On the surface, Klal YisrOel seems to have a dual relationship with Yovon, the ancient Greek Empire. On the one hand, on Chanukah we celebrate our triumph over the Yevonim, who enacted bitter decrees against us and our Torah. They attempted to destroy our family life, tormented our youth, and for a horrific period in our history actually made inroads into the kedushah of our nation. They inculcated their heretical philosophy into the Misyavnim, the Hellenized Jews who were receptive to their wiles, creating a deviant sect which still haunts us in its various guises and mutations.
And yet, Chazal (Megillah 9b) teach that if our kisvei hakodesh – the holy Tanach – is to be written in any other language, it should be Greek. The source of this strange dichotomy is explained by the Gemara as stemming from the brocha (Bereishis 9:27) given to Yovon’s father, Yefes, “May Hashem extend Yefes, but he will dwell in the tents of Sheim.” What is the inner meaning of this bifurcation and how does it affect our world today?
The Maharal, in his seminal Sefer Ner Mitzvah (Hartman edition, page 75, note 6), explains this crucial aspect of golus Yovon in profound depth and significance. First of all, he points out that the Yevonim were unalterably opposed to the Bais Hamikdosh. But as my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, explains (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah 6:4), “they were not the ones who destroyed the Bais Hamikdosh. They defiled and sullied it because their purpose was not to destroy us, but to erase the havdalah between Am Yisroel and the other nations.”
Rav Hutner goes on to point out that “Yovon was the only one of the empires that oppressed us solely while the Bais Hamikdosh existed… Yovon ‘entered and profaned’ (Yechezkel 7:22, Avodah Zarah 52b) it. Their goal was to eradicate the distinction between kodesh and chol.”
Throughout history, we note that the apparent affinity between Klal Yisroel and Yovon is both celebrated and often tragically misunderstood. Klal Yisroel believes in beautifying mitzvos and the Greeks apotheosized the ideal of aesthetics. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch comments that when Yefes and Yovon deviate from the model of Klal Yisroel, “The seeker of beauty, the artist, is open to external stimuli. He is sensitive and easily moved… But the tragedies of history – past and ongoing – bear eloquent testimony to the ongoing truth that perceptions of beauty are not enough. Without an external ideal that controls and directs both the perceptions and expressions of beauty, man descends to immoral unethical hedonism.”
The Stone Chumash eloquently adds that “Noach’s blessing states that Yefes’ gift is important and beautiful, but only if it is placed at the service of the spiritual truths represented by Sheim. Otherwise, it can be not only dissipated, but harmful.”
Chazal (Shabbos 23b) wisely created an entire set of additions to the mitzvah of ner Chanukah, apparently designed to offset the Yefes/Yovon/Greek ideal of beauty. Every mitzvah carries opportunities and even a mandate to beautify its basic fulfillment (see Shabbos 133b). However, only ner Chanukah offers a triple layer of hiddur, which has been universally accepted by the nation as a whole. This is our way of fighting off the baleful influence of Yovon. As Rav Hirsch points out, “beauty is only a blessing if it is utilized in ways reflecting holiness and purity.” The Greek attempt to defile the Bais Hamikdosh and ruin our spiritually beautiful avodah defined their elemental antagonism to subjugating beauty to the worship of the One and Only Creator.
It was the same with the Greek obsession with the intellect. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were indeed brilliant philosophers and thinkers. However, their devotion to chochmah often stopped at personal morality and existed in the vacuum of undirected and unguided thought. Indeed, the Kuzari writes that they had absolutely no mesorah for any of their thoughts. Their antagonism to Torah, too, was the result of their correct perception that our chochmah was superior because it was rooted in divine revelation and pursuing an ongoing analysis of the word of G-d. Thus, Chanukah is inexorably entwined with the menorah, which is the representative of Torah Shebaal Peh, the conduit through which Klal Yisroel grows ever closer to the word and direction of Hashem. As the Maharal concludes (ibid., page 32, note 187), “Yovon is more connected to chochmah than any other nation, but is only interested hypothetically, not for its fulfillment” (Netzach Yisroel, chapter 11).
Rav Yonasan David (Maamorei Chanukah, No. 15, page 152) adds that “when the chochmah [of Yovon] knows its place and is subjugated to kedushah, it can become a kind of vessel for holiness itself. This is the essence of the beauty of Yovon… However, when it appropriates power and independence to itself, claiming that [the sciences] and studies of nature are preeminent, it becomes a decree of assimilation and destruction.” This is the key to all the various approaches to the interrelation of the Torah and other branches of knowledge that have wreaked havoc when they were not directly under Torah guidance. Our sages, from the Tannaim and Amoraim through giants such as the Vilna Gaon were known for their incredible understanding of all the branches of human wisdom. However, in much of human history, when these powerful tools for mankind became warped and elevated to goals onto themselves, they became tools of destruction and heresy and drove people further and further from Hashem.
Rav Yonasan Eibschutz, writing hundreds of years before mankind had an inkling about space travel, wrote that the Tower of Bavel was actually a space ship that was designed to wage war on the heavens. Hashem only thwarted their plans because their goal was villainous, not because any knowledge is inherently evil.
Rav Zev Hoberman (Ze’ev Yitrof, Chanukah 1:17, page 90) points out that when the Greeks ordered that the Torah be translated into their language, the Zekeinim were forced to make 13 changes in the normative words of the Torah. The Mishnah (Middos, chapter 2) also describes the 13 incursions that the Greeks made to the Soreg of the Har Habayis, which were eventually repaired by the Chashmonaim. They instituted 13 bowings at each one of the breaks in the wall as a response to these incursions. It is clear that because of the close connection between Klal Yisroel and Yovon, as there was between Sheim and Yefes, we had to repair any breach in the havdalah between Klal Yisroel and the nations that Yovon tried to create. Thus, both in the physical Bais Hamikdosh and the Torah itself, we had to establish the absolute separation represented by the Soreg which indicated the boundary beyond which idol-worshippers were not allowed. This was anathema to the Greeks, whose raison d’être was that we are all the same.
It is surely ironic and not coincidental that this time of year, people who are not knowledgeable see only similarities between our lights and those of the world at large. That is the ongoing work of Yovon and we must do our best at this time of year to reestablish that which has been eroded over many centuries and even millennia.
It is noteworthy that this year, when many people are not even visiting malls, there is less danger of our children encountering the sounds and sights of foreign influences. Indeed, Hashem works in mysterious ways, this perhaps being one of the boons of the current pandemic. We should file it away for the time when this yeitzer hara will surely rear its ugly head once again.
It is interesting to note that the novi (Zechariah 9:13) promises, “I will stir up your children O Tzion against your children O Greece.” The near equation of Am Yisroel and Greece as “children” is a reminder that the illusion often still exists of our closeness. The world speaks of Western culture and morality as “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” usually as opposed to the Eastern world. But to us, this only perpetuates the ancient yearning of Yovon to fulfill what they perceive as their destiny in the tents of Sheim. However, they are still mistaken in their interpretation of this blessing. When they recognize their debt and responsibility to use whatever wisdom they have gained to serve Hashem in whatever capacity, they become truly blessed. But when they attempt to destroy us either physically or spiritually, their blessing turns into a curse for all.
One of the famous questions about Al Hanissim is why we seem to be thanking Hashem for the “wars.” Surely, all the other words of gratitude are in place, but is the nation of peace grateful for war itself?
The Chasam Sofer answers that this is akin to thanking Hashem equally for what appears to be pain and suffering, even as we thank Him for His obvious kindness. The Ponovezher Rov famously answered that we are exhibiting our gratitude for the very fact that we still know what to fight for. We have never given up on our principles or values and have been willing, if necessary, to die for them. When we perceive tumah attacking us, we fight back against all odds and then we light the flames of Torah and rekindle the fires of our souls.
Rav Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon (Tzofnas Paneiach, beginning of Hilchos Chanukah) asks why the Rambam writes that the Chashmonaim lit the fires of the maaracha, which generally refers to the fire atop the mizbeiach. He offers a halachic reason for why the Chashmonaim actually lit the fire on the mizbeiach and then used that fire to light the menorah. Perhaps this can be understood metaphorically as well. The Chashmonaim taught us that we can only overcome the ardor of the Greek attempt to destroy us through our own mesirus nefesh. We must counteract their sense of beauty with our devotion to hiddur mitzvah. But most of all, we must overcome their philosophies with our own dedication to limud haTorah. This, too, must be done with appreciation for the beauty of every word and for the music of the Torah, which will drown out the pagan song of Yovon.
May we all have a lichtigen and beautiful Chanukah.