1 Kislev, 5764
Chanukah and The Importance of Being Jewish
Torah Portion: Mikeitz
by Rabbi Noson Weisz
One of the greatest emotional blows that God can inflict on a believer is a sense of abandonment. The feeling that God is always watching over him and directing the events of his life in a positive way is central to the believer’s sense of security and well being. When he feels that he has lost this Divine Attention and that Providence has abandoned him to the vagaries of chance, his sense of the correctness of things vanishes in an instant, and he becomes totally disoriented.
FEAR OF DANGER VERSUS THE FEELING OF ABANDONMENT
This loss of orientation is not to be confused with a fear of personal danger. An excellent way to illustrate the difference between the feelings of fear and abandonment is to analyze the emotional response to acts of terrorism such as those that shook Israel the past Saturday night and Sunday. In the space of a mere twelve hours 28 innocent Jews died horrible deaths and hundreds more were injured. Many of the injured will carry their wounds with them for life.
Statistically, even following more than a year of intense terrorist activity, the chances of anyone falling victim to a terrorist attack remain extremely small. Indeed, life in Israel has hardly been disrupted by the events of the past year and a half. Jews are a courageous and stubborn people who are not easily frightened. It is the feeling of the cheapness of Jewish blood rather than fear for one’s safety that lies at the origin of one’s sense of disorientation.
We refer to God as The Shield of Abraham in the very first blessing of the Amida. Later in the prayer service we refer to Him as Israel’s faithful bodyguard. When events such as those that have rolled over us this past week hit us, it is very hard to hold on to these ideas.
ALL TERRORIST VICTIMS ARE INNOCENT
Obviously the victims of terrorist attacks must be regarded as totally innocent and undeserving of their horrible fate. This is true quite regardless of their actual moral state. For the victims of terrorism do not suffer their cruel fate in their individual capacities but as members of the Jewish people. If we take the view that world events are Divinely directed as we believers do, there is a clear Divine message in the successful perpetration of these horrible acts.
Inasmuch as all of us are members of the Jewish people, the same as the victims, God is telling us that He is no longer guarding us, the Jewish people, against terrorists. As far as He is concerned any or all of us can become victims. The fact that the statistical likelihood of this happening is tiny in any individual case can hardly be of comfort given this Divine attitude. The fact of the matter is that God has abandoned His post as our watchman. We may be safe but we are no longer cared for and protected. Queen Esther expressed the feeling most eloquently in her anguished cry, My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? (Psalms 22,2)
Why has He forsaken us?
WHY IS GOD THE GUARDIAN OF ISRAEL
The way to approach this question properly is from the opposite end. Why is it that God manifests Himself in the character of the ‘guardian of Israel’? Is it the case that Jews have the same need of protection as other human beings, except that for some reason God singled them out for special treatment, or is there perhaps something about being Jewish that renders us more vulnerable than other human beings to attack and therefore God’s protection was not offered to us as a sign of His favor but as a necessity of Jewish survival.
One merely has to skim through the past twenty-five centuries of Jewish history to arrive at the conclusion that it is the latter theory that fits the facts. There is something about Jews that provokes the world’s hatred and anger in all times and in all circumstances. This quality makes them unusually vulnerable and in need of protection.
We are about to celebrate the Chanukah Holiday through the coming week, and the Chanukah story has much light to shed on the source of this Jewish vulnerability factor.
THE SPIRITUAL DIVISION OF HISTORY
World history from a spiritual point of view must be divided into two parts. For the first thirty centuries following the creation of Adam, humanity worshipped God. The Divine Presence was a manifest part of the daily scene, as during this entire period there were prophets who communicated directly with God, both in Israel and among the nations. When one can read about the Divine position on world matters on the front page of his newspaper, God’s existence isn’t a debatable question that can only be decided on the basis of belief. God is a real Presence in the world that everyone must come to terms with.
Because our own world is so spiritually different, it is very difficult to project ourselves back to that vanished historic era and attempt to imagine what it must have felt like to live in such a world. We shall therefore take it for granted that the dynamics of Jewish vulnerability should be developed and understood in terms of our own historic era.
THE SPIRITUAL ERA OF KNOWLEDGE
The current spiritual era of human history can be characterized as one of knowledge/belief. One can no longer detect God’s Presence in the world through the use of his ordinary senses, as God no longer makes Himself so available. It is no longer possible to reach God through the channel of direct communication. Human dealings with God must be based on the more subtle basis of deductive knowledge or belief. This spiritual era began with the construction of the Second Temple by the Members of the Great Assembly. Its two seminal markers were the development of the Oral law and the Mishna on the one hand, and the rise and spread of Greek philosophy and science on the other. Shimon HaTzadik, the first high priest to serve in the Second Temple, and the earliest individual author of a Mishna, (Avoth 1:2) was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle, and the disseminator of Greek culture through the conquest of the ancient world.
The twenty fifth day of the Jewish month of Tevet is a holiday on which fasting and mourning are forbidden; that was the day the Kutim requested permission to destroy the newly built second temple from Alexander the Great and he granted it. They informed Shimon HaTzadik; what did he do? He dressed himself in his priestly vestments and marched through the night towards Alexander with the nobility of the Jewish people bearing torches… As soon as Alexander perceived Shimon HaTzadik, he descended from his chariot and bowed to him. They asked him, ‘a great ruler such as yourself bows to this Jew?’ He told them, ‘The image of this man precedes me in my victorious battles.’ Alexander asked the Jews, ‘Why have you come?’ They answered, ‘Is it possible that you wish to destroy the house in which they pray for your success?’ (Talmud, Yuma 69a)
There is no such thing as spiritual coincidence. There is a reason why the author of the first Mishna was involved with the disseminator of Greek culture. It is the clash between these two branches of human knowledge, the Jewish Oral Law which originated from the members of the great Assembly, and the development of Science which began in ancient Greece, that has defined the spiritual territory occupied by human society for the past twenty-seven centuries of human history.
THE SYMBOLISM OF THE MENORAH
It isn’t by coincidence that the Miracle of the Lights associated with the Menorah is the symbol of the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks. The Menorah symbolizes knowledge. In spiritual terms, light and oil symbolize the ability of Divine Wisdom [the light] to be expressed in terms of human knowledge [the oil]. The word for oil in Hebrew is shemen, which is a compression of the word shemona, the number eight, symbolizing the heavenly Sphere of Bina, or understanding. All human knowledge is an expression of the spark of Divine knowledge contained within it.
No one has yet come up with a reasonable hypothesis that can rationally account for the birth of ideas. Thousands of physicists will study the same information in universities all over the world for years. One day, sometimes after a lapse of decades, one of them, no doubt gifted, but not unusually so in relation to his colleagues, will come up with a theory that successfully lights up an entire area of knowledge and revolutionizes the way scientists understand the world. Why him? Why then? Nobody knows. All knowledge is Divinely inspired. Knowledge is God’s light that illuminates the world.
A STRANGE SORT OF DARKNESS
And yet we find that rabbinic literature equates Greek culture with darkness. In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth — when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep…(Genesis 1:1-2) The Rabbis of the Midrash (Breishis Raba, 2,4)found an allusion to the Four Kingdoms in this verse. In their view the word darkness is a reference to the Greek Diaspora. And yet, our sages were not at all disparaging of secular wisdom, especially Greek. May God extend Japheth, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem. (Genesis 9:27) The Talmud, (Megilah 9a) informs us that this is a reference to the beauty of Greek culture, which will be incorporated into the tents of Shem in the form of Torah knowledge.
To understand the spiritual essence of the world, we must realize that knowledge can cast darkness as well as light. Before the advent of Greek science and culture, it was impossible to look at the world and not see God. Nothing about the world could be explained other than in divine terms. Before the world could pass into a spiritual historic era where God was not universally manifest, man had to develop a system of knowledge that could explain the major phenomena of existence without the need of constantly referring to God [or gods].
The first such systematic view of the world was the accomplishment of the ancient Greeks. It is they who laid the solid intellectual foundations on which the secular/scientific view of the world rests till the present day. According to the Torah understanding of the world, the Divine spark of inspiration that allowed this knowledge to develop at this particular point in human history was delivered to man in order to allow God to hide His Presence from man. While the knowledge itself is a manifestation of Divine light, its purpose is the creation of a darkness in which God can conceal His Presence. Hence the equation of Greek culture with darkness.
ORAL LAW VERSUS GREEK CULTURE
Let us now compare and contrast these two systems of knowledge that provide the geography of our intellectual universe, the knowledge contained in the Oral law and the Mishna, and the knowledge revealed to us through the efforts of science.
The knowledge of the Oral law speaks to us about the purpose of life. It tells us why God created the world, what we are doing here, what our responsibilities and obligations are. It teaches us about rewards and punishments, about spiritual purity and uncleanliness, about good and evil. It tells us very little about the nature of the world in which we live, about how to manipulate it and control it or understand it. It leaves us very much dependant on God’s goodness and bounty.
On the other hand, the knowledge derived through the study of science teaches us all about the reality that surrounds us. It allows us to understand it and instructs us how to control and subdue it to do our will. It puts us in control of our existence and makes us independent of anyone’s goodness and bounty, even God’s. On the other hand it delivers to us a purposeless existence. Reality just is. It has no purpose or goal. There is nothing good or evil, there is nothing pure or impure, there is no teleological reward or punishment.
This is not to say that scientists are amoral. We are not referring to people. We are contrasting systems of knowledge with each other, not their adherents.
THE APPEARANCE OF THE ‘MITYAVNIM’
Now let us turn our attention to the people, particularly the Jewish people. The Greek Diaspora that the Chanukah Holiday commemorates witnessed the rise of a social development within the Jewish people that has been with us ever since, the birth of the ‘mityavnim’ [literally Greekophiles]. Judaism is a very demanding religion and throughout history there have been Jews who have abandoned Jewish customs and traditions in whole or in part for all sorts of reasons. But ‘mityavnim’ were people who abandoned their Judaism not because they found it too burdensome or demanding but because they found Greek culture more attractive than their own.
According to Jewish tradition, the most powerful spiritual drive built into man is the drive for independence. Judaism teaches that God created this world so that man could earn his eternal reward through free choice and enjoy the fruits of his efforts through eternity without being beholden or dependant on anyone. Spiritual drives certainly manifest themselves in Jews as powerfully as in anyone. Faced with a system of knowledge that offered instant independence and self reliance, large numbers of Jews eagerly embraced the new knowledge and rejected the knowledge contained in their own Oral law, which offers them independence in the long run, but only at the price of agreeing to live as God’s dependants in the meanwhile.
Unfortunately, for Jews, this attitude has a major downside that does not exist for other people.
THE RIGHTFUL PLACE OF MESIRAT NEFESH IN JUDAISM
The story of Chanukah is a story of ‘mesirat nefesh,’ of the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of one’s beliefs. The Chanukah story teaches us that in Judaism, mesirat nefesh is not some lofty spiritual level that is open to the meritorious. Judaism without the willingness to be ‘moser nefesh’ is a non-starter.
To bring this down to earth a bit, let us imagine that we were Italians instead of Jews, and someone asked us to convert to being Frenchmen or die. We would surely think to ourselves along the following lines. If I died for remaining Italian instead of being French or English what value would I be protecting? Is there anything to being an Italian per se other than the language and culture? If there is not, the existence of Italians as a distinct group merely contributes to the enrichment of the human rainbow. No doubt this contribution makes the world a more colorful place. Is that worth dying for? Probably not.
But for the very reason that there is nothing rationally to die for in remaining an Italian, threatening Italians with death unless they agree to become Frenchmen is not a common threat. The lack of a powerful issue renders the subject of Italian-ness unworthy of serving as a subject for intense human conflict.
Being simply Jewish is no different than being Italian. Jews are not a distinct racial group. Yet Jews have been under attack for simply being Jews for the past twenty-five hundred years. What is so important about being Jewish?
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING JEWISH
We have hit upon the problem of Jewish ‘mityavnim.’ Being Jewish is important only because of the special knowledge that we Jews have to offer the world. Inasmuch as our spiritual era concerns the struggle between the two systems of knowledge, the system represented by the Oral law, versus the system represented by Greek culture, and whereas we Jews are the sole repositories of the system of knowledge represented by the Oral law, we are very important indeed. The track that leads back to Sinai can only be followed through the Torah. But Jews who embrace the other knowledge are as necessary to the world as the Italians in our example. They merely add color.
And that precisely is the tragedy of the Jewish ‘mityavnim.’ The nations never accept the Jewish abandonment of Judaism. Whether Jews prefer the foreign culture to their own or not, in the eyes of the world they remain members of the Jewish people who are truly unique in terms of embodying the very system of knowledge to which the ‘mityavnim’ no longer subscribe. The ‘mityavnim’ may regard themselves as no different than Italians but they still come under attack. Their suffering is especially tragic because they have no way to comprehend the reason for it.
WHY ISRAEL NEEDS PROTECTION
God is the protector of Israel because the Jewish soul is the wick in the oil of the Jewish mind to which the bright flame of the knowledge of His Torah attaches and allows it to cast God’s light in the world. Because being Jewish is important, it requires ‘mesirat nefesh.’
The relationship between Judaism and mesirat nefesh is an equation that can be read in both directions. People who are killed for being Jews in the Jewish land of Israel, which has become Judaism’s earthly expression, are dying for the preservation of the Jewish people. This preservation is only important for one reason, the preservation of the Knowledge of the Oral Law. The victims of terrorism are dying for the preservation of the Oral law. They are being asked to be ‘moser nefesh’ for Torah.
God is our guardian, but we are the guardians of His light. When we abandon our post, he abandons His, and compels us to return to ours.