By celebrating Chanukah, we 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 among the many defiled ones. This single jug of oil burnt in the two menorahs and illuminated the sanctuary for eight days!
So was the long lasting oil the miracle of Chanukah? Not really. 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 relates: “We are also told how the wise King Solomon offered a sacrifice of dedication at the completion of 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. We must believe that miracles did sometimes occur ‘in those days, and can still occur in these times also’ 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)
Sometime after this, Antiochus Epiphanes died. His son was no better. (10:9-10)