On the Horn of the Ox

Bereishis bara Elokim… In the beginning of G-d’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was astonishingly empty with darkness upon the surface of the deep…” (Bereishis 1:1-2). The Medrash tells us that in this posuk, there is a remez to the four exiles that Klal Yisroel would have to endure. “Vechoshech – With darkness” is an allusion to Yovon, the Syrian-Greeks who would darken the eyes of the Jews with their edict. They commanded the Jews to write on the horns of their oxen that they no longer have a connection to the G-d of the Jews. In Megillas Taanis, it says that they also had to write this on the foreheads of their donkeys.

What is meant by saying that they darkened the eyes of the Jews? And what was their intention in forcing them to write this idea on the horns of their oxen and the foreheads of their mules? Darkening their eyes seems to imply that they wanted the Yidden to change their outlook on life. What new perspective did they want to force upon them and how is this associated with writing on their animals?

Rav Yaakov Galinsky tells the story of a peasant who gathered together produce to sell in the city. He tied it all into a big bundle, carried it on his back, and started walking to the city. A pleasant breeze was blowing and the wide brim of his straw hat shaded him from the rays of the sun. It was a long way to the city and he had plenty of time to think his deep thoughts.

He asked himself, “Why do I have feet? Ah, of course, to go to the city. And why do I have a back? To carry the heavy bundle of produce. And why do I have hands? That’s an easy one: To hold onto the rope around the bundle so that it doesn’t fall off my back. But why do I have a head?” He looked very perplexed, as he thought this through and he had plenty of time for this. He pondered, he speculated, he reasoned, but to no avail. Finally, as he was about to approach the city, his face lit up with a bright smile. “I finally figured it out: My head is there to keep my straw hat on it to save me from the rays of the hot sun.”

This peasant’s logic is essentially what the Yevonim wanted to impress upon the Yidden. Hakadosh Boruch Hu created man as a tzelem Elokim, in the image of Elokim. Of course this cannot be taken literally, for we cannot associate our physical characteristics with Hashem. And why is the name Elokim chosen in particular when speaking of this image?

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in his sefer Nefesh Hachaim, explains that the name Elokim connotes Hashem being the Creator of every single thing in the universe and the source of its constant existence. Were Hashem to remove His support for even one second, the world would cease to exist, and the entire briah is dependent on Him every moment.

Similarly, Hakadosh Boruch Hu created man and endowed him with this amazing power to control the entire universe through his actions, words, and thoughts. If he lives a spiritual life filled with good deeds, then he elevates the entire world with him and causes Hashem to shower it with immense blessing. But if chas veshalom he conducts himself contrary to Hashem’s will, he brings ruin and the misfortune to the world. In this way, man is a microcosm of Elokim and the whole world is in his hands.

Before the emergence of the Yevonim, the Yidden had a clear vision of what their purpose was in life. They realized how special they were, that their success and the success of the entire world hinged upon their relationship with Hashem. First and foremost in their lives were the three pillars of Torah, avodah, and gemillus chassodim. They understood that their sole objective in this world was to sanctify the name of Hashem. Any indulgence in physical matters was meant only as a means to give them strength to serve Hashem not as an end in and of itself. They had the clear perception that all of their parnassah is given by Hashem and any efforts that they invested were merely hishtadlus and nothing more.

But the Yevonim came along and changed that perception. To them, the vast chochmah of the briah was not associated with the Borei Olam. Anything that could not be perceived by the physical senses could not possibly be real. Consequently,the world was meant for man’s own personal indulgence and not to serve some higher force. This false ideology spread amongst Yidden like wildfire, at first as a distraction and then eventually causing them to go totally off course. Viewing life through the prism of the Yevonim totally blinded them to the true perspective on life and caused them to engage in corrupt, immoral activities exactly like the Syrian-Greeks. This is what is meant by the darkening of the eyes of Yisroel. They lost their identity and the realization of their exalted mission in life.

“In the beginning of G-d’s creating the heavens and the earth…” Why did Hashem create the heavens before creating the earth? To teach us what the primary purpose in life is: for living a spiritual heavenly life, where earthly, mundane endeavors are only secondary. But if man mistakenly focuses on the gashmiyus, while the ruchniyus is secondary in importance, then veha’aretz hoysah sohu vavohu, his world is astonishingly empty, vechoshech, and full of darkness, al pnei sehom, where he is capable of sinking to the greatest depths of depravity (Tiv HaTorah, Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz).

The oxen and donkeys were the primary engines of that time to keep things moving. They were used for plowing, sowing the fields, harvesting, and transporting the produce. In the good days, when their vision was clear, the Yidden fully believed that their blessings came from Hakadosh Boruch Hu and working the fields with their animals was merely hishtadlus that was necessitated by the cheit of the Eitz Hadaas. With the new progressive ideas of Hellenism, where Hashem was cut out of the picture, the source of their parnassah in their eyes was now their own efforts, their own know-how, and their animals on the field.

This is what the Medrash means with writing on the horns of their oxen and the foreheads of their donkeys. They no longer had a connection to the G-d of the Jews. Until then, the Yidden always raised their eyes to Hashem for their sustenance and thanked Him for their bounty. Now, in the darkness, they were disconnected from the true Source of their parnassah and it became their mission in life to pursue the necessary means for what was now paramount to them, indulgence in their earthly desires. They fell from the highest rooftop of controlling the world with their avodas hakodesh to the lowest abyss of the Hellenistic culture, from royalty to rags, from a life full of meaning to sheer emptiness.

“And the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters” (Bereishis 1:2). Until the debacle of the Misyavnim, the holy Shechinah was firmly established within the Bais Hamikdosh and Klal Yisroel. Now, in this new unfortunate situation, it merely hovered over the waters, over those few tzaddikim who were still immersed in the waters of Torah, those who still realized what their true mission in life was and never strayed from the proper path.

Vayomer Elokim yehi ohr – And G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’” The 25th word in the Torah is ohr, light. This is a remez that on the 25th day of Kislev, there was a revival of this light. And who was responsible for this? Elokim, those who maintained their tzelem Elokim. With the power of determining world events, they brought back the vision of our people. If not for them, says the Ramban (Bereishis 49:10), Torah would have chas veshalom been forgotten from Klal Yisroel. There were only 13 Chashmonaim to begin with, but with their passion to sanctify the name of Hashem, they were successful in restoring that clarity of viewing life and with it the proper Torah perspective.

In Al Hanissim, we thank Hashem for numerous chassodim. “Ravta es rivam…You took up their grievance… You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak.” The final chesed we thank Hashem for is, “And they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great name.” This is the greatest chesed of all. That we were able to get back our recognition of Who the true source of our brocha is and we once again thanked and praised Hashem.

These were times when even those who left the walls of the bais medrash knew that their work was merely hishtadlus for parnassah and that their main objective was Torah and mitzvos. Rav Yaakov Galinsky related: A bochur, who was a masmid and a ben aliyah, got married and started to build his home. His shver supported him generously for five years and the young man used the opportunity to grow in Torah. Meanwhile, the family was growing and his years of support were up, so he looked for an easy parnassah to allow him to continue his learning as much as possible.

He decided to use his savings to buy a horse and wagon and become a baal aggalah. He would transport people and merchandise from place to place, and while he was doing this, he could recite kappitlach Tehillim, Mishnayos, and Gemara by heart. It seemed like a good plan, but he would not make the move without first consulting his rebbi. When he presented the idea to his rebbi, he gave his approval.

The young man bought the horse and the wagon, and on his trips, he utilized the time as he had planned. A while later, when he visited his rebbi, the tzaddik told him to immediately sell the horse and wagon and look for a different parnassah. Apparently, the rebbi discerned that this new endeavor had occupied his mind more than necessary.

Surprisingly, the yungerman asked, “But I consulted with rebbi before I took on this job and I received his approval.”

“Indeed,” said the rebbi. “But I didn’t imagine at the time that your head would be transformed into a horse stable and it would so preoccupy your mind.”

The dark days of the winter represent the murkiness of golus, when the clarity and the energy that we acquired during the Yomim Tovim seem to have waned. The rigors of our daily routine can take their toll and we can easily forget who we are and what powers we wield. In addition, listening to daily news events and seeing how society appears to be coming apart give us a feeling of helplessness.

The Chanukah candles, which represent the light of Torah, illuminate the darkness and bring up with them the segulah to give us clarity – to remember who we are and what our true purpose is on this world, and to cherish our special relationship with Hakadosh Boruch Hu.