“When the Yivanim entered the Beis HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonaim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the kohen gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day but miraculously lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.” – Gemara Shabbos 21b
The Maharal states that this Gemara seems to contradict what we say in Al HaNissim, a tefillah written by the Tanaim hundreds of years before. In the Al HaNissim, we proclaim thanks to Hashem for the miracle of the war. We thank Hashem for delivering the Yivani armies into our hands.
“You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al HaNissim, the miracle of Chanukah was that Hashem delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”
The Maharal answers that both reasons are true and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, the military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that Hashem had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.”
It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from Hashem – they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from Hashem as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.
The Jews Had No Standing Army
This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account some basic history.
The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Beis HaMikdash up until that point, the Jewish people had been living under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of self-government were decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.
While the war itself lasted three years, there were no formal battles during the entire first year of fighting. This was not a case of two armies squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes – some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivani soldiers, kill them, and take their arms – but at every point of the war the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned, and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.
Even more startling is that almost all the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were kohanim. A kohen is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Beis HaMikdash and guides Klal Yisrael in ruchniyus (spiritual matters). He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers but by roshei yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kamenetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the U.S. Marine Corps.
How Could Anyone Not See the Miracle?
No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles they clearly were? The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.
To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted, the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Maccabees came out victorious. There is no question they did well, which is why it seemed it was their skill, their cunning, and their wisdom in battle that won those wars. To people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.
When the kohanim returned to the Beis HaMikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days and watched it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew it was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds. They now could see the battles as the miracles that they were. Exactly as the Maharal said, “The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the battle.”
Our Own Times
In our own times, we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation. For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep among seventy wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish people have survived. And now, after almost 1,900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.
Since 1948, the Jewish nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.
On May 15, 1948, one day after the state of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish army, navy, or air force. Yet, against all odds, the Jews won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – and now, ironically, the Jews are considered the superpower in the region.
To most people, Jew and gentile alike, it seems it’s just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of Hashem but just the ebb and flow of history.
The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature, to tune our sight to discern the true cause of events, and to see that it is Hashem Who runs the world and fights our wars – then as now.