Today is the last day of Hanukah, an eight day Jewish festival of lights that celebrates the victory of an oppressed people against an oppressive government. Each day I have included in my prayers the brave women and men in Iran who have been protesting that a Kurdish woman was beaten to death after being arrested by the Iranian morality police on 13 September for violating the Islamic Republic’s imposed dress code.
Protesters have taken to the streets, calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic. Women have torn off and burned their compulsory headscarves in fury. The activist HRANA news agency said at least 506 protesters had been killed as of 21 December, including 69 minors; plus 66 members of the security forces that have been killing the protesters.
The eight days of Hanukkah [which means “dedication.”] are often referred to as the Festival of Lights because they also teach: Do not blame the Darkness; light a candle. The “festival of lights” is mentioned in the Gospel of John 10:22 when Jesus goes to the Jerusalem Temple to celebrate the Feast of Rededication: Hanukkah!
The origin of this term goes back to the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who lived in Jerusalem and later in Rome during the first century of the Common Era.
In his history book Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes the origin of the holiday we now know as Hanukkah: “So Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices in the Temple for eight days; and they honored [the one] God, and delighted themselves with singing psalms of praise and playing harps.
“Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their [religious] customs after so long a time [of oppression], having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days.
“And from that time to this [about 250 years later] we celebrate what we call the Festival of Lights, because, it was beyond our hopes that this right [to worship] was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival.”
Indeed, the Festival of Lights is also important for Christians and Muslims because it does not make any difference to the lamp if it is half full or half empty; but it makes all the difference to us humans in this world. As the Qur’an states: “Allah is an ally of those who believe. He brings them out from darkness into light.” (2:257)
The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the world’s first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the terrible persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of the pagan Arabs in Makka.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the theme of the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukkah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.
This is the ongoing spiritual commitment of both Islam and Judaism to the ideal: Light can even come out of Darkness.
As the Jewish family Passover Haggadah (a book that’s been revised, reprinted, and republished over 6,000 times, mostly in the last 200 years) states: Passover is a journey “from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to light, and from bondage to redemption”.
And the Qur’an states: “And We certainly sent Moses with Our signs, [saying], “Bring out your people from darkness into light, and remind them of the days of Allah. Indeed, these are signs for everyone to be patient and grateful.” (14:5)
This Light that comes out of Darkness is not natural light. It is the light of positive, hopeful, enlightenment which is also embodied in the following ancient narrative, that was transmitted orally in both Arabic and Hebrew throughout many centuries, and finally written down in several versions in the mid 19th century.
Two brothers who had inherited land from their father, divided the land in half so each one could farm his own section. One brother’s land was mostly on an upper hillside; the other brother’s land was mostly in a valley on the other side of the hill.
Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married. One year there was very little rain, and the crop was very meager. This was at the beginning of a long term draught that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where grain did not grow and all the springs dried up.
The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought. “My brother has a wife and four children to feed and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do; especially now when grain is scarce.”
So that night the younger brother went to his silo, gathered a large bundle of wheat, and climbed the hill that separated the two farms and over to his brother’s farm. He left his wheat in his brother’s silo, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought. “In my old age my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as grandchildren to enjoy, while my brother will probably have no children. He should at least sell more grain from the fields now, so he can provide for himself in his old age.”
So that night, the older brother also gathered a large bundle of wheat, climbed the hill, left it in his brother’s silo, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself. The next morning, the younger brother was surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged. “I must not have taken as much wheat as I thought,” he said. “Tonight I’ll be sure to take more.”
That same morning, the older brother standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts. So after night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn.
The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. “How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible! Tonight I’ll make no mistake – I’ll take two large sacks.”
The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart through the fields and up the hill to his brother’s barn.
At the top of the hill, with only a little light from a new moon, each brother noticed a figure in the distance. When the two brothers recognized the form of the other brother and the load he was pulling behind, they both realized what had happened.
Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.
Christians and Jews believe the hill is Jerusalem. Muslims believe the valley is Mecca. I believe they are both right and God willing, someday everyone will see both cities and their sanctuaries as a pair of lungs that are central to humanity’s spiritual light and inspiration by, and in connection to, the One God of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac.
As the Qur’an states: “‘Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearest to being God-fearing.” (5:8)
May the light and inspiration of this ancient tale, transmitted orally for so many centuries in both Arabic and Hebrew, help Christians, Jews and Muslims overcome the many dark, hate filled actions occurring in today’s world.
As the Qur’an states: Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend…” (41:34)
And as the Bible states: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. On that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria— a blessing upon the earth. The LORD of Hosts will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:23-5)