The Chanukah Miracles
The Rambam describes the Chanukah miracle as follows:
1. In [the era of] the Second Beis HaMikdash, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments.
[The Greeks] extended their hands against the property [of the Jews] and their daughters.... The Jews suffered great difficulties..., for [the Greeks] oppressed them severely until the G‑d of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from [the] hands [of the Greeks] and saved them.
The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand....
2. When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary.... They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, except for a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for only one day. They lit... the lamps with it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.
As may be seen from the wording of the Rambam, there are two miracles: the military victory in which G‑d “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few,” and the miracle through which the oil in the golden Menorah burned for eight days, rather than one.
Relating to the Material and the Spiritual
The Rambam concludes that, in commemoration of these miracles, our Sages instituted the observance of the eight days of Chanukah as “days of happiness and praise [to G‑d],” on which “lights should be kindled in the evening.”
The commentaries on the Rambam infer that “happiness and praise” represent two different modes of commemorating the miracles: “happiness” refers to the custom of holding celebratory feasts during Chanukah, and “praise” refers to the recitation of the Hallel. Since the military victory was material, it is celebrated physically, through eating and drinking; the miracle of the Menorah was spiritual and therefore, it is commemorated through spiritual activities — kindling lights and reciting the Hallel.
Light is the most spiritual element in our material world; though visible, it is not governed by the conventional laws of physical matter. The spiritual aspect of the victory over the Greeks therefore found expression in the miracle of the lights of the Menorah of the Beis HaMikdash, and we commemorate this miracle by lighting Chanukah candles every year.
“What is Chanukah?”
The Talmud emphasizes primarily the spiritual aspect of the Chanukah miracles. Our Sages ask: “What is Chanukah?” — I.e., for which miracle was the holiday instituted? Their answer recounts the episode of the Menorah without elaborating on the military victory over the Greeks.
Although the miracle of the Menorah could not have taken place without the military victory, the victory itself does not define Chanukah. Chanukah is a holiday of spiritual light; even the war against the Greeks was essentially spiritual, since it was a struggle to preserve the Torah heritage from the taint of secular influence.
This is why the prayer beginning VeAl HaNissim, which expresses thanks to G‑d for the military victory, does not mention the spiritual miracle of the Menorah, for the latter eclipses it and is deserving of separate mention. There is thus a separate means of commemoration for each of these two miracles.
Body and Soul
The name Chanukah shares the same root as the Hebrew word for “education” — chinuch . This implies a connection between the commemoration of this holiday and our ongoing personal growth, for Chanukah, like all the festivals, communicates a message that applies even after its celebration has concluded.
On a basic level, the message of Chanukah — that spiritual light can overpower military might — teaches us the supremacy of soul over body. Although we are a composite of body and soul and although the soul needs the medium of the body in order to express itself, the supremacy of the soul is not limited; the soul invigorates the body, and controls its functioning.
By emphasizing only the miracle of the lights, our Sages highlight yet a deeper lesson. Chanukah grants every soul the potential to express itself without any hindrance from the material nature of the body. One can live and function in the world without being influenced by worldliness. Chanukah enables us to live in the material world for the sake of a spiritual purpose, in the same way that the military victory over the Greeks was spiritually motivated. Chanukah further empowers us to make our lives within the world a medium for the expression of our spiritual service, like the miracle of the Menorah.
Living in this manner will hasten the coming of the era when this ability will spread throughout the world — in the Era of the Redemption, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.” May this take place in the immediate future.
Adapted from Likkutei SichosVol. X, Chanukah;Vol. XXV, Chanukah