Why do we focus on the miracle of the oil, not the Maccabees’ military triumph?
One of the puzzling aspects of Chanukah is that while we give great focus on the miracle of the oil burning for eight days, we lack a focus on the miracle of the Maccabees’ military triumph against the Greek army.
On the one hand, a small group of untrained rabbis defeated the mighty Greek army, against all odds, saving the entire Jewish nation from religious persecution that threatened its existence.
On the other hand, a small quantity of oil burned for an extra week in the menorah, enabling the menorah to be lit with pure oil.
Without the miracle of the oil, the Temple service would have been compromised for a week. Without the miracle of the war, Judaism may have been destroyed forever. Why did the sages choose to make the theme of the holiday the menorah and not the military miracle?
This question is compounded by a little-known detail: In certain circumstances, impure oil is acceptable to be used to light the menorah. This event was one of those times. (See Talmud Pesachim 77a for a further explanation of this law.) While pure oil was obviously the ideal choice for the menorah, in this situation, it was by no means necessary. Given that the menorah would have been lit even without the miracle, it makes it even harder to understand why the miracle of the oil receives such prominence.
Rabbi Yehoshua Falk, in his work Pnei Yehoshua (Talmud Shabbat, 21b), explains that the significance of the miracle of the oil lies in the message it conveyed to the Jewish people. While it is true the menorah could be lit with impure oil, it would have been less than ideal. God wants us to know that He performs miracles not just when the future depends on them, but He also makes miracles for us that are technically unnecessary. This “extra” sent a powerful message to the Jewish people that God loves them, a message not conveyed through the miracle of the war.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, (dean of Mir Yeshiva, Jerusalem, 1948-1978) expands on this idea: if you want to know whether a parent loves his or her children, you can’t judge by seeing if the children are fed and clothed. Those aren’t signs of love; rather, they are signs of being a responsible parent. The signs of love are apparent in the extras: gifts, treats and spending time together.
The miracle of the military victory certainly had a greater impact on the history of the Jewish people. However, the very fact that it was so necessary meant that it didn’t convey the love of God. It merely conveyed His role as our protector. The miracle of the oil, because it was unnecessary, showed God’s love and care for His nation.
When the sages enacted the holiday of Chanukah, the message they wanted us to remember annually is the message of the Oil: God loves the Jewish People, and is willing to perform miracles to go “above and beyond” for us.
Rabbi Aryeh Borsuk is director of development for Yeshiva Elementary School, 5115 W. Keefe Ave., Milwaukee.