Upon opening the Rambam’s Hilchot Chanukah, one cannot help but notice something very strange. One would expect the Rambam to begin, as he usually does, with the basic laws pertaining to the holiday stating that the holiday of Chanukah is of Rabbinic origin and the main Mitzvah is the lighting of candles and then elaborating on the laws in fuller detail in the following chapters. However, Hilchot Chanukah begins in a way unique and completely different than any other section of the Rambam.
The Rambam opens Hilchot Chanukah with a long historical description of the history of the Second Temple period leading up to the rebellion of the Chashmonaim. He includes all the historical details- the Hellenistic background, the persecutions, the rebellion of the Chashmonaim, and finally the miracle of the oil. Only after this background does the Rambam do what we would expect him to do and discuss the Halachot of lighting the candles.
What is going on? The Rambam’s Mishnah Torah is a compendium of laws, a book designed to be a handbook of practical Halacha; it is not a storybook. What place do tales of Jewish history have in a law book?
This question is strengthened by a glance at other holidays that also have a story behind them, namely, Pesach, Succot, Tisha B’av and Purim. In stark contrast to the holiday of Chanukah, when these Chagim and their laws are presented by the Rambam, none of them are introduced by telling the story of the holiday. When the Rambam begins Hilchot Pesach, he makes no mention of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but simply starts by describing the punishment of Karet (premature death). Similarly, the beginning of Hilchot Purim says nothing about the story of Megillat Esther; it begins with a discussion of the Rabbinic commandment to read the Megillah and the people included in the Mitzvah. What is different about Hilchot Chanukah that the Rambam saw fit to begin them with the Chanukah story?
Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, as reported by Rav Aharon Rakeffet, answered that when the Rambam opens Hilchot Chanukah by telling us the story of Chanukah, he is not simply telling us the story for our reading pleasure. Rather, he is actually teaching us a very important Halacha. He is telling us that when a Jew has to act, he or she has to do everything possible.
This message emerges from every aspect of the Chashmonaim story: First, the Chashmonaim, as we say in the prayer of Al Hanisim, fought a war of “few against many,” were the “weak against the strong,” etc. Yet they did not run away in fear, but rather fought and battled bravely, doing everything humanly possible to defeat their enemies despite the odds. Second, after the war, when the Chashmonaim returned to the Mikdash, they searched frantically to find pure oil. They refused to compromise and use less-than-ideal oil, but they did everything humanly possible to find pure oil. Finally, even once they had found a small container of oil, they knew that it would only last for a short time, so they immediately sent out messengers to the Galil, where the best olive oil is made to supply themselves with more oil. Unlike today, however, where a trip to the Galil from Jerusalem is a two hour bus ride; without modern transportation, it took three days for the messengers to reach the Galil and three days to get back. These six days plus Shabbat makes it seven days in total for the oil to get back to the Mikdash (as per R. Nissim). In short, to get new oil, they also did all that they humanly could.
In all of these cases, the Chashmonaim did anything and everything humanly possible. What happened in the end? When the Chashmonaim did all they could, God responded and helped them. When they fought their hardest against the enemies, God helped them be victorious. When they searched frantically for pure oil, they found oil. And when they ran out of oil, God performed a miracle that the oil that they had found was enough to last them exactly until new oil was brought in.
The Rambam is telling us that this, too, is a Halacha, and therefore belongs at the opening of his Hilchot Chanukah. A Jew must do what he or she can, must exert him- or herself to the fullest, even under the most hopeless, helpless and bleak situations. When a Jew tries his or her hardest and reaches the point at which he or she cannot go any further, when nothing more is humanly possible – only then God will intervene and do the rest. This is the Halacha – Jews must do their best, must strive 110%, for only at that point, when human effort can go no further, will God step in and do the rest.
We each have our own challenges and obstacles, both on a personal level and on a national level, and many of them often seem hopeless and impossible to overcome. The lesson we must take from the Chashmonaim is that we are commanded to try our hardest, we must put our every last effort into facing, fighting and confronting those challenges. Hopefully, just as God responded to the fullest efforts of the Chashmonaim, He will respond to ours, as well.