Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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29 Kislev 5763 - December 4, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment

by R' Paysach Freedman
Based on an address by Rav Zev Leff, Aish HaTorah, 28 Kislev 5761

The Attack

A man is walking peacefully down the street. Out of nowhere, someone appears, wielding an iron bar. He swings it mightily at the man's legs. Both of his knees are shattered immediately. The injured man collapses to the ground, writhing in pain and the attacker stands over him. As the victim prepares for a final blow, the attacker smiles politely at him.

He says, "Hi, I am a world renowned orthopedic surgeon, and I was looking for a patient on whom to practice a special new technique. That's why I ran up to you and broke both of your knees. Don't worry, I will operate on you free of charge. In six months you'll be walking again, as good as ever!"

On Chanukah, we celebrate that Hashem saved us from the Greeks. This seems odd in the same way. Did He not bring the Greeks upon us? And if so, why should we thank Him for saving us from them? It doesn't matter that He saved us from the Greeks. He brought them upon us in the first place! We didn't ask for them: don't injure us and don't heal us!

Imagine this. There exists a horrible latent disease of the kneecaps. It lies dormant in the human body for an incubation period of exactly ten years. Until then there are no external symptoms and the victim has absolutely no idea that the malady is present in his body. However precisely at ten years, the disease emerges in all its fury and the patient is always crippled for life.

Only the most skilled doctors can diagnose this disease by carefully observing the way that the patient walks. If the disease is discovered before ten years elapse, the situation can be rectified. The patient's knees must be broken and a special technique is performed inside each knee. This prevents any ill effects of the disease.

Now, picture the following scene. A man is walking peacefully down the street. Out of nowhere, someone appears, wielding an iron bar. He swings it mightily at the man's legs. Both of his knees are shattered immediately. The injured man collapses to the ground, writhing in pain, and his attacker stands over him. As the victim prepares for a final blow, the attacker smiles politely at him.

He says, "Hi, I am a world renowned orthopedic surgeon, and I observed the way you were walking. It was clear to me that you suffer from the latent terrible affliction of the knees. I also observed that you were just about five minutes away from being attacked by the disease. I therefore rushed up and smashed both of your knees. Don't worry, I will operate on you now -- for a fee -- and hopefully, you will be saved. In six months you should be walking again, as good as ever!"

Granted, in the first scenario the victim has every right to be furious. He would most likely sue the doctor-assailant. However, in the second case, the doctor is a hero and worthy of great appreciation. This is why we celebrate Chanukah.

Blessing in Disguise

There are times when the Jewish People falter. Something is wrong. Sin is too rampant, taboos have been broken, or attitudes need to change. At times such as these, Hashem's method is to bring a tzoroh, a tribulation, upon us. As painful as this might be, it serves as a wake-up call.

The Chofetz Chaim notes that people often don't appreciate things that should be dear to them until those things are threatened or taken away. So, many people don't begin to really appreciate a loved one until they find themselves sitting shiva for the relative.

When Hashem brings a tzoroh upon us, we are forced to reevaluate our relationship with Him. This is why Rabbenu Yonah writes that one should thank Hashem, not only for His salvation but even for the tzoroh itself. For the tzoroh, the threat to that which we hold dear, serves to awaken us, to remind us just how important an asset really is.

This is actually based on a verse in Michah (7:8) which states, "If I hadn't fallen, I could not have risen. If I had not sat in the darkness, I would not recognize the light." Sometimes, one walks crookedly and does not even realize it. Only when he collapses and falls, does he realize how poorly he was walking. Similarly, sometimes one can only see the light if he is first plunged into darkness for a while.

The Sfas Emes explains that this is the meaning of the requirement of hallel and hodo'oh on Chanukah. Hallel, of course, means praise. Hodo'oh comes from the word modeh, to admit. Not only do we give praise for the salvation and the deliverance from trouble, but we also admit that even the trouble itself was for our good.

It can also be suggested that this is the very meaning of the word nes. Nes most often refers to a miracle where there was a threat, but Hashem saved us from it. It is composed of the letters nun and samech. The gemara in Brochos teaches that nun is the letter which connotes nefilloh, falling. Samech relates to someich, support. A nes is a combination of a fall and Hashem's eventual rescue. As we have seen, both aspects are important components in the miracle.

Pirsumei Nisso

This understanding casts new light on the concept of pirsumei nisso. Pirsumei nisso cannot simply mean that we publicize how great Hashem is, since He made some oil burn for eight days instead of for one. This is a rather petty feat for the Master of the Universe! After all, He created oil. Of course He can make it last for a few extra days!

The point of pirsumei nisso is not that Hashem can perform tricks. The idea is that Hashem makes miracles to catch our attention, so that we can learn from it. What message did the Jewish People need to hear in the times of Chanukah?

Al Hanissim

In Al Hanissim, we say that Hashem "redeemed us, as this very day" ("poorkan kehayom hazeh"). What element of that ancient victory remains to this day? The victory was seemingly the return to the Beis Hamikdosh, and the Beis Hamikdosh was destroyed nearly two thousand years ago!

Additionally, there are several striking differences between the Al Hanissim supplement of Chanukah, and the Al Hanissim of Purim. They both begin in identical fashion. Then, they each start to recount the particular time period (In the days of Mattisyahu . . .; In the days of Mordechai and Esther . . .).

Here, however, an important discrepancy appears. In the Purim Al Hanissim, it states, "When the wicked Haman stood against them, he attempted to kill, to annihilate . . . " the Jews. On Chanukah, we say, "The Greeks stood up to make them forget Your Torah and to take them away from Your mitzvos." It does not say, "They attempted." It says they did. Why is this?

Haman was surely a very wicked man. But until he actually formulated a plot to destroy the Jews, he posed no threat to them. As it was, he only "attempted" to kill the Jews; ultimately, he caused no harm.

The Greeks, however, were different. Long before they made any anti-Jewish decrees, they were already having a deleterious effect on the Jewish People. This Evil Empire had already caused thousands of Jews to Hellenize. What was so insidious about Greek culture?

The Sons of Noach

The Maharal teaches that the three sons of Noach, from whom the entire world descended, were each given a specific area of human development. Shem was given the inner, spiritual values, the soul. The letters of his name, shin and mem, form the inner two letters of the word neshomoh, soul. Yefes was granted yofi, beauty. This was, however, only a physical beauty. He was blessed with the external features of the world. Noach said, "Hashem shall expand Yefes and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem." By this he meant that the beauty, the physicality of Yefes -- the body, in fact -- should be subservient to the soul, which is represented by Shem.

The body and the soul are dead without drives, energy and appetite. The third son, Chom, was given these. Of course, if they are unbridled, man's drives can destroy him. Therefore, Noach concluded, " . . . and Chom shall be a servant to them" (Shem and Yefes). The drives of man, represented by Chom, are meant to be dominated and controlled by the body and soul.


The quintessence of Yefes was Greece. The Greeks took physicality to unprecedented levels. They introduced science, sport, wrestling, drama, Olympics, and more. What all of their innovations had in common was the overriding worship of the human body.

Moreover, they epitomized body without soul. This can even be seen in their name, Yovon, spelled yud, vov, final nun. These three letters have no insides -- just like Yovon had no internal soul. Normally, yud is the letter that represents holiness. Instead, they took the yud, extended it into a vov, and further extended it into a long nun. They took the normally lofty holiness of man and they ran it into the ground.

Additionally, these three letters are parallel lines; they never intersect. There is no unity between them. For when there is only body and no soul, there cannot be unity, which is synonymous with completeness.

The Jews

The Jews of the era were weak. They observed the mitzvos in their entirety but they performed the mitzvos only by rote. They failed to appreciate the internal aspect of the mitzvos. They saw the mitzvos as obligations or worse, as hindrances. They were vulnerable because they felt that the mitzvos were simply rules.

One who views mitzvos in this fashion does not have 613 mitzvos; he's got 613 problems!

They wanted to live in the modern world as promoted by Greece, but they were burdened by these obligations.

The Torah is meant to be a way of life. Those who keep it should become different. They should be Torah-Jews. These people were simply -- Orthodox Jews! They were Jews who did mitzvos, not Jews who lived the mitzvos. Indeed, "Orthodox" is a Greek word!

The road from this lifestyle to Greece was a short one. Those Jews were only interested in externals. If so, Greece offered much more in the way of externals: they demonstrated a whole worldview of externalism. Torah is only superior if it is seen as internal and spiritual. Thus, thousands upon thousands of Jews fell prey to this culture without any physical coercion at all.

The Chofetz Chaim writes that this situation could not have continued for much longer than two or three generations. By that point, they would have ceased being Jewish at all. They would have been totally Hellenized. It was at that stage that Hashem sent us a Heavenly wake-up call.

The Greek Decrees

The Greeks were no longer content with their culture slowly overpowering the Jews. They began to make decrees against the Torah. They desecrated the Beis Hamikdash. The Hebrew term for this is lechallel. The root of this word is chollul, hollow. They did not destroy the Beis Hamikdash as other conquerors had done and would do. They were mechallel it. The made it hollow; they emptied it of its inner meaning.

They were connoisseurs of architecture and, as such, they certainly did not want to destroy a beautiful edifice such as the Beis Hamikdash. They allowed the building to stand but they removed all spirituality from it.

They allowed the Jews to keep the Written Torah. It was a fine work of literature and they appreciated it as such. But they declared war on the Oral Torah.

This was because the Oral Torah provides the inner content of the Written Torah. If the Written Torah is like the body, the Oral Torah -- and specifically the Mishnoh -- is like the soul. Notably, the letters of the Hebrew word mishnoh also form the word, neshomoh, soul.

Kabboloh teaches that there are three realms: olom, shonoh, and nefesh. These correspond, approximately, to macrocosm, microcosm and time. The Greeks made significant decrees in each of these spheres. They banned Shabbos, Bris Mila, and Rosh Chodesh.

Shabbos is the sanctification of the whole world, the macrocosm. It testifies to the Divine origins of the entire universe. Bris Mila is the consecration of the human body, the microcosm. Rosh Chodesh sanctifies time. The Greeks detested these concepts, which claimed to give inner spiritual meaning to all aspects of the mundane.

According to the Rambam they went even further. He writes that they also pursued the daughters of the Jews and the Jews' money. Here too, the Greeks acted against Jewish precepts.

They declared that every Jewish bride needed to live with the Greek ruler before marriage. By doing this they undermined the purity of the Jewish Home. They prohibited the practice of family purity, which adds a spiritual dimension to the most basic of human drives. The Greeks valued women only for their external beauty.

Nothing can be further from the Torah's point of view. One can only be a Jew if born from a Jewish woman. Thus according to the Torah, the very essence of our spirituality comes from the woman.

The Torah views money as a spiritual tool as well. "Tzadikim value their money more than their bodies." Money is important, not for itself but rather because it can serve as a tool to allow and enhance spiritual growth. It is what permits the Torah scholar to be able to study. "If there is no flour, there is no Torah." The Greeks made the Jews write on every piece of property: "We have no share in the Jewish G-d." They wanted the Jews to renounce the Jewish concept that monetary possessions can have spiritual purposes.

These decrees were Hashem's way of drawing attention to the woeful state of the Jewish People. Since the Jews had been doing mitzvos in an external, superficial way, these edicts were imposed against the mitzvos which held the most inner meaning.

The Jewish Response

Finally the Jewish People got the message. Led by a tiny band of Chashmonaim, they fought back. In addition to their military struggle against the Greeks, they carried out a cultural battle as well. They aimed to return the inner meaning of the mitzvos. Together with their victory on the battlefield, they defeated the scourge of the Greek way of life as well.

This can be seen in the very letters of the name, "Chashmonaim." Ches, stands for Chodesh, Shin stands for Shabbos, Mem stands for momon (money) and mila, Vov stands for the six books of the Mishnoh, Nun stands for Niddah. The Chashmonaim restored each of these institutions to their original status.

Not only did the Greek intentions against Torah fail, they actually led to the addition of new Jewish holy days! And what a holiday it is! It runs for eight days, corresponding to the eight days of bris mila. It always contains a Shabbos, and Rosh Chodesh also is included in it. It includes a special role for women, and it even incorporates an aspect of money: Chanukah gelt!

It is also significant that there is virtually no mention of Chanukah in the Mishnoh. Every other holiday has an entire tractate dedicated to its laws. It is likely that this was done deliberately. Since the Greek intention was to eradicate the Oral Law it was decreed that in response, the laws of Chanukah would be orally transmitted, even after the bulk of the Oral Torah was committed to writing.

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