In the glow of the candles, the heroic feats of the Maccabees have become transmuted into acts of divine intervention. The blessing over the candles recited each night of the holiday goes: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old."
Miracles, not victories. We celebrate His gracious providence, not our military prowess. At Passover, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told with the same moral attached: It is He who delivered us, not we who freed ourselves. Freedom is a gift from God, not men.
The story of Chanukah doesn't merit inclusion in the Old Testament. This swashbuckling saga of heroic deeds in battle has been relegated to the Apocrypha. A mere military victory rates only a secondary place in the canon. The victory is celebrated not for its own sake but for what it reveals of the Divine. A messy little guerrilla war in the dim past of a forgotten empire has become something else, something that partakes of the eternal.
The central metaphor of all religious belief -- light -- reduces the imperial intrigue and internecine warfare of those tumultuous times to shadowy details. And that may be the greatest miracle of Chanukah: the transformation of the oldest and darkest of human activities, war, into a feast of illumination.
There is more than a single theme to this minor but not simple holiday. One can almost trace the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, its yearnings and fulfillments, its wisdom and folly, its holiness and vainglory, by noting which themes of Chanukah have been emphasized when in Jewish history. History may say a good deal more about the time in which it is written than the time it describes. The message of Chanukah changes from age to age because the past we choose to remember is a reflection of the present and what it values. When Chanukah is celebrated with pride, a fall is sure to follow. When it inspires humility, we may yet be redeemed. I
f there is one, unchanging message associated with this holiday whose significance changes with the changing times, it can be found in the portion of the Prophets designated to be read for the sabbath of Chanukah. It is Zechariah 4:1-7, with its penultimate verse:
Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.