Monday, January 21, 2013

Around Town: One hymn best serves this season of light

Around Town: One hymn best serves this season of lightHanukkah is here. Christmas is coming. The cross-cultural lights are lit at Memorial Park. In this red-state-blue-state, micromarketing era of niche demographics, it's good to recognize common values.

One song we have in common is “Ma'or Tzur,” the Hebrew hymn known in English as “Rock of Ages.”

The hymn, possibly written in the 13th century, is traditionally associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Many Jews will sing “Ma'or Tzur” in our synagogues and in our homes.

The identical music is used in Christian churches, but with slightly different verses.

There are, however, some significant differences.

The first verse in English is:

“Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;

Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.

Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,

And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”

But a stricter translation of the Hebrew has a different focus:

“O mighty stronghold of my salvation,

to praise You is a delight.

Restore my House of Prayer

and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.

When You will have prepared the slaughter

for the blaspheming foe,

Then I shall complete with a song of hymn

the dedication of the Altar.”

The “house of prayer” is the Temple in Jerusalem. Most branches of modern Judaism are not focused on the rebuilding of the Temple. The thought is that prayer now substitutes for ancient rituals. That's why the English translation resonates, with its focus on survival from oppression.

In the traditional Hebrew version of “Ma'or Tzur” there are stanzas that focus on the Exodus from Egypt, on the Book of Esther and on the coming of the Messiah.

As Art Buchwald once quipped, “when the Messiah comes, we'll ask him if he's been here before…”

Only one verse of “Ma'or Tzur” refers to the Hanukkah story. The fifth stanza recalls the Maccabees:

“Greeks gathered against me

then in Hasmonean days.

They breached the walls of my towers

and they defiled all the oils;

And from the one remnant of the flasks

a miracle was wrought for the roses.

Men of insight - eight days

established for song and jubilation.”

There's another difference, as well. Christmas is one of the most important Christian holidays. Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish celebration. Here in America, folks try to equate the two. But even in the traditional verses of “Ma'or Tzur,” Hanukkah is only one-sixth of the story.

People from many cultures have come to America. Sometimes we look for differences. Sometimes we seek unity.

It is a beautiful hymn. Lovely music.

Same notes. Different translations. One hymn for this season of light.

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