You’ve heard the classic joke about every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” There’s truth to that, but it’s never the whole story, especially with Chanukah. In the Chanukah story, the military victory is the “body” of the story. There’s also the “soul” of the Chanukah story, which revolves around the death decree issued by Syrian tyrant Antiochus against Jews who observed the supra-rational mitzvos, mainly Shabbos and kashrus. The way of the Syrian world was that you had to be able to enjoy it or understand it in order to do it; Jews wanting to keep all the mitzvos created a G-d-sized problem. There was violent Jewish infighting regarding how to deal with this challenge, but a small group known as the Maccabees refused to be deterred. The Maccabees waged war on the Syrians, crying, “Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!” (See what I mean about the “soul” stuff?) Despite being “the few against the many,” the Maccabees miraculously won.
But that’s not the only miracle; it’s not even why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days. The eight day miracle of the oil occurred when the victorious Maccabees set out to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. But this miracle needs clarification, too.
The Temple, the Beis Hamikdash, was more than a big synagogue. It was THE edifice where G-d’s presence was openly revealed. But the Syrians had totally ransacked it. Now here comes the clincher: When the Jews entered the Temple, they actually found several vials of oil, but they had all been defiled. Out of their hatred for ritual purity and all it represented, the Syrians had intentionally broken all the seals placed by the High Priest. which made the oil unfit for use in the Temple’s menorah. Now according to Jewish law, ritually impure oil is permissible if pure oil is unavailable. But because they were rededicating the Temple–where holiness emanates from in the first place–the Jews refused to cut spiritual corners. They searched until they found the one vial of ritually pure oil to use and that’s the oil that miraculously burned for eight days.
The miracle of the oil represents something to all of us, from an opportunity to eat latkes to a time for pondering what G-d wants from us. And since this isn’t a cooking blog, here’s something to ponder: Just like the Chanukah miracles defied all natural limitations, when we go beyond our limitations for G-d (and we all know what our own limitations are), we can ask G-d and look for G-d to go beyond all limitations and make miracles for us, too.