The Meaning of Hanukkah: The First Ideological War

On Chanukah we celebrate the momentous defeat of the Chashmonaim over the mighty Greek army and the subsequent miracle of the oil that lasted eight days.

The war with the Greeks was far more than a standard military confrontation between two nations striving to attain power. It was the first ideological war in the history of mankind; it was a clash of two outlooks that could not peacefully coexist. Initially, the Greeks had no desire to harm the Jewish people. Rather, they hoped to influence the nation through their “enlightened” ideology of Hellenism to leave Torah observance for what they perceived to be a superior way of life. However, once the majority of Jews resisted these attempts, the Greeks became hostile and pressured the Jews to abandon the Torah.

After the Chashmonaim successfully resisted the Greeks and forced them out of Eretz Yisrael, Chazal decided to set up a permanent commemoration of this event through the festival of Chanukah. Thus, every year we are reminded of the Judaic-Hellenistic conflict that took place so long ago. Why is it so important to remember such a distant event? In truth, it seems that the ideological battle of Chanukah remains highly significant to every Jew. Understanding this conflict on a deeper level can help us learn vital lessons that are relevant to our lives today.

To understand the relationship between Greece and Klal Yisrael, it is instructive to examine the Torah’s account of the progenitors of these great nations, Yefes/Yavan and Shem. In parashas  Noach, the Torah tells us about an incident in which Noach’s son Cham uncovered his drunken father’s nakedness. In response, Cham’s brothers, Shem and Yefes, covered their father and protected his dignity.

Rashi quotes a midrash that tells us Shem initiated this meritorious deed and Yefes then joined him. Both were rewarded for their righteous actions, but Shem received a far greater reward. His descendants, Klal Yisrael, were given the mitzvah of tzitzis, while Yefes’ offspring were accorded a respectful burial. Shem’s descendants are rewarded with a new mitzvah, which offers an opportunity to grow spiritually, whereas the reward of Yefes will benefit only his descendants’ bodies, not their souls.

Why did Shem’s initiative in this incident earn him a reward so qualitatively superior to that of Yefes? The commentaries explain that Shem was not merely more eager than Yefes in covering their father. Rather, Shem’s intention in doing so was on a whole different level from that of Yefes. Shem saw the uncovering of Noach in a spiritual sense and recognized that it was a mitzvah to save his father from such indignity.

Yefes, in contrast, looked at this incident with a more common-sense approach: Noach was being physically degraded, and Yefes acted on this recognition to cover his father. Yefes had a natural sense of indignation at the ugly nature of an uncovered human body. It was Shem’s higher motivation that spurred him to greater zerizus (alacrity) than Yefes’ more logical approach. Accordingly, Shem received a great spiritual reward, whereas Yefes was awarded merely a dignified burial, which benefits only the body.

Immediately after this incident, Noach makes a seminal statement regarding the role of the two brothers in history. “Elokim will give beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem.” The commentaries explain that this means Yefes will be blessed with yofi, which refers to the most superficial kind of beauty, that which is only skin-deep. For that beauty to be utilized in the correct way, it must be placed in the “tents of Shem,” which means that it should be used to enhance spirituality.

This idea is demonstrated by the Mishnah in Megillah, which learns a very interesting halachah from this verse. The Mishnah tells us that a Torah scroll may be written only in two languages, Hebrew and Greek. This law is derived from how the Torah says the beauty of Yefes must dwell in the tents of Shem. The Gemara sees from this verse that placing the yofi of Yavan within the Torah of Shem can produce a beautiful combination.

Why were Shem and Yefes given these blessings in particular? It seems that Yefes’ earlier actions in conjunction with Shem to cover their father earned him this blessing; applying his logical indignation at the ugliness of a person being physically exposed, Yefes joined his more spiritually motivated brother and as a result performed a great deed in sparing their father embarrassment. On this basis, Hashem blessed him that he would achieve great heights if his logical appreciation for the beauty of a covered body remained directed toward achieving spirituality in conjunction with Shem.

However, the blessing applies only when Yefes strives to deepen his natural logic and appreciation of beauty with the depth of Shem. If he rejects that depth, the result will be very different. Physical beauty without spiritual depth quickly degenerates into a base physicality in which superficiality rules. This degeneration was indeed the case with the Greeks: They emphasized the natural beauty of man to the extent that they committed gross acts of indecency and immorality.

Rav Chaim Friedlander, ztzl, describes another way in which Yavan failed to utilize Noach’s blessing that he place his wisdom in the tents of Shem: This wisdom remained very superficial in that it had no influence on the inner greatness of its practitioners.

Rav Friedlander tells a story involving the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, in which he was caught committing an indecent act. His students asked him how he could perform an act that so blatantly contradicted his teachings. He answered, “When I did what I did, I was not Aristotle.” The rav explains that Aristotle was saying his teachings didn’t obligate him to apply them to his life. This is another example of how Yefes without Shem constitutes a dangerously superficial way of life.

In contrast, the Torah of Klal Yisrael obligates us to take a far deeper approach to wisdom and apply its lessons to our inner beings. A person who learns Torah but doesn’t internalize it cannot be considered a true Torah scholar. Maharal writes that these differences between Yavan and Yisrael led to the great antagonism between the two nations. Instead of appreciating the great depth the Torah had to offer, the Greeks reacted with great jealousy and made tremendous efforts to destroy this rival wisdom.

Rav Zev Leff, shlita, sees in the letters of Yavan’s name a fascinating allusion to this nation’s failure to deepen its physical beauty. The yud, vav, and final nun are all straight lines that have no thickness to them. This image alludes to the superficiality that Yavan epitomizes.

We have seen that the battle of Chanukah was far more than a conflict between two warring nations. Rather, it was a clash of two ideologies: the superficiality of Yavan against the spirituality of Yisrael. We were successful in that particular battle, but it seems that the war continues to rage to this day. The Western world is greatly influenced by Greek thought, in particular its emphasis on physicality devoid of depth. One cannot walk in the street without being exposed to the Western obsession with base physicality.

This tendency toward superficiality continues to pose a great threat to the spiritual integrity of Klal Yisrael. It’s possible for a person to be completely Torah-observant and yet be extremely influenced by superficial considerations in many aspects of his life. He may attach greater importance to the clothing people wear than to the character traits they display. The way in which a person dresses merits consideration, yet one must keep in perspective that the inside of a person is most important.

A person can very easily wear the most frum-looking garb and feel he is succeeding in his Torah observance. Similarly, the size of a person’s home or the beauty of its furnishings may take an oversized place in his outlook on life. Likewise, a person’s avodas Hashem (service of Hashem) can be dominated by superficiality. For example, the way he appears to others when he prays may matter more to him than what’s in his head. Furthermore, there is always the risk that the Torah he learns can remain superficial, without influencing his character.

Thus, we see that the threat of Greek superficiality remains relevant to this very day. The story of Chanukah teaches us that this ideology is a great threat to the integrity of the Torah. May we all achieve true depth in our avodas Hashem.

From the book “A Light in Time”


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