Chanukah Sermon

These are dark times indeed. All over the world, we Jewish people continue to experience, hate, intolerance, disrespect in all sorts of ways.   Acts of antisemitism remain a plague in our world. Ten days ago a 31 year old Israeli was brutally beaten in a Paris Metro after two men heard him speaking Hebrew over the telephone. Two days later there was the deadly shooting at a Kosher Market in Jersey City. Last Shabbat a synagogue in Los Angeles was ransacked, leaving Torah scrolls and holy books vandalized and strewn around the building. 

Closer to home I recently received a call from a distraught mother of a seventeen-year-old boy.   He was eating lunch at his High School when he received a note from a student sitting at his table. He opened the note and on it there was a swastika. The mother immediately reported the incident to the school. The student who passed him the note was asked by the School Administration to apologize. She did so over the telephone.  “It was just a joke among a few of us at the table,” the girl explained. The mother called me because she did not feel the school was taking the incident seriously. Not only was an apology over the telephone inadequate, but there were other students involved who escaped any consequences for their actions. The Administration also failed to seize the opportunity to educate all these teens by engaging them in understanding what the swastika stands for — especially for Jewish people.  I suggested this mom call the Chicago branch of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League for consultation.  These are precisely the kinds of issues the ADL works on in schools all over our nation. I asked her to stay in touch with me and together we would see to it that the school dealt the incident appropriately.

These are dark times astronomically as well. Chanukah marks the darkest period of the year. This year the first night of Chanukah coincides with the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. But the shortest day of the year is not always the darkest day of the year. The winter solstice is the day with the least sunlight, but not necessarily the least moonlight. The first night of Chanukah always takes place when the moon is 24% visible. The second night of Chanukah the moon is 16% visible. The visibility of the moon decreases every night until it can no longer be seen shining in the heavens. Each night as the moonlight decreases, we increase the number of candles we light. When the moon is no longer visible in the sky, our Menorah’s are fully lit. In this way, we drive out the darkness by increasing our light.

Throughout human history, Darkness has been associated with evil long before George Lucas wrote his first Star Wars film. The story is told of a group of disciples of a Hassidic rabbi who were troubled by the prevalence of evil in the world. They requested the rabbi instruct them on how to drive out the forces of darkness. The Rebbe suggested that they take a broom and try sweeping the darkness out of the cellar. They did as their Rebbe said, but reported that the darkness remained. The Rebbe advised them to get a stick and try beating the darkness away. They did as the Rebbe said but reported that the darkness was still there. The Rebbe then said to them, “My students, let each of you meet the challenge of darkness by lighting a candle!” The disciples descended to the cellar and each lit a candle. Behold, the darkness was dispelled.

I want to leave you with the story of a man who recently lit a candle in the darkness.  Periodically, relics from Nazi Germany come up for auction. The risk is that they end up in the hands of neo-Nazi groups, who use them to promote their bigotry. At the most recent auction, however, Abdallah Chatila, a Lebanese-Swiss businessman, purchased $660,000  worth of these items  including Hitler’s personal cigar box, German military leader Hermann Goring’s limited-print edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and some of Hitler’s hand-written letters – for a very different purpose. He wanted to make sure that these objects wouldn’t fall into the hands of a neo-Nazi group who would use them to glorify this shameful past. Abdallah Chatila initially planned to destroy these objects but decided instead to donate them to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Israel. Chatila has witnessed with growing alarm the growth of nationalism and antisemitism in present day Europe. He wanted to set an example for the world on how to deal with the loathsome and sickening trade in Nazi memorabilia. He wanted to light a candle against that growing darkness. 

We might ask the question – why do we begin to light the Chanukah candles when the moon is still 24% visible in the sky? Why don’t we wait until the sky is totally dark to light our first candle, thereby symbolically banishing the darkness, as in the story of the Rebbe and his students? One answer may be to teach that we cannot wait to combat moral or spiritual darkness until it has completely enveloped us or our society. We must address these issues as soon as they appear. It is far more difficult to combat the forces of darkness when they have been allowed to grow stronger. We must begin fighting them when there is still some light to help us.

Shabbat Shalom