By celebrating Chanukah, Jews recall the deeds of the ancient Syrian Greeks who defiled the Holy Temple and its pure olive oil which was used in lighting the two Temple menorahs. After the Hasmonean fighters drove the Greeks out, they came into the Temple and searched for pure oil with the seal of the High Priest; and all they found was one small jug amongst the many defiled ones.
This single jug of oil burnt in the two menorahs and illuminated the sanctuary for eight days!
But the long lasting oil was not the miracle of Chanukah.
The true miracle was that they lit the lights of the menorah in the first place. Everyone ‘knew’ that the small amount of oil would never be able to last for at least a week, until new oil could be refined and purified.
The smart thing was to wait a week, and then start the eight day rededication celebration; copying the way Solomon had dedicated the first Temple. The Second Book of Maccabees, which is found in all Catholic Bibles, relates: “We are also told how the wise King Solomon offered a sacrifice of dedication at the completion of (building) the Temple” (2 Mac 2:9) and “Solomon celebrated the festival for eight days.” (2 Mac 2:12).
To kindle the menorah right away would be to expose oneself to disappointment, disparagement and recriminations, if the flames died out before the new purified oil arrived.
To kindle the menorah right away would be stake your reputation, and place your faith, on an optimistic outcome.
All human beings face similar challenges in their own lives. We know that frequently faith, hope and trust can result in failures that lead to despair and cynicism. We also know that faith, hope and trust can lead to wonder-full experiences of love, courage and accomplishment.
Without faith, hope and trust the State of Israel would never have come into existence. Without faith, hope and trust, Israel will never be at peace with its enemies.
Jews must believe that miracles did sometimes occur, as the blessing recited when kindling the lights says; “in those days, and (can still occur) in these times” because that is the only reasonable explanation for 3.500 years of Jewish existence.
The oil is the spiritual lesson of Chanukah. For those who prefer the historical lesson of Chanukah according to 2 Maccabees chapter 10: “Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. They purified the Temple and built a new altar. Then, with new fire started by striking flint, they offered sacrifice for the first time in two years, burned incense, and lighted the lamps.
‘After they had done all this, they lay face down on the ground and prayed that the Lord would never again let such disasters strike them. They begged God to be merciful when he punished them for future sins, and not hand them over any more to barbaric, pagan Gentiles. They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles.
‘The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Sukkot, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Sukkot wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves. But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple.
Everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year.” (2 Mac 10: 1-8)
Of course, we all know that just two generations later, internal fighting and extremist anger and hate led to a Roman takeover of the Jewish State. In the next two centuries two extremist caused revolts led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70CE; and the destruction of most of the rest of the country in 135CE.
The Talmud records this amazing statement, “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Jerusalem was only destroyed, because they judged by Din Torah (strict Law). Should they have judged by the brutal (Roman) laws?–(no,) but they judged by strict (Jewish) law, and did not go Lifnim miShurat haDin (beyond the line of the law). (Bava Mezia 30b).
Strict halakah and narrow minded zeal easily lead to anger and hate, which unfettered and unrestrained lead to disaster. It is not surprising that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai openly criticizes the failure to judge people with understanding, flexibility and loving tolerance.
That is why the rabbis worked so hard to transform Chanukah from a celebration of a military victory over external enemies, into an optimistic spiritual victory over internal, negative, forces of darkness, anger and hate.
So the Chanukah lights are not to “light the house within”, but rather to “illuminate the house without,” so passersby should see them and be reminded of the holiday’s spiritual miracle of hope over hate and fear. Thus the lamps are set up outside or at a prominent window near the the street.