The Talmud in Shabbat (21b) asks the seemingly simple question, one that is still not fully explainable today: “מאי חנוכה?”, “What is Hannukah?”. On the one hand, that page of Talmud answers with the miracle of how one day’s oil lasts eight nights. On the other hand, it is a different miracle, the victory over the Greeks, that all of our other texts relate. The only miracle found in Al Hanisim, HaNeirot Halalu, Maoz Tzur, or any of the history books that we have of the era, namely, Maccabees II and Josephus, is the military victory. None mention the miracle of the oil.
Looking at those history books it seems fairly simple to answer “What is Hannukah?”. Maccabees II (10:6-7) relates:
They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs …they offered hymns of praise to Gid who had brought to pass the purification of his own place.
Hannukah was celebrated to recreate the Sukkot the Hasmoneans missed when they were kicked out of the Temple.
To make it more striking, the miracle of the oil is not the only source for the lighting of the Menorah. Megillat Taanit (Ch.9) describes how: “When the Hasmoneans entered the Temple there were eight iron spears in their hands. They covered them with wood and lit candles on them. They did this each of the 8 days.”
With this all in mind, the Talmud’s ending is completely out of sorts with the other sources. Why did the Talmud focus on the miracle of the oil when the earlier sources of the time did not?
I believe an answer can be seen by comparing the two holidays that are connected here, Sukkot and Hannukah. Sukkot, in its essence is about our complete reliance on G-d. We leave our homes, and go into the unstable Sukkah with the belief that G-d will provide and we are safe under G-d’s protection, just as the Jews were in the desert leaving Egypt. Conversely, Hannukah seems to be about how we were able to defeat the Greeks militarily. With great cunning and might, the Maccabees were able to fend off the great Greek army and restore the sovereign Jewish nation. The great irony of the combination of Sukkot and Hannukah is that they seem to be mirrors of one another, fused opposites.
With neither holiday, were the Rabbis satisfied with such a simple explanation. Hannukah could not be just seen as a military victory. Rather than focusing on mighty spears being the candles, they focused on G-d bringing down a miracle that shows the entirety of the holiday is a miracle. Even though it seemed that the Jews won because of military might, it was G-d’s mighty hand that saved us. We are not supposed to use the candles productively because they come to us from above and are not used for things below. The opposite happens on Sukkot. We are instructed to build our Sukkot and to live in them. We are told to be active and do Hakafot (circles during prayers) with the lulav. We should not sit and wait for G-d to come to us from above. We should actively try from below.
This dichotomy is seen most aptly in the famous argument between Shammai and Hillel over which way to light the candles (Shabbat 21b). Shammai say you light eight the first night and go down because this is how the sacrifices worked on Sukkot. Hillel argued that we go the other way. We light one on the first night and go up because “מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין”, we go up in holiness, but not down. Shammai believes that Hannukha should be like Sukkot, possibly because it is Sukkot! But Hillel understands Hannukah a level deeper. Hannukah is not Sukkot, but its fiery mirror. On Sukkot, the holiday of seeing G-d everywhere, we are instructed to bring G-d down into our lives actively. On Hannukah, the holiday where we celebrate our own might, we are instructed to rise up to G-d, we go up in holiness, not down.
In the Rabbinic tradition, Sukkot and Hannukah are two sides of the same gelt. When we are in Sukkot, and we see G-d all around us, it is still incumbent on us to work. When we are in Hannukah and we have done all the work ourselves, it is also imperative that we reach up to G-d and find him in our own actions. Perhaps, that’s the answer that the Rabbis are giving to the question of “What is Hannukah?”.
As it says in Pirkei Avot, 2:16: לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.