Last week, we discussed several of what appeared to be losses to the Yevonim but in truth were great triumphs. One of these was the outgrowth of machlokes – differing opinions – in the Torah, which seemed to be a fulfillment of the evil Greek plan to forget the Torah. We learned from my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, Maamar 3) that, in fact, Hashem expanded the Torah through the medium of machlokes l’sheim Shomayim, appropriate argumentation for the sake of Heaven. This followed the process which the Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) calls “eilu ve’eilu divrei Elokim chaim – these and those are the words of the living G-d.” This week we will explore another side of this coin.
There is another Gemara (Shabbos 138b) that also discusses an apparent result of Am Yisroel partially forgetting the Torah, again an apparent result of Yovon’s attempts lehashkichom Torasecha, to make us forget the Torah: “Rav Shimon bar Yochai stated that ‘G-d forbid that the Torah should [ever] be forgotten by Klal Yisroel, for the Torah [promises] that it will never be forgotten. So therefore, what does the posuk mean that they shall wander, searching for the word of Hashem, but they shall not find it? This means that they will not find a halacha berurah and a mishnah berurah in one place.” Now we are all familiar with the Chofetz Chaim’s famed halacha sefer which takes its name from this passage, but exactly what are Chazal predicting in this cryptic passage?
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel, chapter 56) explains that since Klal Yisroel and the Torah are one, just as the members of Klal Yisroel are wandering in exile, separated from each other by many countries and continents, so is it with the Torah. As Rav Aharon Schechter writes in his haskamah to the ArtScroll Talmud, no translation can take the place of the original, for the Torah is merely in golus in another language. Such volumes, as useful as they are, can only function as “aids to Talmud study.” This is best dramatized by the description of Chazal (Maseches Sofrim 1:7) that “the day that the Elders translated the Torah into Greek was as catastrophic to the Jews as when the golden calf was made, for the Torah can never be properly translated.” In other words, although translations are now necessary, they must be considered as a “necessary evil” because they must by definition distort and diminish the infinite and limitless word of G-d.
Now it is well-known that the Gemara (Megillah 9b) reveals that if the Torah needed to be translated at all, the best vehicle is actually the Greek language. The source of this linguistic affinity is the promise given to Yovon’s ancestor, Yefes, that he “would dwell in the tents of Sheim” (Bereishis 9:27). The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillin 1:19) is careful to remind us that contemporary Greek is not the same as ancient Greek, and therefore tefillin, mezuzos and Sifrei Torah can certainly not be written in that language. However, it remains clear that in its purest form, Greek was considered the tongue of choice if a necessity arose for translation. Thus, the danger to the nation of Klal Yisroel and to the Torah itself is the illusion of a closeness that does not in fact exist at all. Yes, Yefes must be rewarded in a grand fashion for the one kind deed he performed, but Klal Yisroel is still suffering from his good fortune.
This frightening similarity between Klal Yisroel and Yovon is reflected powerfully in the nevuah of Zechariah (9:13): “I will stir up your children O Tzion against your children O Greece.” Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, 16:9, and see Reshimos Lev 5740) speaks of Chanukah as the return of Klal Yisroel to her former grandeur through the Chashmonaim. However, one must still be shocked by the joint title of “your children” for both Klal Yisroel and Greece.
The Ozherover Rebbe zt”l (Aish Dos 2:321) actually sees this as the description of Klal Yisroel and Yovon being mirror opposites, diametrically opposed from beginning to end. In his other major work (Be’er Moshe, Bamidbar 237), he elaborates that Yovon is personified by its hubris and arrogance, while we are identified by our total subjugation to Hashem. In any case, we note that it is the surface similarity between Yovon and us that places us in immense spiritual peril. We can therefore begin to understand one aspect of why Hashem performed the miracle of the neiros (see Pachad Yitzchok, Maamar 11:10) even though it was unnecessary by the rule of tumah hutra b’tzibbur – even if there was no pure oil, they could have lit the menorah in any case. However, perhaps when the danger of assimilation and Hellenization is so great because we seem to have so much in common, Hashem made sure that we not use anything that has been defiled by them lest we step even one rung lower into the abyss of emulating our Greek mortal enemy.
Interestingly, once we have triumphed over Yovon with the neis of Chanukah, Klal Yisroel proudly declares that we have been cured of our attraction for its wiles and use its language at will. Not only can we speak of translating the Torah into Greek as something preferable to other languages, but we even use Greek letters in our avodas Hashem.
Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, 11:10) explains that since our oil triumphed over their defilement, we in fact anoint the kohein gadol utilizing the shape of a Greek letter. This is not to brag or to be complacent, but to acknowledge that we have overcome our temporary infatuation with that corrupt culture and so can adapt any aspects of the language granted to them by Hashem as a permissible tool of triumph in our hands.
Even with all this being said, our gedolim have taught us that in every generation, a new infatuation or obsession can rear its ugly head, and this, too, is our nisayon, akin to golus Yovon. It may no longer be with the intellectual achievements of Aristotle, the plays of Sophocles, or the artworks of the Greek sculptors, but every lure of foreign religions or cultures is still tainted with the perilous blessing of Yefes and his false beauty.
Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l related the horrific tale of a bochur in the yeshiva who began speaking wildly and apparently irrationally of converting to Catholicism. Rav Aharon even initially thought that the boy was playing some tasteless prank upon his gullible friends. But, as he soon discovered, the rumor was well-founded. Despite the rosh yeshiva’s brilliance and obviously deep caring for the young man, he persisted in his avowed plan to soon leave not only the yeshiva, but his mother religion as well. Rav Aharon turned to his colleague and friend, the Kapytshnitzer Rebbe, who was widely known for his wisdom and sagacity.
The rebbe cryptically advised Rav Aharon to “check how he sets his alarm clock.” The rosh yeshiva asked no questions, despite being thoroughly puzzled, and hurried back to the yeshiva, since the young man had already announced his plans to complete his “conversion” the coming Shabbos. Rav Aharon began gently and unthreateningly, “Do you happen to own and use an alarm clock?” The self-assured young man continued packing and answered, “Yes, certainly. I have two or three.” “So how do you set them to be sure that you have the correct time?” His answer astounded Rav Aharon. “I once noticed that each one of them gave a slightly different time and I wanted to reconcile them. Then I remembered that opposite my window, I could see the church clock, which was amazingly accurate. Furthermore, now that I realized this fact, I remembered that every hour on the hour the church bells tolled, so I set all my clocks by this system.”
Rav Aharon spoke kindly to the afflicted young man: “I would like to give you a gift. I have a beautiful valuable watch for you to keep. However, I will give it to you only on the condition that you no longer set anything by the clock or bells belonging to the church. Incredibly, the bochur dropped his plans for shmad and remained in the yeshiva, returning to his learning and shemiras hamitzvos (Umasok Ha’or, Chanukah 1:31).
As we approach Shabbos Chanukah and the final days of this beautiful Yom Tov, let us remember that although we have won the battle against one particular enemy, there is always another lurking in the corner. Perhaps the lure of the intellects of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are no longer so powerful. Perhaps the music, art and culture of the Greeks are not so tantalizing. But the poison of Yovon still creeps into the darkest and most unpredictable of places. Let us rededicate ourselves to the warmth of the Chanukah menorah and the beauty of Torah Shebaal Peh, so that we can soon walk with all of our children and grandchildren toward Moshiach Tzidkeinu bimeheirah beyomeinu.