A long, long, long long long time ago (approximately 2176 years to be precise), there was a man named Judah HaMaccabee. Judah the Hammer. How quaint, you know? He led the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greeks and with his small army, a miracle occurred and this band of Jews became victorious over their oppressors. The Temple was salvaged, cleansed, purified, rededicated–in fact, that’s how Chanukah gets its name! “Chanukah” literally means “dedication.” Thus the holiday began. Long before presents. Long before vague attempts to Chrismastize the holiday. Long before commercialization could be considered.
Something special happened then. Something inconceivable in today’s world.
This past Sunday was “Chanukah at Chagwarts” at my synagogue’s religious school (“chag” being Hebrew for “holiday”). Through a program called “Harry Potter and the Everlasting Oil,” we had a literary-themed day of teaching about miracles, standing up for our Jewish heritage, dreidels, and mitzvot. Almost all the children had grown up watching the movies and some of them had actually read the entire series (and can you imagine the surprise on their faces when I told them it took me ten years to read the series, because they all hadn’t been written yet?). I’ve always loved Harry Potter. In fact, I’ve written an entire post about it! I was so enthusiastic about the event I even spent the entire day beforehand knitting myself a Ravenclaw scarf (the bronze is a little too brown perhaps, but it still looks awesome).
Point being, I spent the day teaching Transfiguration. My station was dreidel-making and I taught the story of how the Jews were not allowed to study or do anything Jewish under He Who Must Not Be Named (King Antiochus) and how the Syrian-Greek guards often searched for law breakers–and those caught were imprisoned or killed. So what did the Jews do when the Greeks came knocking? Why, the drew out their wands and transfigured all of their Jewish things into dreidels–little spinning tops they used to play gambling games.
There are two miracles that playing dreidel commemorates. The first one everyone got: That the oil lasted eight days, hence why the dreidel’s engraved with the letters Nun – Gimmel – Hey – Shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Haya Sham, “a great miracle happened there (Israel).” The second miracle was a little harder to guess: That by gambling, the Jewish people were able to hide their actions and subvert persecution.
Now, as a gay man, I’ve got a certain thing against hiding, and one might argue that these Jews, by putting on a mask of game-making, were merely closeted souls–and then, one could argue further, how is commemorating this miracle anything more than praising the closet? How can I advocate coming out but fondly recall these times gambling with M&M’s and Reese’s? The two don’t seem to compute.
That’s where today’s theme comes in: Bravery.
It takes a moment to articulate, and I feel it’s more difficult to tie these all together when you’re on the outside–of being gay, of being Jewish–but somehow, they come together. Though maybe that’s the mathematician in me, always picking up on patterns. Or maybe it’s another miracle: That in pieces that don’t fit together, a whole is found.
Part of the problem is that to portray the whole picture, I must say a dozen things simultaneously, must somehow capture an internal image in a hundred words. Challenges, challenges. But they will be overcome. Just bear with me, if you will, and it’ll all come to light shortly.
First the Jews. The Maccabees faced an enemy far greater than they were–for each of their tens, the Syrian-Greeks had hundreds. They came armed with shields and swords, with catapults and elephants–and we had none of that. We had no armor. We had no blades. But we did have something greater: We had God. And we had the earth.
We took refuge in the mountains, unseen, and we hurled the world upon them when they approached. We hid and struck in silence. We moved with the force of a miracle to outlast those whose strength could overpower us. We persevered. In the face of unmeasurable odds, we stood by our principles and we never backed down. We exemplified courage and we personified unrelenting bravery.
The Maccabees, however, were not the only Jews. There were also those who hid under the guise of gambling to keep their faith. Were they brave, too? Of course they were. It would have been easy to keep their Torah scrolls and their mezuzot in plain sight, only an ounce of strength spent to become a martyr. But what is a martyr? If we strip away the motivation they make for us, a martyr is only a man murdered. They had families, friends, and communities to support. To slip away would have meant nothing when the Syrian-Greeks were as willing to kill as they were.
So the Jews hid. They could not forsake their people and they could not forsake their faith. How else could they have done both but to hide? Sometimes the best option is the least favorable, but when life is on the line, when life is at stake, all that matters is the preservation of that life. They hid their things and they held up an unwavering mask, and in doing so, they became as brave as the Maccebees.
Today, the GLBT community. The closet. Inside or out?
I advocate coming out wholly and completely, but just the same, if your life is at stake, then wait. Bide your time until it’s safe to be open–nothing is more precious than life. But for those whose repercussions are far short of life-threatening, come out–because doing so could save someone else’s life. This is not a war with spears and swords–this is a war of the heart. And we can’t change hearts by hiding, we can’t change hearts by fighting: We can only change hearts through loving. If we open ourselves to the world of others, if we allow others into our lives, then we have found victory. We have planted the seeds of understanding and peace. We have sown bravery in our daily lives simply by standing up for who we are and what we believe in. We have followed in the steps of the Maccabees and those who stood at their sides. We, too, have been brave.
Now, with each part given separately, maybe you can see how these loose threads are woven together? Every bit is as important as the rest, but only in viewing the whole is the magnificence made apparent. Bravery comes in all shapes, all sizes, all manifestations and meanings. To hide one moment may be brave, but to be open may be braver the next. By holding true to ourselves and what we believe in, no matter its substance, we are brave.
Today, I’m thankful for bravery. For the bravery of those who came before me and made this world I’ve been raised in. For the bravery of those who stand at my sides and support me. For those moments, when bathed in shadows, I stumbled upon my own bravery. For what can’t be accomplished without a shred of bravery?