Imagine you are living in a time with the long reign of a narcissistic dictator, a rise that meant multiple generations living with tyranny, oppression, fear. Imagine for many years your people have been terrorized and even killed by those in power.
Imagine that for many years you have not been able to gather or practice the religion and customs of your birth – all those things that mean the most to you have been outlawed.
And then imagine, hope against hope, that a small band of rebels, without enough resources or enough people – without any real reason to think they could be successful – manage to overthrow those in power, and liberate everyone into a new and possible freedom.
This is the story of Hanukkah.
The story of the Jewish people after the rebellion of the “small band” known as the Maccabees.
Finally, they who had lived on the edge of despair for so long would be able to return to their temple, which was for them a place of security and memory and hope.
They were celebrating, purifying, remembering and re-claiming – the Assyrian army had been defeated, they were free.
In the historical record, this is the “miracle” of Hanukkah.
Just this. And it is enough.
A small community of people who refuse to cooperate with their own oppression, refuse to accept the world as it was, even after generations of it being that way – and a small group continuing to act until liberation finally becomes reality. This is an amazing miracle.
The rabbinical record, however, keeps going – past this part of the story.
The rabbinical record reminds us that for many years before the uprising – when the Jews were hiding in caves, and fending off arrest – they had missed their great festival of Sukkot, which must be celebrated in the temple, and so now that they had returned, they could begin the ritual as their promises with God required.
As they began, however, they realized that the Assyrians had destroyed all but one night’s worth of oil for the lamp.
They needed 8 days’ worth – anything less would not allow a true re-dedication or commitment to begin again as a religious community and as a people.
After all they had been through, it mattered that they do it right, and completely – it mattered that they not let the light go out.
And as the story goes – rather than the lamp staying lit for one day, the oil lasted for the whole 8 days.
These 8 days are why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 nights, with each night lighting a new candle on the menorah.
In the rabbinical telling, this was the miracle – that the oil that lasted far beyond what it should have – that’s how you end up with latkes and other oil-heavy foods as a part of the Hanukkah celebration!
Both of these moments – the uprising of the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted – are miraculous, amazing, and inspiring – and yet they aren’t what has always struck me as the most miraculous truth at the heart of this story.
For me, the miracle is in something less showy, more routine.
The miracle, for me, is the choice that the Jewish people made to light the lamp in the first place.
The choice that made the 8 nights of light possible.
They made the choice to light the lamp, even though it was hopeless.
They made the choice even though they probably didn’t think it would make a difference.
Something in them persuaded them to expect that something else could be at work.
Something beyond their own effort, their own vision.
In making that choice they chose to believe, as Arandhati Roy writes, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
This choice was the miracle. Expecting the miracle was the miracle.
Because by their expectations, they made the miracle possible.
This is the power of expectations.
Since researcher Robert Rosenthal began studying expectations and their impact in the 1950s, it’s been repeatedly shown that what we expect shapes not only our own experiences, but also others’ experiences, and then all of these accumulate so that all of these small, yet often meaningful ways, our expectations can impact – as in change – Reality.
For example. “One study described golfers who were told they had a ‘lucky’ ball. They made more putts than when using an ‘ordinary’ ball.”
Another: “Highly-trained weight lifters out-do their personal bests when they believe they’ve taken a performance booster.”
And repeatedly, “studies have shown that a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score.”
Not just their grades. Their IQ.
This was one of the earliest discoveries from Rosenthal – how a teacher’s unconscious bias – specifically racial bias – impacts how well a child learns – because, for example,
when a teacher expects more from a child, they will wait longer for the child to answer, and take a longer time explaining a subject they may seem not to understand.
These are barely-noticeable, usually sub-conscious shifts resulting from our expectations – with a huge collective impact.
This is what we might call the placebo effect – this long-disparaged idea where we can be fooled by “fake” medicines that trick us into believing we are being healed – but here it’s being played out socially, collectively.
Except- what we are learning is that far from “fake,” the placebo effect is actually a manifestation of a very real, very complex scientific truth – it’s just that rather than the medicine, or more generally – the change- coming from a pill, it comes from within us – from our brains.
This is the basic premise of science writer Erik Vance’s fascinating 2016 book, Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.
Our brains, Vance describes, are wired for the future – they are constantly assessing what’s going to happen next. Almost entirely subconsciously.
This is connected to the “time warp” Sean spoke about last week – because the way that our brains predict the future is by drawing on what they know from the past.
All the time, our brains are taking experiences from the past – and by the past, that might mean two seconds ago or two years ago – and using it to predict the future, and therefore guide our choices in the present.
And then – as I feel like I’ve been saying in every sermon lately: our brains don’t like to be wrong.
Our brains don’t want those expectations they are making to be wrong.
So sometimes, amazingly, instead of shifting our expectations, our brains shift reality.
Let me offer an example:
Returning to golf. If we know from the past, about an experience that felt like we were playing with a “lucky ball” because we played better than we ever played before – when we play with a ball we are told is lucky – our brains expect the outcome to be the same.
And so our body and mind automatically make small, unconscious choices that can ultimately all add up to playing a better game.
We are more focused. Less anxious. More confident, clear.
All because our brains want the expected future to line up with the actual future.
What’s wild is that it doesn’t always matter if you know that it may not actually be a lucky ball. Acting as if it is – like, the “theatre” around having a lucky ball – this is the thing that hooks your sub-conscious to engage the things that will produce the original expectation.
One of my favorite stories from Vance’s reporting is the story of an experimental Parkinson’s treatment – not a pill, surgery. Participants in the study come in for brain surgery – but then some get the surgery, and some don’t. And the doctors make the same marks on your skull so you can’t tell.
Well, one patient – after he had his “surgery”, it changed his life. “He went from having trouble walking and talking to — heli-skiing. He did a half-marathon. He climbed the backside of Half Dome.”
And everyone was thrilled – they thought they cured Parkinson’s. But then two years later, when it was time to un-blind the study, his doctors were shocked. Because he was one who didn’t actually get the surgery.
Again, it’s important to say this – it wasn’t that it was all fake. The experience itself activated real physiological differences in the brain, in the body – that literally created this patient’s expected future.
When my son broke his arm last month, we couldn’t simply “expect” him to be healed, and make it so. Expectations can’t fix poverty, racism, or the climate crisis. I wish.
Vance describes it like this: placebos can’t stop the disease, but they can often limit, even erase, the impact of the disease.
Expectations shift things in small, often imperceptible ways. As our expectations shift, small, imperceptible things shift in us, in our bodies, in our actions; and from these shifts, small, imperceptible things shift in others, and in the world around us. And all of these small effects can end up making a big difference.
There’s another story from the Talmud – a story of the Jewish people hundreds of years earlier, when they were slaves in Egypt – until a man named Moses led them to their freedom.
This story, is the moment when he’s try to do just that. They’ve left Egypt, Moses is leading them to the Promised Land – until he finds himself at the edge of the Red Sea.
His people were all around him, hungry for liberation. All Moses and his people had to do was go forward. Freedom was waiting.
Except for the sea. This big, deep, wide sea.
Moses looked to God, unsure what to do. But nothing happened. The ocean remained wild, unfriendly, hopeless.
Until, from the back of the crowd, a man named Nachshon pushed his way forward, and started walking into the sea.
A regular guy who’d never heard a voice from a burning bush. In that moment, he decided what he could do – was keep walking.
Moses stared at him. Others started to point and yell. What are you doing? You’ll drown!
But Nachshon just kept walking. He waded through the rising tide, the water hit his calves.
He kept walking. Water hit his waist.
He kept walking. The water came up to his chest, and then his shoulders. He kept walking, the water all around him. Until finally, it was at his nostrils, about to fill his lungs.
And it was at that moment, the Red Sea parted, and the Israelites could continue their journey to freedom, moving safely through the walls of water, safely through the sea.
His expectation of the miracle made the miracle possible.
In the story of Hanukkah, when the Jewish people decided to expect something other than what all reason might’ve told them was possible, this is a story they would have remembered.
This is the memory – the collective memory that their brains would’ve used to shape a story about the future.
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt – Hebrew scriptures say again and again –
so that when the question of whether or not they should step out to resist the oppressive regime; or whether they should light the lamp even though there was not enough oil – though the present reality said it was hopeless, their brains were sure something else was possible: freedom, and liberation.
They expected a miracle – and made the miracle possible.
Over the past few years, there have been many moments where I’ve seen people wonder if there’s anything they can do would make a real difference. So many places today make the Hanukkah story feel not all that distant. In our world – and in our personal lives.
Which is why the Hanukkah story should feel like such good news for us in our lives today. Because what Hanukkah reminds us – is that we can unlock the power of expectations – We can draw on our past in all the ways we have changed and healed and walked into the sea and it parted. We can draw on a collective courage – which is one of our core values at Foothills.
For as many times as I have seen people struggle to know how and when to act, just as often I have been bolstered by someone stepping out like Nachshon. Making the way by just walking forward.
This is a collective courage, a collective memory, that can fuel a collective expectation, and a collective liberation.
We don’t know what the future will bring – in our own lives, or in the world.
We don’t know if our actions will be enough.
But the only ways they could be, is
if we act as if they are
If we take the step forward to light that first candle
If we act in expectation of the miracle – making the miracle possible.