An Israeli rabbi, in an essay published this week, has offered an unusually realistic view of the significance of Chanukah.
“Some believe that we are celebrating the fact that an amount of oil burned longer than expected. This is a grave misreading of the Tora in general and of Hanuka in particular,” writes Rabbi David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo in Jerusalem in “Hanukah — Getting the Point.”
According to Rabbi Bar-Hayim, “the essence of Hanukah” is
the successful revolt of the Jewish people faithful to Hashem and his Tora against a pagan empire and its Jewish supporters determined to eradicate Judaism. For a time it seemed that the anti-Torah forces would prevail…The revolt succeeded beyond [the revolutionaries’] wildest dreams. Not only did they restore the primacy of Tora culture and practice in the State of Yehudah; the Jewish people were actually sovereign and free, able to determine their own spiritual and material destiny for the first time in centuries.
This is the miracle to which the Talmud refers when it asks: “Why do we say Hallel for eight days on Hannukah?” [and then] replies: “Because of the miracle”…The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, does not necessarily refer to a supernatural event. The very same word also means “flag” or “banner”…Something which stands out from its surroundings, an object or event of which people take particular notice is a nes — be it a banner or flag designed to attract one’s attention, or a supernatural event.
…the victory of the Jewish nation against a great empire, against all odds and logic, is the outstanding and singular event to which the Talmud refers in connection with Hanuka — not the miracle of a certain quantity of oil burning longer than expected. The successful revolt changed the direction and flow of history; without it Judaism would have perished…
We recall the miracle of our salvation and victory by reciting Hallel and “Al HaNisim” (where the oil is unmentioned). The miracle of the oil is commemorated by the lighting of candles [cites Talmud and commentator]. The miracle of the oil alone would not have warranted decreeing a new festival. Coming, however, on the heels of such history-shaping events, this supernatural occurrence served to remind us that all the events surrounding Hanuka stem from the same Divine source (see Ner Mitzvah, Maharal of Prague, p.22).