The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (21b) famously presents a brief account of the miracle that occurred in the Beit Ha-mikdash after the Chashmonaim ousted the Greeks and rededicated the Temple, kindling the menorah with the lone jug of pure oil, which miraculously sustained the candles for eight nights. The next year, the Gemara relates, “they established them [these eight days] and made them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.”
Sefat Emet (Chanukah, 5641) boldly suggests explaining the Gemara not only that the days of Chanukah is to be observed through praise and thanksgiving, but that these days enhance our ability to give praise and thanksgiving. A verse in Sefer Yeshayahu (64:10) refers to the Beit Ha-mikdash as “the house of our sanctity and our glory, where our forefathers praised You.” Sefat Emet explains that it is only in the sacred grounds of the Beit Ha-mikdash that one is capable of purely and wholeheartedly giving praise to the Almighty. Although we are able to praise God outside the Temple, and even under the difficult conditions of exile, this praise is of a lesser quality than the praise that was given in the Mikdash. On Chanukah, however, we experience what Sefat Emet terms “a little illumination from the Temple” (“ketzat he’ara mi-Beit Ha-mikdash”). As we declare in the “Ha-neirot Halalu” proclamation recited immediately after lighting, “Ha-neirot halalu kodesh heim” – the Chanukah candles are “sacred,” as they commemorate the candles of the menorah in the Beit Ha-mikdash. And thus, like the lights of the menorah, we are forbidden from deriving personal benefit from the lights of the Chanukah candles. The kindling of the Chanukah lights in the home, according to Sefat Emet, signifies the extension of the sanctity of the Beit Ha-mikdash into our homes, a phenomenon that is experienced each year on Chanukah even after the Temple’s destruction. (An earlier source for this concept is likely the famous comments of the Ramban, in the beginning of Parashat Behaalotekha.) As such, Sefat Emet explains, the days of Chanukah are truly “days of praise and thanksgiving” – days when we have the special ability to give praise to God, more so than throughout the rest of the year.
The struggles and travails of day-to-day life make it difficult to feel grateful and appreciative, to recognize God’s boundless love and the kindness He bestows upon us at all times. The “darkness” of the world prevents us from experiencing true joy and contentment, and so it prevents us from fervently praising and thanking God. This joy can be experienced only in the sacred confines of the Beit Ha-mikdash, where God’s presence was felt in an especially powerful way. One of the themes of Chanukah is that we are capable of illuminating the darkness, that even a small “jug” of “purity” can shine brightly far more than we would expect. Even as we struggle against the “impure” forces of the world, are capable of igniting within ourselves the light of joy and gratitude. This, perhaps, is the meaning of Sefat Emet’s teaching regarding the definition of Chanukah as “yemei hallel ve-hoda’a” – “days of praise and thanksgiving.” The message of this celebration – or at least one message of this celebration – is that we can and must strive to find light even in darkness, that just as our candles illuminate the long, dark nights during the period of the winter solstice, so do we have the capacity to illuminate the darkness of the world and of our lives with the light of joy, contentment and gratitude, appreciating our blessings and giving praise to the Almighty for all He does for us.