Hanukah lights: ‘Allah guides to His light whom He wills…’

As I kindle the wicks of oil or candles and say the special blessings celebrating the strength of God’s light of goodness over evil this Hanukah I also think of the ayah; “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within a glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah Knows all things.” (Qur’an 24:3

Here are a few examples of how ‘Allah presents examples for the people’: During well known motivational speaker Marianne Williamson’s keynote address to several hundred Muslim and Jewish women at the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom conference in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just a few days after the October 27, 2018 murder of 11 Jews in their Pittsburgh synagogue, Marianne Williamson made an emotional call to political arms.

“I am speaking to you as a Jewish woman. Where fear has been turned into a political force in America, we must turn love into a political force,” she declared to loud applause.

“With the history of Muslims and the history of Jews and of blacks and of immigrants it is time, it is time for something fierce to rise up out of us. To say ‘you did it to my grandparents and you are not going to do it to my kids’!” Williamson shouted to a standing ovation.

Famed Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman joined the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a tribute concert to the 11 victims of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, one month after the massacre saying: ‘When you see something that represents the worst of humanity, you want to confront it with some of the best of humanity’.

Between musical pieces, members of the Pittsburgh community read texts honoring the 11 worshipers who were killed in anti-Semitic rampage at a Shabbat morning service in the synagogue. Speakers included the Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and Wasiullah Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

In Arabic, the word Jihad is a noun meaning the activity of “striving and/or persevering.” According to Prophet Muhammad there are two types of Jihad: minor and major. The Prophet referred to this when Muslims were returning from a military expedition, which for him was a minor jihad, and told the fighters that now they had to go through the major jihad. When he was asked what he meant by major jihad, he said it was the spiritual jihad (Radhi, XXIII, 72; Baydawi, II, 97). In another occasion, he said the real mujahid is the one who declares jihad against his/her carnal soul (Tirmidhi, Jihad, 2).

Exercising self-control and using willpower and reason to overcome one’s anger is described by Prophet Muhammad as “the major jihad.” The message is clear: overcoming our own feelings of hatred and anger is much more difficult than overcoming our enemies. As Ali ibn Abi Talib said, “Who is the strongest (most powerful) of people? The one who controls his own anger.”

Exactly the same wisdom was expressed by a second century Jewish rabbinic sage named Ben Zoma: “Who is a hero?” he asked. “One who conquers his own negative impulses” (Avot 4:1).

The Jewish celebration of Hanukah is an excellent example of both the minor Jihad of physical warfare and the major Jihad of spiritual self-control and perseverance. Every year in December Jewish people throughout the world celebrate the eight-day holiday of Hanukah. If you ask any Jew to tell you how Hanukah began, or why Jews celebrate this festival for eight days, they will relate the following story.

Once a Syrian Greek king polluted the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by erecting a statue of himself in it and telling the Jewish people that he (the king) was the embodiment of God. The Jews rebelled and after more than three years of fighting, Judah the Maccabee and his warriors recaptured the holy Temple in Jerusalem and began to purify its alter. Unfortunately, all the pure olive oil for the lamp that should burn continuously (Exodus 27:20 & Leviticus 24:2) had been polluted; except for one little jar of oil that miraculously burned for eight days.

This Hanukah story is about two kinds of battle: the physical struggle (political and sometimes military) against others and the spiritual struggle within ourselves to trust in God and not to despair in times of persecution (as represented by the long lasting oil).

When the Maccabees recaptured and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, the physical struggle for religious freedom and independence did not end. It went on for another 20+ years until full independence was attained. But the spiritual struggle seemingly lasted only eight days.

About four or five decades after the first Hanukah, two books were written about the Maccabean Wars and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The First Book of Maccabees, compiled sometime before 130 BCE, was originally written in Hebrew. Its intended audience was the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. It describes the recapture of the Jerusalem Temple, its purification and its rededication (known as Hanukah).

“They also made new sacred vessels, and they brought the lamp stand … into the Temple. They burned incense on the altar, lit the lights on the lamp stand, and the Temple was filled with light.… For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar. … Then Judah, his brothers and the entire community of Israel decreed that the days of rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at this same time every year beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days.” (First Maccabees 4:49-59).

The Second Book of Maccabees was compiled a decade or two after First Maccabees and covers most of the same period. It was written in Greek for the Jewish community outside the land of Israel, whose primary language was Greek, and was concentrated largely in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

The purpose of Second Maccabees, as stated in the two letters that open the book, is to urge the Jews of Alexandria to adopt this new festival. The author states that his source for the history of the Maccabean war was a (now lost) larger five-volume history by one Jason of Cyrene. Second Maccabees describes the purification of the Temple, adding significant information that is not found in First Maccabees:

“Judah the Maccabee and his men, under the Lord’s leadership, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. … After purifying the Temple, they built a new altar; made a new fire; … offered sacrifices and incense … and lit the lamps. … On the anniversary of the very same day on which the Temple had been defiled, the 25th of Kislev, they purified the Temple.

“They celebrated joyfully for eight days, just as on Sukkot, knowing that (only two months before) on Sukkot they had spent the festival (hiding) like wild animals in the mountains and caves… By a vote of the community they decreed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these festival days every year” (Second Maccabees 10:1-8).

The story of the small jar of oil that lasted much longer than anyone expected is not mentioned in the two early sources because they focus on the physical military Jihad battle to liberate the Jerusalem temple from Greek rule and restore Jewish political independence.

However, two and a half centuries later, the Holy Temple and Jerusalem were in ruins. In the generations following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish people could have despaired. They might even have lost faith in God when the Romans built a new pagan city on Jerusalem’s ruins, with a Roman Temple filled with statues of Roman Gods in its center.

So the rabbis started emphasizing the spiritual internal Jihad battle needed for Jewish survival. Everyone, even small children, need to believe in a better future. All of us need to avoid negativity, especially at times of governmental persecution and oppression. Everyone needs to retain their trust in God and their hope for the future.

The rabbis now taught that when the Maccabee soldiers realized it would take a week or more to produce the ritually pure olive oil needed for the lamp that must burn continually before the Holy Ark, most of them wanted to delay the Hanukah celebration, because they feared disappointing and dismaying their supporters if the light went out and spoiled the eight day celebration. The Arabic word most often used for light in the Quran is “nūr” (in Hebrew Nair).

Only a minority favored using the little jar of oil that they found, and trusting that somehow it would be enough. As the rabbis expressed it in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b): “Why Hanukah? Our rabbis taught: ‘On the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukah on which mourning and fasting are forbidden.

“For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil; and when the Maccabees prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one jar of oil with the official seal of the High Priest, with only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were decreed a festival with the recital of Psalms and thanksgiving.”

Notice that the miracle is two fold. That the oil lasted is a physical miracle. That they still lit it, thinking that it couldn’t last, is the spiritual miracle. To this day Jews still use one candle to ignite all the other Hanukah candles; light upon light.

The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the 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 pagan Arabs in Mecca.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that long ago filled believers with hope and trust in God and lasted longer than anyone thought possible: “Light upon light”. For: Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah Knows all things.” (Qur’an 24:35)“

People who are oppressed by political powers and governments today, as Jews and Muslims were by the Inquisition in Spain, need to remind themselves of the lessons of Hanukah and to trust that the greater spiritual Jihad is more important than the lesser Jihad of political power.

That is why Jews and Muslims are still here, long after the physical attempts to snuff them out during the Crusades and the Spanish inquisition are long gone.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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