No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to HQBH, although clearly it could. (Or can it: Can we define “heroism” with respect to One for Whom there are no risks to take?) Nor Yehudah haMakabi, nor Matisyahu, nor Chana or any of her sons, nor Yehudis…
The Beis Yoseif famously asks why we celebrate the first day of Chanukah. After all, the oil burning on the first day wasn’t miraculous, was it? It was only the additional seven that constituted the miracle. There are many answers to this question. When I was in grade school, a rebbe told of a seifer that was entirely a collection of 100 answers. Some show why the first day was a miracle — they only put 1/8 of the oil in each day, they put it all in, but at the end of the day the cup was 7/8 (or entirely) full. Or, one day to celebrate even finding the oil, or perhaps the military victory.
I want to give the Alter of Slabodka’s answer, but first I wish to lay a foundation.
The miracle of the oil is an odd reason for Chanukah. In fact, it’s not mentioned in either of the books of Makabiim, not in Megilas Taanis, not in Josephus, not until the gemara. But what makes it odd is that it’s not a neis in the traditional meaning of the Hebrew term. A neis is a banner, a standard or a flag. When used to refer to miracles, it refers to the fact that nissim call G-d’s Presence to our attention. But the oil burning for 8 days could only have been witnessed by the Chashmonaim and the few believers who made it into the heichal (the Temple building itself) with them. Celebrating private miracles is common in other religions. However Judaism is proud of standing on the notion of national events, public miracles — nissim.
I would therefore suggest that when the gemara asks “Mai Chanukah?” it wasn’t because Ravina and Rav Ashi thought that anyone learning the gemara needed a remedial lesson in what Chanukah was about. Rather, it’s because Chanukah had to shift in meaning. Gone were the days of the Beis haMiqdash. Jewish autonomy was by that point ancient history. The authors of the gemara were living in a Babylonia where it, not Israel, contained most of the world’s Jews. Everything G-d gave us back from the Saleucids, He had since took away in the hands of the Romans. The question wasn’t “What was Chanukah made to be about?” But “What does Chanukah mean to us in the here and now?” Chanukah was not made to be about the oil; as I argued last paragraph, we don’t make holidays for private miracles. But the miracle of the oil, and what it meant, is all that remained.
Now for the Alter…
The Alter of Slabodka says that the miracle of the first day of Chanukah is that oil itself burns. This is reminiscent of the story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter, who accidentally filled the Shabbos lamps with vinegar instead of oil one week. This was tragic, as Rav Chanina was so poor he lived off a qav of carob from Shabbos to Shabbos. (Carob grew untended, and was available for free.) Rav Chanina’s daughter was distressed by this mistake, perhaps because of their inability to afford wasted oil or vinegar. Rav Chanina answered her, “He Who made oil burn can make vinegar burn.” And the vinegar burned. (Taanis 25a) Similarly, the miracle that oil burns at all, as it did on the first day, is no less a wonder than it burning on the other 7!
Going back to my own edifice… Rav Chanina saw the supernatural burning of vinegar no more proof of G-d’s existence than he saw everyday within nature. A miracle for exile life, the era of “hesteir Panim — the hiding of His Countenance”, where we have to see Hashem as He “hides” behind what looks like ordinary history. The miracle of the oil was a private one, hidden, even in the other seven days.
There was a heroic kohein who, back in the days when everything was falling apart around him, took a sealed jar of oil and hid it. He saw G-d within the natural course of events, even when they were flowing in the direction away from holiness.
The Alter doesn’t mention this, but we find a similar bitachon in our sages’ description of Yaaqov, quoted by Rashi on Shemos 25:2:
“Ve’Atzei Shitim — And acacia trees: Where did they find these in the desert? Rabbi Tanchuma explained that Yaaqov our father saw via ruach haqodesh that the Jewish people were fated to build a Mishkan in the desert, so he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them. He commanded his sons to take them with them when they left Egypt.“
Avraham was forewarned that his descendents would be in servitude and oppressed in a foreign country. Yaaqov knew that was where his trip down to Egypt was headed. But rather than limiting himself to bracing for the bad times, he prepared for the eventual redemption. Hope.
Our heroic kohein, with full bitachon, had the same trust in the Almighty, that “this too shall pass”, another generation would arise, and someone was going to need it. Even as His bitachon made the first day possible, the day that the Alter of Slabodka associated with the natural property of oil being flammable. It is seeing the world as he did, that G-d’s Hand is in the natural no less than the miraculous, which underlies its observance.