The mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah derives from the menorah in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple). After the Hasmoneans overcame our enemies, they could not find pure oil for the menorah, except for a “small flask of pure oil sealed with the seal of the high priest,” barely enough for one day. The Almighty then performed a miracle that this little bit of oil burned for a full eight days, which was enough time to produce fresh oil. To commemorate this miracle we kindle lights on the eight days of Chanukah.

Though the lights of Chanukah derive from those of the Sanctuary, there are some basic differences between them: (a) The lights in the Sanctuary were always of the same number, but on Chanukah we add a new light every evening; (b) the lights in the Sanctuary were lit expressly in daytime, “toward evening,” but the lights of Chanukah are lit after sunset; (c) the lights of the Sanctuary were lit indoors, but the lights of Chanukah one ought to place “by the door of one’s house, on the outside.”

These differences offer a profound lesson, which becomes clear when noting another distinction: the original times of lighting the menorah in the Sanctuary were times of peace, tranquility, and both spiritual and material bliss. The lights of Chanukah, however, are related to a time when the country was under foreign oppression, when the Jewish army was small in both number and spirit, and when pure oil was not available.

The original times of spiritual and material bliss did not require any special effort or exertion. There was no need for waging battles or mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice). Even the “street,” the outside world, was not dark or obstructive. The light inside the Holy Temple illuminated even the outside. Thus there was an equal number of lights every day, for when everything runs normally there is no need for supplementary activities.

In a difficult period, however, a period that necessitated battles against enemies from both within and without, a period of assimilationists (Hellenizers) who cared for neither the Sanctuary nor independence and tried to blend into alien cultures and lifestyles, mesirat nefesh became the order of the day. These were the trying times that brought us the mitzvah of Chanukah lights.

When darkness pervades the “outside” and threatens to penetrate the homes, it is not enough to illuminate one’s own quarters. One must bring light into the street as well, to dispel its darkness. The Chanukah lamp, therefore, is lit when it is dark, and specifically “by the door of one’s house on the outside,” in order to illuminate the outside.

It will not do to kindle lights on the table on which we eat or work, and then to open the door to allow the light to shine outward as well. The light must be lit “by the door,” that is, one must exert efforts to illuminate the street.

Moreover, the lights of the previous night are not sufficient. One cannot be content with having maintained yesterday’s level and status. There must be a continuously progressive ascent, rising ever higher and higher, until darkness is dispelled altogether.

This lesson relates specifically to the days of galut, which is compared to nighttime, to darkness. For in the galut there is a concealment of G‑dliness, whose light is not experienced in a manifest way. One must remember, though, that the purpose of the galut is not a matter of punishment. It is rather, a process of purification and refinement, so that we may be fit for the messianic manifestations. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi thus explains: “The purpose of the descent and exile is for the sake of effecting a great ascent, to wit, that the divine light may be able to shine in immense manifestation in the days of Moshiach.” In the time of the galut, therefore, we must transform ourselves and the world into worthy receptacles for these manifestations.

Galut is a situation of “after sunset,” particularly in the present bleakest darkness of the last days of the galut immediately before the coming of Moshiach. Nonetheless, a Jew must not permit himself to be overwhelmed by the darkness outside, but must make the light of Torah andmitzvot shine forth and illuminate everything. That light must shine forth “outside,” for even a little light dispels a lot of darkness.

This will hasten the fulfillment of the divine prophecy, “Even if darkness covers the earth and a thick cloud the nations, G‑d will shine forth on you” (Isaiah 60:2). And just as in those days “they kindled lights in Your holy courtyard,” we shall merit again to kindle lights in the Sanctuary, in the third and eternal Beit Hamikdash to be established by Moshiach.

In the merit of the Chanukah lights and the application of their lesson, we shall speedily experience the messianic redemption, of which it is said, “He has set an end to the darkness” (Job 28:3). “Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of G‑d is shining forth over you!” (Isaiah 60:1)