Let’s get something straight: Chanukah isn’t the Jewish version of the “holiday season”, nor is it a “festival of lights.” The point is not to give people arbitrary prizes or to eat fried food or gamble. It’s not even about answering Rav Yosef Caro’s “famous” question.
There are two things Chanukah commemorates, and these two are one. There was a Divine sign in which oil lasted longer than usual, and most people understand that this is reenacted in the obligatory public lighting of the Menorah for 8 days. There was also a huge war in which the Greek army, which had been conquering lands in and around Israel, managed to conquer Yerushalayim. Throughout the country and beyond, thousands were killed for keeping Shabbos while hiding in caves (some actually refusing to fight on Shabbos because they thought it was assur), women and their children were slaughtered for practicing bris milah, people preferred to die rather than eat treif. They were killed for being proudly God-conscious and attempting to defend the Beis HaMikdash from destruction and idolatry. The bloodshed and resilience described in Sefer Macabim is reminiscent of pogroms and the events of Tisha B’Av. In a generation far removed from prophecy and miracles, people were eager to sacrifice their lives to do what was right. The dedicated Jews were not only fighting the Greeks; they also literally fought the idolatrous Hellenist Jews. This is what led to the gradual, makeshift rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. The miraculous candles were cast against the blood-soaked landscape of genocide. Notice how this isn’t a bedtime story anymore? Did you hear me mention the cruel imposition of secular studies?
In fact, the liturgical additions and songs of Chanukah (No, not “I Have a Little Dreidel”; grow up) have little to do with the Menorah. The Menorah phenomenon was a sign of the light that shone within the thick darkness. What was this light? Well, to quote the liturgy, “You revealed Yourself to the world as immanent and absolutely limitless… after [the military salvation] Your children came to Your sanctum and purified it… and established these 8 days of inauguration to gratefully submit and expressively sing to represent Your immanence.” Ma’oz Tzur weeps and elates over millennia of history and looks to its conclusion, when justice will be served and truth restored. Maybe we should sing that song with less German church-hymn flavor; the Chashmona’im are probably rolling in their graves at the tragic irony of Ma’oz Tzur (which includes the words “avenge the blood of your servants from the Evil Empire… shove Edom into the darkness of Tzalmon”) being sung to such a tune.
We stretched our necks to the blade because the awareness of HaShem’s absolute infinite immanence was threatened. After a grueling bloodbath, we drove away the darkness, only by virtue of that awareness. When the light of truth is realized, especially in a time so nebulous and horrid, the patterns of history, warfare, and physics are illuminated as dependent upon HaShem’s whim. (The word נס means “flag” — to bring attention to something — by the way; “miracle” just means “object of wonder.” Neither inherently signifies an existential change.) That’s something to sing about as you light your candelabra of purpose. That’s Chanukah.
As the B’nei Yisachar’s pre-lighting prayer says: “Our lighting of the Chanukah candle should be as effective as if we had focused in all the ways that the Kohanim, the ministers of HaShem, had intended when they sacrificed their lives for the realization of Your immanent, dominant, and awesome name. Bring the day when all will know You as the Emperor of Existence.”