The Jewish season of Hanukkah ("dedication") celebrates the reclamation of the Temple of Jerusalem for Jewish worship after years of suppression and persecution by colonizing Greek occupiers (1 Maccabees 4:6-59). In addition to the nightly lighting of the hannukiah, each morning of this eight-day celebration, special prayers and readings commemorate God's commands to brothers Moses and Aaron for worshiping God in the wilderness tabernacle they were instructed to build, including the lighting of a menorah (Numbers 7:1-8:4). The special prayer for lighting the first hannukiah candle blesses God as the one who commands us to kindle these lights and made miracles for our forefathers, ending with the short prayer known as the shehekheyanu, praise for God "who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this season." As we pray this prayer in this season of rededication of the Temple, I reflect on the beginning of the Mosaic covenant and Jewish worship during the flight from slavery in Egypt to a long period of wilderness wandering, intermittently trusting and losing hope in the promise of an enduring future home.
This 40-year wandering helps me understand my own struggle: As I begin, only now in midlife, finally living openly as a transgender man, I have struggled to make sense of the many decades I too spent shut in and hidden, unable to believe I would ever feel at home with anyone (Exodus 14.3). But after nearly 40 years, I see that God has kept the real me alive, sustained me and brought me to a new season, perhaps even toward a promised land someday: After trying so hard my whole life to hide my real self with prayer, fasting, therapy, and denial, I have been liberated from captivity to live, teach, write, preach, and relate in every way to others as my full self for the first time. In spite of years of addiction, self-harm and suicide attempts, God kept me alive, sustained me and brought me to a season of life when I can truly worship God and keep faithful covenant with other people as myself. It has been hard not to regret the time I spent captive to false identity and fear for so many years and the loneliness of my wandering desolate through life in all the years I chose not to share my real self with anyone. Thus I often reflect on the 40 years the Jewish people spent in the wilderness, escaping slavery but taking over a generation to reach a place they could make their home -- what happened to them in those lost years, why it happened, and how God redeemed it.
After 430 years of slavery, God directs the Jewish leaders Moses (the self-described "man of uncircumcised lips" in Exodus 6:13, 30) and his outspoken, loving older brother Aaron together to lead their people from slavery into freedom and promises them a new way of life in freedom, a new home of peace and sweet abundance -- "milk and honey" (Exodus 13:17-22). But to keep them safe from their Egyptian persecutors, "the wilderness shut them in and hid them," and God ordered them to take a long and roundabout way to their new home. During the 40 years of wandering, the people -- besieged, confused, fearful, and lost -- frequently complain that they would have been better off living in Egypt (even in oppressive servitude) than dying in exile (Exodus 14:10-12). Moses encourages them with a promise of God's continued active presence with and for them in spite of the apparent and immediate dangers in words that still inspire in this Hanukkah season: "Fear not. Stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord of the Lord which God will work for you today. [Those who persecute you today] you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still" (Exodus 14:13-14). During Hanukkah, we remember the fulfillment of God's promise to Moses not only in bringing the people of Israel to the promised land after 40 years but also in preserving Temple worship through the recapture of the Temple from the Greeks by the Maccabees and the miraculous continual lighting of the altar lights for eight days with only one day's supply of oil.
However, the story of the journey into the wilderness reminds us that trusting in God's miraculous promises is often very hard for most of us, especially since delivery into freedom out of bondage to oppressive circumstances can often be scary and overwhelming. Even false security is still security, whereas liberation brings uncertainty and the unknown. Existence in freedom can be very precarious and unsatisfying sometimes. For the ancient Jews, years of wandering in the wilderness brought daily thirst, hunger and frequent crises of faith, since they survived each day only on what God provided for that day itself -- "manna," which scholars today believe was "honeydew," the oral secretions of plant lice dried into extremely perishable flakes on leaves (Exodus 15:22-17:3). Though they now lived in freedom, this life clearly was more difficult than their previous life in Egyptian subservience and oppression (Exodus 16:3, 17:3). This too reminds me of my own wilderness experience. I lived precariously through suicide attempts, bouts of addiction and self-starvation, only relating to others as a mere shadow of myself. Facing transphobia and homophobia in my faith community by living openly as a gay man would mean freedom, but it seemed far too dangerous an exodus into wilderness to me with the inevitable loss of economic, social, and religious security that it would bring.
Just as the Jews' flight from Egypt was eventually forced by the pursuit of Pharaoh's army through the Red Sea into the wilderness, I had to be drawn out of false security by crisis and persecution to enter a time of confusion and loss. Yet in this season of Hanukkah, I remember how much God sustains us on so little, whether 40 years of insect saliva (manna) or eight days of light to worship from one day's measure of oil. I find reassurance in the struggle of even God's chosen people to trust in the fulfillment of God's promise day after day for 40 years -- losing hope is normal, human. The testimony of the Jewish people throughout their scriptures and history and in this season of Hanukkah reminds me, just as God told Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 14:15), to stop crying and start moving forward in spite of these moments of doubt, trusting in the continued light of God's presence.
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