Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Pulsation of Life

by Susan Weinberg

We are in the midst of Hanukkah so of course we led off with each person sharing a Hanukkah menorah, or several, that they use on this occasion. In my household we used to have a very contemporary one that I replaced with a traditional one that my mother had given me. It had been tucked away in the corner of a cabinet for many years and I remember pulling everything out as I anxiously searched for it that first Hanukkah after her death. She had another just like it that she used to light. In years since, I conjure up her presence each year when I light her gift to me. 

As each person shared their menorah, this seemed to be a common theme, conjuring up the presence and the shared tradition with a mother, a grandmother or a dear friend. Yet others were creating a tradition where none had been. Some menorahs or hanukkiah were unusual in their design or had a long history with a story. Sometimes we created our own story, such as the multipurpose hanukkiah for the wandering Jew on the run. And some represented the coming together of multiple traditions in a family. We pass down our rituals, we build new ones and we celebrate not just the holiday, but those who celebrated it before us and with us.


Before turning to our discussion of the text, I must confess that I always feel a bit overwhelmed when I go into a lab session. We have received text beforehand that I dutifully read and then wait for the synapses to kick in and connect it into something of meaning. It often remains in a bit of a gestational state until we meet as a group. Each person brings their understanding to the discussion and we puzzle through it to something of greater meaning.


We began a discussion of the text out of which the Hanukkah story grew. The text was originally written in Greek, rather than Hebrew, and is not included in the Jewish Bible. Surprisingly it  actually was preserved through the Catholic Bible. The passage we discussed can be found in the handout (Source Sheet for Dec 2020) or at Maccabees 4:36-59. Many of us may recall being asked to tell the Hanukkah story as children in our classroom. If you were like me, you awkwardly stumbled through the fact that there was a battle and the Maccabees won and when they went to the temple they could only find a little bit of oil that miraculously lasted eight nights which is why we light the menorah for eight nights. A lot was lost in the translation.


So, what were the Maccabees fighting for? The existence of Judaism was at stake. The idea of those in power was to have a homogenous culture, diversity was most certainly not desired. They required the Jews to worship Greek gods and assimilate into the dominant culture. And so, a battle ensued. 

The story picked up after the battle when the Maccabees entered the temple and sought to restore it and purify it.  The story is filled with emotion as they observe the destruction. They tear their clothes, much as was the custom upon a death when emotions are torn up. There is a physical manifestation to represent the emotional. 

After lamenting, they cry out to heaven. This is the moment when we expect a booming voice from above. Instead, Judah begins to assign people to tasks, some to guard, others to purify the sanctuary. Human agency takes over. We are responsible for putting things right ourselves. They built a new altar, lit the lamps and rededicated the sanctuary with song. The word "Hanukkah" actually means rededication. The act of rebuilding was done with their hands and required their active engagement to set things right. It is here that eight days of celebration is decreed, but there is no miracle of oil cited. This is not written of until 700 years later when the rabbis elaborated on the story. In yet another story it is told that they found eight spears in the temple and repurposed them into a menorah, taking weaponry which represented brokenness and rededicating it to a new purpose.

So, what does this tell us about the process of moving from brokenness to wholeness?  When we are broken, how do we seek wholeness? If this is to be our roadmap, we do it through our own hands, our own agency. We have a decision point. Do we stay broken or begin to repair our world? It is not that we have one isolated moment of brokenness. The process of falling down and arising once again is ongoing. Ann offered the phrase that became the title of this piece, the pulsation of life. It is what propels us forward,
this steady movement generated out of falling and rising, falling and rising.


We closed with a reading that Robyn shared from the book Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. 

Thomas Merton: There is in all visible things. . . . a hidden wholeness. 

Palmer responds: In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of "hidden wholeness." In a paradox, opposites do not negate each- they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter-the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives.