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