By Avi Lazerson
Who does not know the story of Chanukah? The Greeks oppressed us; the Maccabees fought them, beat them, rekindled the menorah in the Holy Temple, and (as the joke goes) then we ate.
The central idea of Chanukah is expressed through the oil.
When the Greeks and the Hellenists (the Hellenists were the Jewish adherents to the Greek philosophy and rule) took over the Temple, besides looting the treasury, they began to defile the holy objects. The Greeks were pantheons, meaning that they believed in many gods. In addition to this belief, above all they believed in the glory of the human intellect.
It should be remembered that it was the Greeks that gave us the forebears of Western thought: Plato, Socrates, etc. They idolized (no pun intended) the human intellect and believed that it was the highest attribute of man. A man was judged by his intellectual abilities. For this reason, they adored the Jewish sages.
However, the Greeks did not accept the concept of something that transcended reason. They did not believe that there was a G-d that created the world and unto whom we will give a final accounting. They believed that the gods were the powers inherent in nature, the sun, the moon, and the wind, etc.
Spiritual purity and spiritual defilement as enumerated in the Torah was not something that human intellect could prove. The Jews accepted it because G-d commanded it. The Greeks rejected it because there is no basis for it in scientific investigation. No investigation can see a change in an object as it passes from a state of purity to defilement, or visa versa.
To the Greeks maintaining oil in the Temple was fine, since they understood and appreciated the need for a religious ceremony. But to them, it would not matter if the oil were pure or defiled. Since to their minds there was no advantage to "pure" olive oil, they defiled all the oil (plus the various vessels) to insure that the Temple service would be reduced to a cultural event as opposed to a religious connection to G-d.
After the Maccabees entered the Temple and surveyed the defilement that had been wrought in the Holy Temple, they searched to find spiritually pure oil to use to re-kindle the Holy Menorah. All they found was one vial of oil which was sufficient for one day's menorah lighting.
It was from this one vial of oil that came the famous miracle that we celebrate when we light our menorah in our house.
Exactly what the miracle was is a matter of discussion between the various Rabbis in the Codes of Jewish Law. Some contend that since it would take eight days to produce ritually pure oil, the oil poured into the menorah was only one-eighth of the amount that was necessary to burn for the time needed. The miracle being that the oil that was sufficient to burn for only one-eighth of a day, burnt for a full day and that this continued for each of the eight days.
Others contend that the miracle was not in the menorah, but in the vial of oil. The priests in the Temple poured from the vial a full measure to have one full day of lighting in purity. When they checked the vial which should have been emptied, they found that it was still full. This miracle lasted until the end of the eight days.
In either case, all agree that the miracle of Chanukah was in the oil.
What was the reason that G-d made the miracle in the oil? The reason was to show that generation and all succeeding generations that the need for spiritual purity is a cornerstone in the Jewish religion and thought.
Whereas we live in a generation that believes in the greatness of science and glories in the achievement of human intelligence, we also live in a generation that is profoundly ignorant of the world of the spiritual. Spirituality can not be measured nor discerned by scientific methods, not can it be fathomed by the human intellect.
Spirituality is the dimension through which we connect the material world to its creator.
Chanukah is the reminder.
from the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine