This year, in a once-in-70,000-years coincidence, the first full sundown-to-sundown Jewish day of Hanukkah and the celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States overlapped. While Hanukkah is a festival of lights that commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple for Jewish worship after several years of desecration by Greek occupying forces, Thanksgiving is a civil celebration of gratitude, a harvest festival that commemorates the sharing of food by an occupied people with the colonizers who'd invaded but didn't know how to grow local crops yet. Both traditions use prayer, gathering of family, and special foods to celebrate the miraculous providence of God to sustain a struggling community in a context of colonial oppression. Reflecting deeply and with humility on how these celebrations differ may also help those in the U.S. overcome the ugly post-colonial connotations of the civil Thanksgiving and the frenzy of gluttony and greed that mark the next day, a "Black Friday" of advertising and consumerism in the U.S.
During their 40 years of wilderness wandering toward their new promised home after fleeing Egyptian slavery, the ancient Jewish people (like the Pilgrims and like later Jews under Greek rule before the recapture of the Temple that Hanukkah celebrates) frequently lost hope and faith as fulfillment of God's promises to them seemed continual delayed. Their lowest point comes during Moses' six-week absence from them while conferring with God about the specific ways of daily living that would be written as the Torah, the Jewish law detailing specific practices that express God's covenant with Israel. While God and Moses are speaking face to face as friends during these weeks and Moses' personal intimacy with God increases (Exodus 33:11), his brother Aaron and the people of Israel so lose hope and faith that they make a golden calf statue to worship instead. Like the pursuit of material goods in the U.S. that starts with Thanksgiving feasting and continues through holiday gift shopping season, the ancient Jews' God-substitute was something to which they could contribute and thus feel they helped make and owned. They could see it continually before them (unlike God) as they sang to it, worshiped it, ate and played near it.
When the fulfillment of God's promises seems so long delayed, it is all too easy to lose hope and settle for what is less than real, less than what God wants to give us, which may be harder and may require long waiting (forty years' wandering to the promised land or years forced out of the Temple only to re-establish an eight-day worship season with only one day of supplies). We seem to choose instead what we can see and touch -- even if it is not real, not life-giving. In the case of the worship of the golden calf, God attributes the people of Israel's loss of hope to their narrowness of spiritual vision -- their being "stiff-necked." When "stiff-necked" (a condition I've come to understand in its literal physical sense from having often held tension in my upper back, shoulders, neck and jaw), I can't turn my head from side to side or up and down. To be "stiff-necked" spiritually suggests an inability to look up (in this case to the mountain where God and Moses are in intimate prayer to guide the Israelites) and an equal inability to turn our heads to look around at the people of God's covenant and creation that bear witness all around us to God's continued presence and reality. Moses in turn beseeches God not to respond to the people's idol worship in an equally stiff-necked way, reminding God of the promises and faithfulness between God and those who came before, the same Jewish "forefathers" in the prayer for lighting the candles of Hanukkah. Moses thus teaches us how to pray faithfully in our own low moments, and God "repents," showing mercy to those who built and worshiped the golden calf idol (Exodus 32). To pray through such difficulties and fears during wilderness times is to wrestle with God openly (like Jacob once did physically and Moses does with words), expressing trust in God even when we feel afraid or doubtful. This keeps God present and real to us so that we don't instead fall prey to the common temptation to build our own more immediate and accessible "golden calf" idols of false security at such times.
This dynamic of faith is illustrated even more when the same people, having destroyed the golden calf and built a tabernacle where they can worship God as present with them, choose false security once again, and this time for a far longer period in which even Moses' faith seems to stagnate. Of the 40 years between fleeing slavery and reaching their new home, Moses and the Jewish people chose to spend more than 35 years simply clinging to the minimal safety and security of a desert oasis rather than moving forward to leave the wilderness (Numbers 21:14-36:13). Their daily existence had remained so precarious that they struggled to maintain any faith in God's continued presence with them, let alone hope in the real fulfillment of God's earlier promises (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). The fact that the vast majority of the 40-year journey to the Promised Land was spent not moving reminds me of the constant temptation to take control of our own lives, settling for what is present and available to merely sustain life at the most basic level rather than trusting and waiting for what God has promised will nourish the full flourishing of our lives with sweetness and delight ("milk and honey"). In prolonged difficulty and deprivation, I too have usually tended to settle for the spiritual or relational equivalent of a small pool of water and only just the shade and fruit of a tree or two. I have settled for living an empty life as a shadow of myself rather than trusting that who I am (as a person who is transgender) is indeed "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps. 139:14) or that God could bless someone like me (a male only attracted to other men) with a marital covenant "through which all the families of the earth will bless themselves" (Gen. 28:14). Like the people of Israel, I always just stopped seeking God's promises and gave up instead of hoping and trusting faithfully.
However, these stories of the ancient Jewish people in the Torah and at Hanukkah can remind us that instead of choosing a living death at this minimal level of spiritual and relational desert oasis, God calls us to choose a life of abundant hope and well-being. In the U.S. during this holiday season of thanks and giving, it is especially important to remember that God's promises are not best understood as promises of material prosperity and colonial invasion but are rather reminders of how God wants us to experience who we are in fullness, in community with God and our fellow human beings, and how God wants us to love. In the first American colonial thanksgiving, we see this embodied not in the behavior of the Pilgrims but rather in the selfless and merciful sharing of Native Americans with them. That is the grace and miracle that we can commemorate each year in the U.S. at this time without celebrating oppression, and it coincides with God's very forceful warnings to the Jewish people as they are about to enter the Promised Land, that material prosperity and the fulfillment of God's promises are never to be thought of as something we earned or deserve. God's sustaining providence celebrated in both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is evidence of God's grace alone.
The ancient Hebrew stories of waiting -- from the 14 years between Jacob and Rachel's meeting until their marriage (Genesis 28-30) to the 40 years of desert wandering mostly spent at the oasis, to the later Maccabean rededication of the Temple with one day of oil for the altar lamps that God miraculously sustains during the eight days of waiting till new oil can be pressed -- all remind me that to experience the fulfillment of God's promises in our lives will always require seasons of blindly trusting God and pressing forward in spite of delays and hardship, continuing toward the best that God promises, instead of settling for the kind of life, behavior and relationships that seem more convenient just because they are closer to hand. Thus instead of giving up in despair when we have seem to have little at hand to sustain us, both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah remind us (in the words of the hanukiah candle-lighting prayer) to bless God for where we are now, trusting God and each other, pressing on with faithfulness to a fullness and sweetness of life together, remembering the miracles God made for our foremothers and forefathers in earlier days.