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PARSHAT VAYESHEV- CHANUKAH’S IDEOLOGICAL CLASH

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Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )

On Hanukkah we celebrate the momentous defeat of the Hasmoneans 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. This was the first ideological war in the history of mankind; it was a clash of two outlooks who could not peacefully co-exist. Initially, the Greeks had no desire to harm the Jewish people, rather they hoped to influence them 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 their attempts, they became hostile and attempted to coerce the Jews to abandon the Torah.

After the Hasmoneans successfully resisted the Greeks and forced them out of the land, the Sages decided to set up a permanent commemoration of this event through the festival of Hanukkah. 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 Hanukkah remains highly significant to every Jew. Understanding this conflict on a deeper level can help us derive vital lessons that are relevant to our lives today.

In order to understand the relationship between Greece and the Jewish people, it is instructive to examine the Torah’s account of the forefathers of these great nations. In the weekly Torah portion of Noach, the Torah tells us about the incident in which Noach’s son, Ham uncovered his drunken father’s nakedness. In response to this, Ham’s brothers, Shem and Yapheth covered their father and protected his dignity1.

Rashi quotes the Midrash that tells us that Shem initiated this meritorious deed and that Yapheth then joined him2. Both were rewarded for their righteous actions but Shem received a far greater reward. His descendants, the Jewish people, were given the mitzvah of Tzitzit whilst those of Yapheth will be accorded a respectful burial. Shem’s descendants are rewarded with a new mitzvah which offers an opportunity to grow in spirituality, whereas the reward of Yapheth will only benefit their bodies without their soul.

Why did Shem’s extra alacrity in this incident earn him such a qualitatively superior reward to that of Yapheth?

The commentaries explain that Shem was not merely more eager than Yapheth in covering their father, rather his intention in doing so was on a whole different level from that of Yapheth. Shem saw the uncovering of Noach in a spiritual sense and recognized that it was a mitzvah to save his father from such indignity.

Yapheth, in contrast, looked at this incident with a more common-sense approach that Noach was being physically degraded, and acted on this recognition to cover his father3. He had a natural sense of indignation at the base nature of an uncovered human body. It was Shem’s higher motivation that spurred him to greater alacrity than Yapeth’s more logical approach. Accordingly, Shem received a great spiritual reward whereas Yapheth was merely awarded a dignified burial, which only benefits his dead body.

Immediately after this incident Noach makes a seminal statement regarding the role of the two brothers in history. “Elokim will give beauty to Yapheth and he will dwell in the tents of Shem.4” The commentaries explain that this means that Yapheth will be blessed with yofi, which refers to the most superficial kind of beauty, that which is only skin deep. In order 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 is demonstrated by the Mishna in Megillah which learns out a very interesting law from this verse. The Mishna tells us that a Torah scroll can only be written in two languages, Hebrew and Greek. This is derived from how the Torah says that the beauty of Yapheth must dwell in the tents of Shem – the Gemara saw from this verse that placing the beauty of Yavan within the Torah of Shem can produce a beautiful combination.

Why were Shem and Yapheth given these blessings in particular? It seems that Yapheth’s earlier actions in conjunction with Shem to cover their father earned him this blessing; he applied his logical indignation at the baseness of a person being physically exposed to join with his more spiritually motivated brother. As a result, he performed a great deed in saving his father’s embarrassment. From here Hashem blessed him that he would achieve great heights if he continued to direct his appreciation for the beauty of a covered body and logic towards achieving spirituality in conjunction with of Shem.

However, the blessing only applies when Yapheth strives to deepen his natural logic and appreciation of beauty with the depth of Shem, but if he rejects that depth then the result will be very different. Physical beauty without spiritual depth quickly degenerates into a base physicality in which superficiality rules5. This was indeed the case with the Greeks – they emphasized the natural beauty of man to the extent that they practiced gross acts of indecency and immorality.6

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander describes another way in which Greece failed to utilize Noach’s blessing that he should place his wisdom in the tents of Shem. He explains that their wisdom remained very superficial in that it had no influence on the inner greatness of its practitioners.

He brings 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, “At the time that I did what I did I was not Aristotle.” Rav Friedlander explains that Aristotle was saying that his teachings did not obligate him to apply them to his life. This is another example of how Greece without Shem constitutes a dangerously superficial way of life.

In contrast, the ‘Torah’ of the Jewish people obligates us to take a far deeper approach to wisdom and apply its external lessons to our internal life7. A person who learns Torah and does not internalize it cannot be considered a true Torah scholar. The Maharal writes that these differences between Greece and the Jewish people led to the great antagonism between the two nations. Instead of appreciating the great depth that Torah had to offer them, the Greeks reacted with great jealousy and made tremendous efforts to destroy this rival form of wisdom8.

Rabbi Zev Leff sees a fascinating allusion to Greece’s failure to give depth to its physical beauty in the letters that make up its Hebrew name — Yavan. The yud, vav and final nun are all straight lines that have no thickness to them. This alludes to the superficiality that Greece epitomizes.

We have seen that the battle of Hanukkah was far more than a conflict between two warring nations. Rather it was a clash of two ideologies; the superficiality of Greece against the spirituality of Israel. We were successful in that particular battle but it seems that the war continues to rage to this day. The modern world is greatly influenced by Greek thought, in particular the emphasis on physicality devoid of depth. One cannot walk in the street without being exposed to base physicality. This temptation of superficiality continues to pose a great threat to the spiritual integrity of the Jewish people.

It is possible for a person to be completely Torah observant and yet be greatly influenced by superficial considerations in many aspects of his life. He may place greater importance to the clothing that people wear than the character traits that they display. The type of yarmulke on one’s head does merit consideration, yet one must keep in perspective that it is the internality of a person that is most important. A person can very easily wear the most observant-looking garb and as a result he will feel that he is succeeding in his Torah observance.

Similarly, the size of a person’s home or beauty of his upholstery may take an oversized place in his outlook. In a similar vein, a person’s Divine service can be dominated by superficiality, for example, the way he appears to others when he davens being of more importance to what he is in his head. Furthermore, there is always the risk that the Torah that he learns can remain superficial, not influencing his internal character.

Thus, we see that the threat of Greek superficiality remains relevant to this very day. The story of Hanukkah teaches us that we must remember that the Greek ideology of superficiality is a great threat to the integrity of Torah. May we all merit to achieve true depth in our relationship with God.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Notes:

  1. Noach, 9:23. Shem is the ancestor of the Jewish people and Yapheth is the father of the Greeks.
  2. Rashi, Noach, 9:23.
  3. See Netsiv, Noach, 9:23, Gur Aryeh, Noach, 9:23, Os 16.
  4. Noach, 9:27-8.
  5. See Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch Al HaTorah, Noach, 9:28.
  6. It is very interesting to note that Yapheth’s crowning moment was with regard to covering up gross physicality, whereas his descendants displayed absolutely none of his appreciation for the degradation of exposing the physical body.
  7. Sifsei Chaim, Moadim, 2nd Chelek, p.65-69.
  8. Ner Mitzva, Ner 3.

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