story is told, the Jews who re-captured the Jerusalem Temple from the control of a non-Jewish nation, found they only had enough consecrated oil to light the Temple lamps for one day. Instead of simply giving up, Jews persisted in restoring the Temple and lighting the lamps anyway. The lamps, according to the story, miraculously stayed lit for eight days until new holy oil could be made. Hope gave those Jews the desire to restore their Temple as an inspirational symbol, to believe they had the ability to do so and then to perform the necessary actions to achieve the goal.
That same kind of hope allowed a Jewish concentration camp man to refuse to abandon his dignity, to instead make a plan to inspire himself and others, to then carry it out and thus provide some light in a dark and horrific place.
Most people in the Gathering know that I and my family have been dealing the past two years with the onset of Alzheimer’s in my mom. A crisis happened several days before this last Thanksgiving when my mom became extremely agitated, paranoid and upset. It was almost impossible for anyone to reason with her and calm her down. My siblings and I were deeply worried. My mom was getting worse, my dad was giving up in his ability to care for her and there seemed to be few good options.
But then my sister and I took action. We consulted with an expert who offered assurance and valuable advice. We researched the suggested options and made plans for a Thanksgiving day family conference call to discuss them. I was nevertheless fearful the meeting would not go well. My dad seemed defeated, at the end of his rope and leaning toward finding an Alzheimer’s residence center for my mom – something that has long been a great fear for her.
But our family conference produced its own holiday miracle. Instead of argument or fear based decisions, we came together to rationally set goals for the future. Out of concern and love for both my parents, we came up with a list of agreed strategies that will allow my mom to stay in her home and give my dad his rest. My family is as dysfunctional as any other, but we did not give in to our demons. We came together in the promise that tomorrow can be better for all of us – even my mom. With her progressing confusion and our heartache at this long goodbye, her life need not end, it need not lack her comforts of home, it can continue to be one where her friendly and loving personality can still shine. For my family, hope still endures.
I tell this story of my own because it highlights in its own small way the work of millions of families throughout history – particularly Jewish families who in many ways represent all those who face persecution, difficulty and suffering. Jewish families and friends unite for each of the eight days of Hanukkah to remember values that keep them together – those of unity, loyalty, love, and faith in human goodness. Such family and friend celebrations need not only be for Jews but for all people this holiday season. We can give thanks for all that we have as we renew our goals for the future. We can express our collective promise to do the work of building a better future for all humanity.
The shattered lives, nations and institutions we see all around us need not be despaired. But neither should they be ignored in a holiday effort to turn a blind eye and be happy. Rather, such suffering forces us to remember the human spirit evident in the centuries of Jewish survival, in the struggle of modern day Palestinians, in the many who peacefully march in our own nation to demand a fair and color blind justice system. Their stories inspire us about the importance of having hope in our own lives and in persevering despite the odds.
The great Jewish scholar Theodore Herzl Gaster once said that “the Hanukkah story teaches the value of the weak against the strong, of passion against indifference, of the single unpopular voice against the thunder of public opinion. The first Hanukkah was a struggle fought in the wilderness and in the hills; and its symbol is appropriately a small light kindled when the shadows fall.”
My thoughts regarding the importance of hope in our lives is not intended to diminish the very real pain many of us can feel. Such pain seems all the more acute during the holidays when Sundays at church, various parties, gift giving and the media all seem to conspire to tell us we should be merry. Far be it for me to tell anyone how they should feel, or that experiencing grief and heartache are somehow wrong.
Holding on to hope and having the cognitive will to create it by using our minds and our reasoning abilities – these strategies do not tell us feelings of despair are invalid. Rather, in an ironic twist, the very effort to create hope is itself a form of hope. Belief in the power of hope to create change in our lives is a form of healing and a way out of pain. As I said earlier, it is not blind optimism. It is rational. It is planned. It is firmly rooted in all that we believe at the Gathering and at Northern Hills Unitarian Universalist – we rely on reason combined with the pull of our hearts to define how we live.
Perhaps some of you saw a recent news story about a young man who died in August from smoke inhalation in a tragic college dormitory fire. When he had turned sixteen and obtained his first driver’s license, he signed up to be an organ donor. Upon his death, his wishes were fulfilled. Many of his organs were used to help others and his heart, in particular, went to a Viet Nam war veteran who has been active in serving the needs of other vets.
Recently, the young man’s family expressed a desire to meet the heart recipient who was also willing to meet them. A meeting was set up and one news camera was allowed into this very private and poignant gathering – something they all hoped would promote organ donation. As I watched video footage of the meeting, I could not help but be deeply moved. Each of the boy’s parents and his sister embraced the heart recipient upon meeting him. They held onto him as if they were not meeting a stranger but someone they intimately knew.
Later, each family member was offered the opportunity to listen with a stethoscope to their son and brother’s still beating heart – one that was giving life to someone else. The sister put the stethoscope on the man’s chest and listened for several moments as tears poured from her eyes – here was her beloved brother’s heart – she was hearing it beat away – his spirit was still alive. Here was proof of hope in a better tomorrow. Out of the tragedy of a young death, life beat onward in its never-ending struggle not just to survive…………..but to thrive.
That is the message of Hanukkah. That is a message for our holidays. In the days ahead for each of our celebrations, in the eight coming nights of Hanukkah, let us remember the lights of hope we each have, and in our abilities to shape a brighter future. May Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas never cause us to ignore suffering. But may they also remind us that it takes only one small light to overpower a world of darkness.
I wish us all Hanukkah peace and joy.