In response to the question “Why Chanukah”, the Talmud relates the story of one jug of oil miraculously lasting for eight nights. In our extra prayers on Chanukah, we mention the underdog military victory of the Greeks. A military victory would probably not be enough of a reason to institute a holiday for all generations. But, neither would a miracle, as the 24 books of the Bible and the Talmud are replete with miracles for which on holiday was instituted. So perhaps there’s another approach to the question “Why Chanukah?”.
There are two major spiritual periods in history. In the first period, God’s presence was palpable and the Talmud relates that there were over one million Jewish prophets. In addition, the Written Torah (the 24 books of the bible) were received via prophecy during that period. The presence and belief in a God was strong, and living with an awareness of God was normative.
However, man was created with a strong ego and drive for self-sufficiency, and many people rebelled against serving God. This rebellion took the form of idol worship–the serving of other gods. The first spiritual period ended with the destruction of the First Temple (587 BCE). The rebellion against God had reached such a high level that He withdrew His presence from the world to a great degree. This withdrawal resulted in the gradual loss of prophecy, and since God’s presence was no longer palpable, the desire for idol worship also diminished.
When the Temple was rebuilt, there were no prophets, no open miracles and the service was at a much lower level. It was during this time that Greek philosophy and scientific exploration flourished. Increased intellectualism led to a heightened focus on the physical world and a lessened focus on the spiritual world and service to God. The Greeks sought to eliminate spiritual practice altogether and, eventually, the sacrificial service in the Second Temple was discontinued.
The Maccabees, who were Kohanim, were willing to give up their lives to restore spiritual service to the world. Since connecting to God through spiritual service is our purpose, they surmised that a life without service is not a life worth living. After many years, they eventually defeated the much larger and better equipped Greek army. The first spiritual act they performed was the lighting of the Menorah. The Menorah is a symbol of using our intellect to access the light of God, and the Maccabees desired to perform this inaugural service in the best way possible.
The Hebrew word for miracle is Nes which means “a sign”. A miracle is a clear sign that there is a force beyond nature, namely Hashem. Hashem wanted to give a clear sign that He fully approved of the Maccabees efforts and desire to serve Hashem in the absence of the Temple. The Nes of the oil was the sign of approval and Chazal instituted the Chanukah Service of lighting the menorah, accompanied by song and praise to Hashem, should take place on a yearly basis.
When we light the Menorah on Chanukah, it is the service of the Kohanim in the Temple that should come to mind. We are showing our dedication to serve God and fulfill our purpose in this world. Hashem has given His divine stamp of approval of this service. After Chanukah, we can keep in mind that the morning davening is also a replacement for the Divine Service in the Temple. Even after the destruction of the Temple, we still have powerful ways to serve Hashem. We should use these opportunities to improve our Divine Service with the desire that Hashem should restore the ultimate services of the Beis HaMikdash soon in our days.