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Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Teves 5761 - December 27, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Chanuka in the Shadow of the Olympics

by Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald

After the athletes have walked away with the gold; the financiers, the green; the losers, the black and the blue; the Olympics 2000 have all but been forgotten. For many, even amongst those who view sports as being crassly commercialized, this international sporting event has become a venerable icon surpassed only by the likes of Coca Cola and several animated Disney characters.

For Jews, the Olympics carry special significance, since they were originally founded by the Greeks; the very same people who brought us the story of Chanukah and the victory of the Maccabees. Then, the Olympians were on the opposing team. However, the story goes back even further than that.

The Midrash says that the rise of Yovon as the dominant world power in 337 B.C.E. was due to the meritorious act of their progenitor, Yefes, son of Noach (Eliyahu Rabbah 20). After Noach and his family left the ark, Noach's son, Cham, obscenely disgraced his father when finding him in a state of drunkenness. Noach's other two sons, Shem and Yefes, sensitively covered the nakedness of their father, thus restoring his dignity.

For this act of nobility, Noach gave eternal blessings to his two righteous sons. Shem, who initiated the good deed, was blessed that his seed would be the bearers of spirituality on earth. This blessing was fulfilled with the birth of Avrohom, a descendant of Shem and forefather of the Jewish people.

Yefes was blessed with aesthetic beauty, which became actualized by his descendant, Yovon, the father of the Greek Empire. Greece was the first civilization of mankind which was committed to the advancement of art, architecture, literature, drama and philosophy. Its contributions carried over into the Roman Empire and are felt until our time.

But Noach's vision for the role of Yefes was not that of a typical of the patron of arts. Far from seeing the value of "art for art's sake," he felt that there should be a symbiotic relationship between Yefes and his more spiritual brother, Shem. Shem was the essence; he had the message of spiritual supremacy to teach mankind. However the ordinary folk were incapable of appreciating the message as delivered by Shem. Noach's blessing to Yefes was that his beauty and artistic flair, "should be found in the tents of Shem" (Bereishis 9:27). In the true marriage between form and function, Yefes, the artist, was enjoined to beautify the truths of Shem (Rabbi S. R. Hirsch).

This ideal was realized in the historic meeting between the legendary Greek ruler Alexander the Great, and the Jewish sage Shimon Hatzaddik. When Alexander saw Shimon Hatzaddik, he alighted from his chariot and bowed down before him. When Alexander's advisers asked why a great king like himself bowed down before this Jew, he replied, "An apparition, the likes of this man, appears before me on all my battlefields, and predicts victory for me before each battle. Blessed is the G-d of Shimon Hatzaddik" (Yoma 69a, Vayikra Rabbah 13:5.4). Through that gesture, the mighty world ruler acknowledged ultimate superiority to the spiritual heirs of mankind.

The Jewish sages held the positive aspects of Greek culture in mutual respect. Appreciating the expressive beauty of the Greek language, the sages made an exception and permitted the Torah to be written in Greek (Megilla 9b). The Rambam (Tefillin 1:196), however, writes that while the halocho follows this opinion, Greek may no longer be used for Torah, because the classic Greek that the sages permitted had become corrupted over time.

Unfortunately, the ideal symbiotic relationship between the Jews and Greeks was short-lived. In Midrashic literature, each world power in history corresponds to a specific animal sharing the unique characteristics of that nation. The animal corresponding to the Greek empire is the rabbit (Tanchuma, Vayikra 87). The rabbit is one of those rare animals with just one of the two required characteristics of kosher animals: it chews its cud. Thus, the organs associated with its mouth have the potential for holiness, as was actualized through Alexander's humble homage to the G-d of Israel.

Ironically, Yovon's ultimate perfection is linked to the awareness of her deficiency: the rabbit's feet lack split hooves. The beautiful poetry of Homer and the noble philosophies of Aristotle were all mental exercises. This is similar to the rabbit, whose most conspicuous feature is its long ears, exaggerating the head to much larger-than-life proportions. But those lofty ideals were divorced from their legs, the limb which controls action. The rabbit's short and stubby un-split paws demonstrate that something is not kosher about it. Both Yovon and the rabbit have an unusually big head for unusually small feet.

This dichotomy between Yovon's noble mind and spirit on the one hand and lack of physical control on the other is best illustrated by the following vignette. Aristotle was renowned for his brilliant ethical lectures extolling the virtues of a moral life. Once he was discovered in a place of ill repute and was asked by the incredulous spectators for an explanation of his behavior, which was against all he preached. Aristotle appeared unfazed. He stated simply, "In the house of study, I am Aristotle. Here, I am not Aristotle."

At this point, Yovon may counter in righteous indignation: "What right do you have to denigrate us for our moral lapses? You admit that we were created with limited faculties for self control. So how can you expect any more from us? This is just the way we are."

To fully answer this question and to understand the intended Divine plan for the Greek dynasty, again we have to return to our humble rabbit. In Sefer Mishlei, King Solomon describes four small, weak creatures and how they wisely compensate for their natural handicaps in order to survive. One of those creatures is the rabbit.

"Rabbits, though not a mighty tribe, make their home in the rocks" (Mishlei 30:24-26). The rabbit may lack the natural strength of other animals, but they still attain the same level of security by choosing to dwell in a protected environment. Similarly, the perfection of Yovon is achieved when following Noach's directive, "May Hashem extend Yefes, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem" (Bereishis 10:2). This requires Yefes' awareness of his own moral deficiency, but even more importantly, the humility to submit to the nation that lives by spiritual ideals, the descendants of Shem: the Jews.

There is another interesting thing about rabbits. Gentle, cute and innocent looking, the rabbit family has a definite place in the world scheme. Like other animals in the ecosystem, they contribute productively to the furtherance of life on the planet. But this is contingent upon the fact that the rabbit is in its proper place and climate. If brought to another country where its population can multiply unchecked, the innocent rabbit is transformed into a powerful monstrosity. The situation becomes an intolerable "hare-raising experience."

Like unfettered rabbits unleashed on Australian soil, the Hellenistic Greeks quickly forget their proper place. Forsaking the protective constraints of the tent of Shem, they sought to develop their culture in an unrestricted manner. Instead of harnessing art to the furtherance of G-dly ideals, they used their gifts of beauty to glorify the physical. Instead of romanticizing spirituality, Hellenism glorified the wonder, attraction, passion, beauty and accomplishments of the human body.

"Like a golden ring in the snout of a pig, so is a beautiful woman whose good sense has departed" (Mishlei 11:22). When observing something beautiful, one often feels a deep stirring in one's soul. On a deep level, this basic human emotion is derived from the yearning of the soul, which is purely perfect, longing to connect with things similar to itself. Physical perfection intimates to a deeper, truer perfection: the spiritual dimension. As an expensive gold ring befits the human hand, we expect the external beauty of a woman to reflect similar inner qualities. When the two don't match there is profound disappointment: a magnificent container promises delights but then has nothing to offer.

The Greeks' glorification of physical prowess quickly led to an overblown sense of power. No longer the small, timid rabbit it once was, Greek advancement of culture was combined with unspeakable barbarism and bloodshed. This more violent aspect of Greek behavior is alluded to by another Midrash which compares the Greeks not to a gentle rabbit, but to the powerful hammerhead (Bereishis Rabbah 44 ll). After successfully imposing Hellenistic culture upon all lands under their rule, the Greeks then turned towards the ideological nemesis that opposed all they stood for: the Torah of the Jews.

The Chanukah miracle was a result of a small band of loyal Jews who stood up against the Syrian army to uphold the honor of Hashem: the Chashmonaim. Unlike the mythical depictions of Maccabees as musclemen, our account of their exploits tells us, "You [Hashem], delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah" (Chanukah prayer). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, observed that a more realistic description of the Maccabees would be a group of lanky, undernourished yeshiva students!

In a similar vein, the Chofetz Chaim -- a couple of millennia after the Chanukah events -- expressed regret that he hadn't gathered the yeshiva students of his time to wage war against the anti-religious Communist regime! He said that certainly some would die in the course of the battle. But he was confident that had they demonstrated self-sacrifice they, too, would ultimately have been victorious, as were the Chashmonaim.

Hashem granted miraculous victory to this small army of G-d. The Midrash draws several striking parallels between the Greeks and the Chashmonaim. The Chashmonaim were from the tribe of Levi, who was the third son of Ya'acov; the Greeks, the third world empire. Both have three letters in their Hebrew name, both wore distinct garments and both blew instruments: the Levites blew trumpets during the Temple service; the Greeks, trumpets of war. But there was one stark difference between the two: the Greeks possessed a powerful large army; the Chashmonaim, a small weak one. And the large army fell in the hands of the small army (Bereishis Rabbah 99:213).

The yearly celebration of the Chanukah miracle proclaims that in the eternal conflict between the physical and spiritual, impure vs. pure and brute force vs. righteousness, the ultimate victor is the spirit. In the Al Hanisim Chanukah prayer it says, " . . . And for the victories and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time." This means that the battle between the Greeks and the Maccabees is very much alive today. Western civilization's obsession with glorifying the physical exploits of the human body in the arts, sports and war are the living legacy of Greek culture. And as the spiritual heirs of the Maccabees, our role is to oppose those vapid ideals.

The recent Olympic games bring out this point. While superficially appearing as an innocent pastime, they do not stand up to deeper scrutiny. In an international competition, one would imagine wreaths of honor would be awarded to the country which aids its poor, sick and elderly the most, or possesses the lowest crime rate. But instead of such worthy ideals, the Olympics demonstrate their perception that the epitome of human development is represented by the country which can produce an individual who can run momentarily faster than a fox or dingo. If the runners were emergency medical team personnel, at least, we could appreciate their swiftness in rushing to the aid of a hurt accident victim. If weight lifters would patrol crime-ridden areas to protect the innocent and the weak that, too, would be admirable. But if after the events the athletes do nothing more useful than wave their arms in victory, drink a few bottles of Gatorade, and land fat contracts to promote consumer goods, something stinks about the whole affair.

But all this is not surprising in light of the fact that the Olympics is rooted in ancient Greece. The Greeks worshipped the human body and nothing more important to them existed outside of it.

But there is an even darker side of the Greek value system. Narcissistic idolization of the body leads to egocentricity and, finally, to violent behavior. The ancient Greeks represented the epitome of culture and philosophy, but at the same time were unspeakably cruel and barbaric. Athens and Sparta were both military societies constantly at war: plundering, capturing slaves, and holding scant regard for human life. Even to their own people they exhibited cruelty, as demonstrated by the ancient Spartan custom of abandoning weak and deformed infants to die in the woods.

This dichotomy in which terrible cruelty can coexist with art and beauty has a modern day parallel especially relevant to Jews. There is an ugly reality lurking behind the glitzy facade of the modern Olympics. In 1936, well after Hitler began his vicious persecution of the Jews, the International Olympic Committee had no problem allowing the Olympics to take place in Nazi Germany. Nor did any country boycott the Olympics because of Germany's brutal treatment of the Jews.

Thirty-six years later, in 1972 Munich, the Olympics again displayed its darker side. Oblivious to the dignity of human life, the Munich games continued even while PLO terrorists massacred two Israelis and held the remaining Israel Olympic team hostage at gunpoint within sight of the area. There is television footage of athletes sunning themselves in the Olympic village while a short distance away a terrorist with a machine gun pokes his head out of a window where the Israelis were held hostage. Not only were the games not cancelled but none of the Olympic teams from other nations had the decency to leave Munich along with the survivors of the Israeli contingent.

Ironically, the Olympics preside with a cloak of nobility. This is due in great part to the solemn opening ceremony that has spiritual, if not religious, overtones. With pomp and splendor, a flaming torch is borne over vast distances and finally ignited upon an altar-like edifice. This spectacle is the actualization of Noach's blessing to Yefes, granting him the ability to produce moving symbolism triggering strong emotions in the eyes of the spectators. But while fire and light are true metaphors of spiritual concepts, the torch relay is just another example of Yovon's ability to dress even the emptiest activities in a respectable wrapping.

The Midrash relates that when the archangel of Esau fought with Ya'acov, the angel struck his finger in the ground and the ground shot out a flame in order to scare him. Yaakov told him, "With your little spark you wish to scare me? I'm all fire" (Bereishis Rabbah, 72:2).

The Chanukah lights proclaim a similar message. The modern-day Greeks of the world use flames and lights to sublimate their worthless causes and to convince themselves that they are the rightful bearers of light in this world. But in the eyes of the Jews, those flames are no more than artificial sparks. We possess the true light and the real fire. And that spiritual light is symbolized by the lights of the menorah which we light each night of Chanukah.

Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald, a member of the Kollel Beth Hatalmud in Melbourne, Australia is author of Reb Mendel (Artscroll), a biographical appreciation of Rabbi Mendel Kaplan zt"l. This article first appeared in "Moadim Uzmanim," a publication of Kollel Beth Hatalmud.

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