Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Happy Hanukkah!

Jews began celebrating the Festival of Lights last evening. The story behind the holiday is pretty amazing.

It goes back to the first ever battle for religious freedom, told in the first four chapters of the Book of Macabees (part of the Catholic Bible, but considered apocryphal by Protestants and Jews). In about the fourth century BC, Syrians took over Jerusalem and defiled the temple. Then the Scripture says: "The king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people,
each abandoning his particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king,
and many Israelites were in favor of his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath." The king further prohibited sacrifices in the temple, circumcision and keeping the Sabbath.

Others would not be taken in so easily. "Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death, in keeping with the decree, with the babies hung from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed. But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean; they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with unclean food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die."

Finally a family of five brothers stood up and said no more. Judas Macabeus encouraged his kinsmen to follow despite the odds: ""It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our laws."

Over the course of a couple of years, Judas kept bringing his small armies of untrained men against the tens of thousands sent by the Syrians -- and he kept winning. Finally they reclaimed the temple, purified it and celebrated for eight days.

In this country, where we take our religious freedom for granted, it's a good reminder. And at this time of year, when Christian Christmas symbols are everywhere, it's also worth remembering that we don't all believe the same thing and that's OK.
Photo: Times file photo

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