"Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?" (Shabbat 21b). To this rather strange question, the Gemara answers, "Our Rabbis taught: From the twenty-fifth of Kislev the days of Chanukah are eight on which eulogies and fasting are forbidden" (Shabbat 21b). The Gemara continues by describing the basic outline of the story: how the Greeks defiled the Temple, the Hasmoneans defeated them and upon entering the Temple, found only one flask of oil which miraculously lasted for eight days.
On the surface, it is difficult to understand why we celebrate Chanukah, a festival commemorating the rededication of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. We should have ceased to celebrate Chanukah in the year 70 when the Temple was destroyed, as we did all the other holidays (except Purim) listed in Megilat Taanit. That scroll listed the many holidays celebrating joyous events of the second Temple era. With no Temple, there is nothing to celebrate.
Chanukah is a most popular holiday, even amongst “secular” Jews. For those living in Israel, the vastly outnumbered Maccabees defeating the powerful Greek/Syrian army has great resonance for an independent Jewish state surrounded by many enemies. In his opening to the laws of Chanukah, the Rambam highlights the significance of military victory and the fact that “sovereignty was returned to the Jewish people for more than 200 years”.
There is no more powerful symbol than light in our tradition. It is how we usher in the Shabbat, march down the wedding aisle, mark the yahrzeit of a loved one. Light is the symbol of spirituality, which, unlike matters physical, is not diminished when shared. Our spiritual legacy endures long after our physical demise. Our Torah is “Torah Ohr”, the Light of Torah, uniting generations past with those not yet born.
We tend to assume that, with the recital of the shir shel yom (the daily psalm—or Aleinu if you daven nusach sefarad), Shacharit is over. Yet a quick glance at the siddur demonstrates that this is not necessarily so. While not widely observed today, there is a custom to recite the shesh zechirot, six remembrances, printed at the end of Shacharit in all standard siddurim.
Rav Soloveitchik was asked why our generation was the one to merit witnessing the creation of the State of Israel. After all, there were so many generations much more pious than ours, so much more worthy than us. The Rav answered, simply, that our generation needed it. Previous generations were able to flourish in their Judaism even without the benefit of a state. But after the horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish life simply could not continue, physically or spiritually, without a homeland.