Despite the chilly, damp night air, the streets of Jerusalem radiate with indescribable warmth. It’s a light show of a different sort, unlike the grandiose holiday light shows I’m used to back home. Ironically, something about these tiny, soft flames in tiny cups of oil, all lined up in a row, makes all of those big fancy lights seem a lot less impressive. There is no doubt that these flames are telling a story. The real question is: Are we listening?

I always thought I knew the story of Chanukah. Once upon a time, there were two miracles. 1) Big, mean Greek army defeated by small heroic group of Jewish rebels. 2) Oil supposed to last one day and lasts eight instead. Woohoo! Latkes! Doughnuts! Gelt! Dreidel! Happily ever after.

The nature of oil is paradoxical: It floats above all substances, yet it penetrates every substance with which it comes into contactYes, Chanukah celebrates the victory of the courageous and determined underdog, a handful of brothers from the priestly family of the Maccabees against the Syrian-Greek army, the most powerful army in the world at the time. But what many people don’t realize is that the war was an ideological one. The Maccabees were not fighting for their lives per se, but for their belief in G‑d.

You see, the Greeks had no problem with Jews practicing Judaism—you know, as a bunch of cute cultural traditions. What made them crazy was Jews attributing Divine sanctity to these practices. They were cool with the Jews studying the Torah—but as a piece of literature, not as a sacred text. Keeping kosher and resting on Shabbat were punishable by death. Much like the Jews, the Greeks treasured intellect, culture, science, philosophy and beauty. But they believed that man was the apex of them all. The concept of any power beyond that of mankind was intolerable, an affront to the Greeks’ entire worldview. And they would stop at nothing to uphold this worldview, even if it meant brutally torturing and murdering Jews.

Tragically, most Jews of the time not only assimilated into the Hellenist culture, but became allies in their persecution and torture of the minority of Torah-observant Jews. Against impossible odds, a physically weak but spiritually strong band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, resolved to fight to the death in defense of their belief in G‑d. Miraculously, they were victorious.

But the central miracle of Chanukah could not have been the victory of that war, because even after Jerusalem was liberated and the Holy Temple was rededicated, the war raged on for at least another seven years (some opinions say for more than 20). And then, only a few short generations later, the Romans marched into Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and thrust the Jewish people into the 2000-year exile from which we are still suffering today.

So, what exactly are we celebrating?

The Secret of Oil

That’s where miracle #2 comes in. The Syrians had defiled and desecrated the Holy Temple. All seemed utterly dark and hopeless. The Maccabees, though, were determined to find the tiniest glimmer of hope, a sign that G‑d was still behind them. And they did: a tiny cruise of oil—pure, untouched and bearing the priestly seal, enough to light the menorah in the Holy Temple for one night. To their surprise, the oil miraculously lasted for not one, but eight nights, the amount of time it took to obtain more.

Now, these two miracles (military victory and miraculous oil) seem quite unrelated to each other. What does one have to do with the other?

Oil may be the unlikely suspect. But it is, in fact, the key not only to understanding the miracle of Chanukah, but what it means to be a Jew.

The nature of oil is paradoxical: it floats above all substances, yet it penetrates every substance with which it comes into contact. (Ever try to remove an oil stain?) A Jew, too, embodies this paradox. Our soul is literally part of G‑d; it remains “above” the physical body. Yet the soul also pervades a Jew’s entire existence, infusing it with sanctity.

Without our soul, we are nothingSo, even when logic dictates that there is no meaning to be found in this dark, chaotic world, we can reach inside of ourselves and find that pure, untouched cruise of oil, the part of us that is “above” logic. The part that is aware, even in the darkest of times, that there is a deeper reality to the world than what we see.

Burning Strong

When we celebrate Chanukah, we are celebrating much more than a triumphant military victory. We are celebrating the secret inner strength of a Jew: the part of us that is “above,” the part of us to which G‑d is real. If we’re in sync with the part of ourselves that is in sync with G‑d, then we can’t help but fight when it comes under attack. Because without our soul, we are nothing. At the moment we are aware of this truth, our soul reveals its intrinsic oneness with G‑d. That’s what we celebrate on Chanukah.

But then again, a moment of truth is just that—a moment. It comes and goes in a split second, like the burst of a flame. No matter how powerfully the flame ignites, without something harnessing it, it fizzles out in a matter of seconds.

That is why the true miracle of Chanukah was not simply that the oil was found, but that it lasted. This miracle meant something much deeper: those Jews who fought unyieldingly for their beliefs, their pure flame of love for G‑d did not go away with the immediate threat. Their passion defied the laws of nature and continued to burn strong.

We, too, can defy nature. We, too, can sustain the passion to do the will of G‑d—even after the imminent threat has passed or the inspiration has died down. We, too, can turn darkness into light. Because at our core, we are one with infinity. And if we tap into that, anything is possible.