The Talmud (Shabbos 21b) asks the question: Why do we celebrate Chanukah?
The Talmud answers that the reason that we celebrate Chanukah is because when the Greeks entered the Holy Temple, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Hasmoneans were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the High Priest’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day, but miraculously it lasted eight days. In honor of this miracle, the Sages inaugurated these days for Hallel prayers and thanksgiving.
This statement of the Talmud seems to contradict what we say in Al Hanisim, a prayer written hundreds of years earlier. In Al Hanisim, we thank God for the miracle of the war -- for delivering the Greek armies into our hands:
"You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…"
According to Al Hanisim, the miracle of Chanukah was that God delivered us from the Greek armies. Yet the Talmud says that we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days.
Which one is correct?
The Maharal of Prague explains that both are true. The actual event for which we give thanks is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn't clear that the victory was a miracle. To the people living in those times, military success was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn't appear that God had delivered us from the hands of the Greeks; rather, it appeared as if the victory came about (as the verse in Deut. 8:17 warns) through the soldiers’ "might and strength of their arms."
It was only through the miracle of the oil that the Jews came to appreciate the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days -- an overt miracle from God -- they then understood that their success on the battlefield was from God as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.
No Standing Army
This explanation of the Maharal, however, becomes difficult to understand when we take into account a basic historical overview.
The events of Chanukah take place in the second century BCE, around the middle of the era of the second Holy Temple. A few hundred years earlier, when the Babylonians had destroyed the first Holy Temple, the Jewish people began to lived under the reign of non-Jewish monarchies. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and our right to exist and our form of government was decided by the ruling parties. So when the Greeks entered Jerusalem, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.
This wasn't a war of a stronger army against a weaker opponent. It was a war in which the most powerful empire in the world was pitted against a band of unorganized, unarmed, private citizens.
The Jews were outnumbered, outgunned and less battle-ready than their enemies.
While the war itself lasted three years, during the first year of fighting, there were no formal battles. Two armies were not squaring off against each other -- because there was no Jewish army! The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes. Some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Greek soldiers, kill them, and take their weapons. Bit by bit, more Jews would join Judah the Maccabee. But at every point, the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.
Even more startling is that almost all of the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were kohanim, priests in the Holy Temple. A kohen is a Torah teacher who guides the Jewish people in matters of spirituality. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers, but by the rabbis. Imagine a venerated sage leading his yeshiva into battle against the U.S. Marine Corps!
How could anyone not see the miracle of the war? No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles that they clearly were?
The Oil Event
The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.
To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted, the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Maccabees came out victorious. There is no question that they did well, which is why it seemed that their skill and cunning won those wars. As such, to the people living in those times, the miracle was hidden.
Until another event focused their sight.
When the kohanim returned to the Temple and took out that little bit of oil that couldn't possibly last for eight days, and saw it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew this was miraculous. The miracle of the oil reshaped the previous three years in their minds. They then recognized the battles as the miracles that they truly were.
In Our Times
In our own times, we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation.
For almost 2,000 years the Jewish people -- universally hated and oppressed -- have existed as a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. Yet we have somehow survived. And now, after long centuries of wandering, we find ourselves back in our homeland.
The survival of our people is the greatest miracle.
Since 1948, the Jewish nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of Israel: world-class hospitals, road, schools; a burgeoning hi-tech industry; vast amounts of high-level Torah study.
But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.
In 1948, the Jewish population in Israel numbered approximately 650,000, surrounded by some 50 million Arabs. On May 15, 1948, one day after the State of Israel was declared, five Arab nations attacked, each with well-trained armies and air forces, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish army, navy or air force. Yet, against all odds, we won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war -- until now, ironically, the Jews are considered the superpower in the region.
To the average witness to these events, this appears -- not as a demonstration of the hand of God -- but rather as the normal ebb and flow of history.
The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil -- to tune our sight into the true cause of events, and to see that it is God Who runs the world, and God Who fights our wars. Then as now.