Chanukah and Purim are seen as celebrating two different kinds of experiences for the Jewish People. In the story of Purim we were threatened with physical annihilation, while the Greeks posed primarily a spiritual threat. Thus in the Al HaNissim thanksgiving prayer recited on both days, we describe two very different story lines:
In the days of Mordechai and Esther … the wicked Haman rose up against them and sought to destroy, slay and exterminate all the Jews…
In the days of Mattisyahu ben Yochanan the Kohein Gadol … the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and force them to transgress your statutes…
This of course distinguishes the observance of the two festivals, with Purim – commemorating our physical salvation – celebrated by the physical pleasures of feasting, and Chanukah – remembering our spiritual rescue – celebrated through the spiritual act of candle lighting (see T”Z to OC 570:3).
This is further demonstrated by the fact that the primary warriors in this battle were the Kohanim. As a rule, the tribe of Levi did not wage wars along with the Jewish people, and were therefore not counted as part of the regular census of those who “went out amongst the armies of Israel.” Warfare was primarily for the sake of physical salvation or conquest, and as such was not suited for the spiritually focused tribe of Levi. However when war was waged for the sanctification of Hashem’s name, then Levi was at the forefront. This was true when Levi took up arms against those who committed the sin of the Golden Calf, and it was true again when they waged war against Midian for having seduced and corrupted the Jewish men. That battle was led by Pinchas the Kohain and joined by warriors from the tribe of Levi (Rashi Bamidbar 31:4).
As the primary focus of the war against the Greeks was the spiritual well-being of our people, it was most suited for the Kohain Gadol to lead the battle, charged as he was with preserving the spiritual purity of the Jewish people. And so in this war for the spiritual wholeness of the Jewish people, the battlefield and the Bais Hamikdash were united, as the Kohain Gadol returned from battle to the Temple to discover one remaining cruze of pure oil under his own seal, “the seal of the Kohain Gadol” (TB Shabbos 21b).
The sad postscript to the story is of course that the family of the Chashmonaim – those Kohanim that led the battle against the Greeks – were wiped out. Ramban (Bereishis 49:10) famously notes that their fatal error was in assuming the throne of the Jewish people after their successful campaign against the Greeks. In doing this, they usurped the role of Yehudah, whose descendants were to occupy the throne. Ramban notes however (based on the Jerusalem Talmud), that this was an especially egregious issue for the Kohanim, as while others may perhaps temporarily occupy the throne, the tribe of Levi should never occupy it. The throne is a political position primarily dedicated to the physical well-being of our People. The Kohanim, charged with preserving the purity of our people, must remain focused on that alone and not dilute their mission with political concerns. Evidently, their successful foray onto the battlefield may have confused their mission somewhat, leading to an ongoing distraction from their primary responsibility for our spiritual well-being.
In a certain sense, during the festival of Chanukah every Jew is a Kohain, lighting the Menorah in the Temple of his home (see Ramban to Bamidbar 8:2). We assume the charge of preserving the spiritual purity of ourselves and our families, and celebrate every success in this challenging struggle. Yet we are unable to return from the battlefield to reside exclusively in the Temple, as we have to navigate the material world as well, simultaneously waging the wars of Purim. We have to be both the Kohain and the King, a challenging and often confusing mix of responsibilities.
We must work, hope and pray to ensure that the light of the Menorah lasts well beyond the eight days, successfully preserving our spiritual integrity throughout the year.