Hanukkah, which began Sunday night this year, commemorates a great Jewish victory over oppression by the Syrian Greeks in 164 B.C.
The Greek king of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus Epiphanes, imposed a heavy hand against the Jews in the land of Israel, forbidding the free exercise of their religious practices.
Judah Maccabee’s Maccabean Revolt against the oppressors ended in triumph, but it left the entire Jewish community with only a small container of uncontaminated oil needed to light the menorah in the rededicated Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
But as candles are, that flickering light was more powerful than all the darkness that surrounded it. The power of candlelight is a kind of miracle in and of itself, but it was God’s will to perform a more extravagant miracle that first Hanukkah by allowing that little bottle of oil to last for an astonishing eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.
That miraculous intervention was an indication to the people of Israel that it was God who rescued them. Yet this miracle – unlike the miracles celebrated during other Jewish holidays like Passover or Yom Kippur – began with the people, not God. They took the first step to rebel against this injustice and then God miraculously intervened.
Now, here we are ages later. Jews around the world every year remember this story of God’s intervention at the people’s initiative in a moment of persecution.
Each Hanukkah, I often have it in my heart to pray for and to act on behalf of those who suffer persecution for their own faith. For it seems the spirit of Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in Iran’s imprisonment of Christians or in Boko Haram’s massacre of Christians in Nigeria.
I think of Jews in the United States who were murdered in Jersey City recently and those in Europe whose synagogues require maximum fortification.
I remember the Yazidi women who still nurse the wounds inflicted upon them by ISIS.
And I think of the Bahai in Yemen and of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan – communities that thrive in our state of Israel, but are persecuted viciously throughout much of the rest of the Middle East.
Hanukkah is a special time of joy for every Jew in every place, but it’s also an opportunity for us to pray for divine intervention even as we act against injustice – to pray that the power of the light will once again overcome the darkness of religious oppression wherever it exists today.
We act in response to the Bible’s call to “rescue those being led away to death and hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” [Proverbs 24:11].
We do this because modernity hasn’t liberated us from the spirit of Antiochus; rather, modernity has tragically reminded us that the same evil often lurks just around the corner.With each candle I light this blessed season, I do so with gratitude for the ways God has proven Himself faithful to the Jewish people, and for how He has led us to overcome one injustice after another in all the centuries that have followed our first Hanukkah.
Yes, that’s my Hanukkah prayer… that this Festival of Lights will bring a brighter day to those oppressed and persecuted in every dark place on our planet. Let it be, as my Christian friends are fond of saying during this time of the year, a world marked by “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.”
And may it be not just for Jews, but for people of all faiths, at all times and in all places. May we live in a world rid of Antiochus and never in need of another Maccabeean intervention.
Yael Eckstein is the president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews. As President, Eckstein oversees all ministry programs and serves as the organization’s international spokesperson. She can be heard on The Fellowship’s daily radio program airing on 1,500 stations worldwide. Before her present duties, Yael served as global executive vice president, senior vice president, and director of program development and ministry outreach. Based in Jerusalem, Yael is a published writer, leading international advocate for persecuted religious minorities, and a respected social services professional. As President of The Fellowship, she also holds the rare distinction of being a woman leading one of America’s largest religious not-for-profit organizations. www.IFCJ.org