For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)
It is quite surprising that the Sages established the celebration of Chanukah to commemorate the miracle of the oil that took place immediately following an unexplainable military triumph over the Syrian-Greeks. Our people are accustomed to miracles and generally celebrate them with thanks to Hashem, but only once before Chanukah — on Purim — did Chazal see fit to set a holiday for future generations to observe. And at that point in our history, the miraculous victory of the few over the many and the weak over the strong was certainly more appropriate to celebrate than the oil that burnt for eight days.
One may propose that our holy leaders saw the pernicious danger of Greek ideologies on the Jewish soul. Mythology, belief in physical primacy over the spiritual, and an awe of physical strength and beauty all ran contrary to the values of the Torah. It might have been acceptable had the Greeks been satisfied with self-involvement in such beliefs, but the desire to indoctrinate others with Hellenism created conflict in our Holy Land. The Rabbis heightened our people’s understanding of the importance of the spiritual world by stressing the miracle of the oil rather than celebration of the military triumph. Had the Greeks won, they would probably have built an Arch of Triumph perpetuating the philosophy of the physical. Our Sages, on the other hand, created Chanukah to emphasize our belief in the preeminence of the spiritual. By lighting commemorative candles, we clearly identify the enemy that is Greek culture. When one identifies the enemy, one is more likely to defeat him.
When Yaakov Avinu lived for two decades in the home of Lavan, he kept the 613 mitzvot, utilizing great self-sacrifice to overcome the wiles of Lavan. Upon meeting Rochel, he told her he was not afraid of Lavan because “I am his brother in deceitfulness” (Rashi 29:12). He confidently declared, “I know my enemy and, therefore, can defeat him.” On the other hand, we see that Yaakov is unaware of the animosity of the brothers towards Joseph and unsuspectingly sends his favorite son alone into their lair. One might ask, “Why is it that Yaakov is so perceptive as to the dangers of Lavan and so unaware of the hate the brothers hold against Joseph?” The answer is that it is human nature to be on guard if one is aware that his neighbors are wicked and dangerous, and one will drop one’s guard when one feels safe in the proximity of righteous neighbors.
Our Sages established the annual highlighting of the dangers of anti-Torah values. Our “brother” Esav is much more dangerous to our spiritual survival than our “adversary” Esav, because of our natural inclination to defend against an enemy and become comfortable with a friend. In every generation, success is dependent on identifying the danger to Jewish survival. In the recent past, the enemies of the Jews attempted physical genocide, and we stubbornly adhered to our Torah and won the battle. Today we face a technological and philosophical onslaught that wears “harmless” garb. May the lights of the chanukiyah reveal the dangers of our world and protect us from not recognizing our enemy!
Shabbat Chanukah same’ach!