Mai Chanukah ? What is Chanukah the Talmud queries, a question we find with respect to no other holiday. The Talmud goes on to explain that Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days, thus allowing the needed time to prepare fresh pure oil. However in reciting al hanisim during davening and benching the focus is very different. Instead of celebrating the rededication of the Temple , the miracle of Chanukah is one in which G-d delivered "the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few". As in the Talmud where the military victory is given scant attention Al hanissim mentions only peripherally the lighting of the menorah, without in fact making mention of any eight day miracle. What then is Chanukah celebrating?
Interestingly the Rambam begins the laws of Chanukah by answering that same Talmudic question and codifies the history of Chanukah, something he too does nowhere else. The Rambam begins by telling us that the military victory enabled Jews to be sovereign in their land for almost 200 years. And this is reason to celebrate. This despite the fact as the Ramban notes, that the Chasmoneans were Kohanim , and as such were improperly usurping political power from the descendants of the tribe of Judah . It is only in the next stanza that the Rambam mentions the miracle of the oil. Apparently the basis of Chanukah is Jewish nationhood even if it is "secular" in character but the details of the festival are derived from the miracle of the oil.
Prayer means to beseech G-d for the basic practical necessities of life. Wealth, health, wisdom, peace and the like. Thus in our prayers it is al hanisim with its emphasis on the military victory that we commemorate. After all if the Chasmoneans had lost the war we would not be here celebrating a Jewish victory. Judaism like so many other ancient religions would have been absorbed by the dominant culture. However the Talmud, our basic text of learning, of the meaning of life sees beyond the military victory recognizing it as only a means to an end. Chanukah is time to celebrate our spiritual continuity, the light of Torah, Torah Or , as we continuously strive to attain higher levels of holiness, ma'alim bakodesh . It is for this reason that the Talmud, written hundreds of years after the actual story, focuses not on its cause but its effect. The light of Torah can never be extinguished. Just light it and there is no telling how long it will last.
These two aspects, the military and the spiritual while complimentary, co- exist in somewhat of a tension, a tension born out in modern day Israel and across the Jewish world. Chanukah is probably the most widely-celebrated holiday of the year uniting Jews of all different persuasions. Undoubtedly some see it as a victory for a small sect of religious Jews, at odds not only with the Hellenists but the majority of the Jewish people who were willing to abandon much of Jewish faith and practice. It is a holiday of rejection of the dominant culture in favour of values derived from our eternal Torah. Others see in it a small nation surrounded by hostile enemies emerging victorious in the battles it is forced to wage. It is a celebration of Jewish nationhood.
Whatever the reason for the festival, be it physical or spiritual, it appears to make little sense to celebrate Chanukah after the destruction of the Temple . To celebrate sovereignty when it no longer exists seems meaningless and celebrating the rededication of the Bait haMikdash when it is in ruins seems on the surface downright silly. The Talmud tells us that there were many festivals established during temple times and all with the exception of Purim and Chanukah were quite logically discontinued with the destruction of the Temple .
Why then was Chanukah retained? It appears obvious that our Sages must have seen the seeds of the future redemption hidden in Chanukah. Interestingly the Talmudic expression used in describing the establishment of Chanukah is LeShannah acheret literally for another year. Chanukah was established for another year, for another era in the Jewish future. This is the meaning of the second blessing we say each night as we light the Chanukiah Who has wrought miracles for our fathers in those days, in our times.
Chanukah is much more than the ability to light the menorah in the Temple or to maintain a Jewish state. Such reasons can not explain celebrating Chanukah while in exile. It appears that the continued celebration of Chanukah was to remind the Jew, especially during the long and often bitter exile, to maintain the balance of the practical and the ideal, of winning the war and keeping the light of Torah burning. We can not have one without the other. Without dealing with the physical realities of life, without for example in our own times the advent of Zionism, the light of Torah would be much smaller than it has become. But if a Jewish state is the ultimate goal then we are fighting in vain. When we learn how to properly appreciate and balance the practical and the ideal we will merit a Jewish nation at peace with the light of the Temple menorah shining throughout the world.