The Talmud asks in Tractate Shabbos, “What is Chanukah?” According to Rashi, the real question is, “What is the miracle that we celebrate on Chanukah?”
The Talmud answers: “When the Hellenists entered the Beis HaMikdash, they defiled all of its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of pure oil… sufficient to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred and the Maccabees lit the menorah with this oil for eight days.”
Based on this answer, there are two miracles of Chanukah: the physical victory of the Jews over the Greeks, a tiny band of soldiers versus the most powerful army in world, and the spiritual victory of finding one unspoiled cruse of oil, which miraculously lasted for eight days instead of one. Why is the specific miracle that warranted the establishment of Chanukah the seemingly lesser miracle, the cruse of oil, rather than the more obvious, “larger” miracle of the victory of the few over the many?
The “smaller,” spiritual miracle is celebrated, because the Jews did not really face a threat to their physical lives during the Greek occupation. Rather, the Greeks wanted the Jews to forsake their spirituality, to remove Hashem from their lives. The Greeks demanded of the Jews, “Inscribe upon the horn of an ox that you have no part in the G-d of Israel.”1 In actuality, the war between the Jews and the Greeks occurred because the Jews courageously ignored the decrees against Judaism and belief in Hashem.
The real miracle, therefore, is the miracle of “rescuing the soul of the people”. The miracle of the oil, a miracle connected to a mitzvah involving the lights in the Beis HaMikdash, was the true miracle. As the Torah says, “For a mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light.”
Even though we understand the priority of the spiritual miracle, another question still remains. Why doesn’t the Talmud refer to the physical victory in battle as a miracle? Despite the main miracle, the spiritual miracle, was the physical victory not miraculous as well? It was the physical victory that allowed the spiritual victory to occur – the Maccabees would not have had any access to the Beis HaMikdash if the Greeks had been victorious.
The battle of the Greeks versus the Jews was not against the practice of Judaism, rather the Greeks were against the presence of Hashem in Torah and mitzvos. As it says in Ve’Al HaNissim: “to make them forget Your Torah and make them violate the decrees of Your will.” The Greeks wanted to erase the Divinity of Torah and mitzvos.
The war waged by the Greeks was against the Jewish belief that Hashem is above everything, that Hashem transcends nature, that Hashem cannot be quantified by human intellect.
This is why the Talmud speaks of the miracle of the oil as the miracle that brought about the celebration of Chanukah. The Chanukah lights symbolize the spiritual victory, the illumination of Hashem’s light in the darkness. This spiritual miracle is so great, so awesome, that it completely eclipses the physical victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks.
It is the entirely spiritual nature of Chanukah that helps us to achieve such a high spiritual level, where the soul is so superior to the body that the body becomes almost an afterthought. Even though the soul is clothed in a body, and our souls need a body in order to serve Hashem, the body is dominated by the soul and its Divine nature. A person’s entire physical self is devoted to helping the soul fulfill its spiritual service.
This Chanukah as we kindle the miraculous lights and recite the Ve’Al HaNissim prayer, let us also ask Hashem to help us use our bodies to aid our souls in their Divine purpose, to bring the end of Golus and usher in the Geulah Shleimah.