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The Light and the Dark

Chanukah — Open Your Eyes

There’s nothing like becoming a grandfather.  Normally pulled in all directions by the endless jobs on my to-do list, I forget all about them every time I hold my three-month-old granddaughter and stare into her eyes.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I ask her silently.

The answer is: yes.

According to a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, making eye contact with an infant causes the brain patterns of both you and the baby to fall into sync with one another.

A similar phenomenon has been observed among high school students working collaboratively in the classroom and among adults who reach agreement in discussion.  Of course, it’s fairly predictable that by thinking alike people cause their brain waves become synchronized.  What the new research shows is that the same thing happens independent of any exchange of ideas or information.

This kind of sympathetic connection can be wonderful when it brings people together by forming a common bond.  But it can also be enormously dangerous.

And it provides a profound insight into the historical backdrop behind the Festival of Chanukah.

The battle against Greek domination was only one of many struggles against oppression in Jewish history.  The Babylonians tried to cut off the Jews from their spiritual identity by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and exiling the nation from its land.  Under Persian rule, the wicked Haman hatched his plot to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child.  The Romans combined the tactics of all the oppressors who came before them in a relentless campaign that lasted for centuries.

But it was the Syrian-Greeks who employed the most insidious stratagem:  cultural assimilation.  In the language of the sages, their objective was to darken the eyes of the Jewish people.

The culture of Greece dazzled the world with its entrancing beauty and magnetic sophistication.  But it was essentially a culture of form over substance.  The Olympic games celebrated physical prowess over inner character.  The art of sophistry revered oratorical elegance over soundness of argument.  Greek society idealized both the human form and the human mind, elevating humanity to the level of deification.

In contrast, Jewish thought asserts that Man is a perpetual work in progress, always incomplete by design, always striving toward self-improvement, always with a mission defined by an Authority greater than himself.  As such, every tenet of the Jews and their philosophy was anathema to the thinking of their Greek overlords.

But the glittery aestheticism of Greek culture was irresistible to some.  The Jewish Hellenists looked into the eyes of their masters and imagined a meeting of minds, a new syncretism whereby the most attractive aspects of Judaism and Grecianism might be blended into harmonious unification.

This was their undoing.  A culture that values inner truth and substance can never merge with a culture that places the highest premium on external form.  And a society that worships itself will never suffer a people who affirm loyalty to a Higher Power.

It was inevitable, therefore, that some Jews would give themselves over entirely to the ways of Greece and abandon their heritage, and that others would open their eyes and recognize that they could only survive by turning away from the seductive sparkle of Greek secularism.

Herein lies the compelling symbolism of the Chanukah candles.  There is nothing more blinding than brightly flashing lights before our eyes that overwhelm our senses and bewitch us with their intensity.  Ultimately, we descend into the most dangerous kind of darkness, the kind in which we lose all awareness that we cannot see.

The antidote is to turn away from the enticing light, to look into the darkness, to search for the source of faithful illumination that can guide us along the path of spiritual integrity.  Like the canopy of heaven whose glory only reveals itself far from the city lights, the flames of the Chanukah menorah shine bright out of the deepest darkness, when the days are shortest and the cold of winter has descended.

In a world ablaze with the deceptive light of moral anarchy and empty icons, the Chanukah candles remind us that the light of enduring truth can still be found by turning away from the glitter and by gazing into the hidden sources of timeless wisdom.

Published in Jewish World Review

When bubbles burst

champagne-1600x1200Raise your glass of champagne to toast the new year.  And then, before you take your first sip, ask yourself this question:  where do the bubbles come from?

You see them, don’t you – those strings of tiny bubbles rising steadily from the bottom of your fluted goblet?  They seem to appear out of nothing and come from nowhere.  And yet they keep coming, like refugees from some parallel universe escaping through an inter-dimensional portal, yearning to be free.

The explanation is quite simple.  What is more compelling is how the mystery of champagne bubbles can lead us to victory in the modern culture wars.

It can also provide a deeper insight into history’s first culture war, which culminated in the miracle of Chanukah.

TRAPPED IN THE DEPTHS

An average glass of champagne contains about 20 million microscopic bubbles, produced when fermentation under pressure forces carbon gas into wine.  The relatively few bubbles that rise to the surface burst and release their CO2.  As for the rest, the even distribution of internal pressure across the surface of each bubble keeps the gas trapped within.

Along the interior surface of the glass, however, are tiny imperfections.  When bubbles come in contact with any such imperfection, the slightest change in pressure at the point of contact is enough to cause them to burst.  Once released, the gas inside streams upward to the surface in a race for freedom.

Now think of champagne as an allegory for life.

A WORLD OF BUBBLE-DWELLERS

Never in history has a society been more comfortable than in this generation. Our homes are climate controlled within a two-degree range. Our cars have automatic entry, heated leather seats, and full entertainment centers. We buy our groceries and holiday gifts with the click of a mouse and wait for them to be delivered by bonded messenger or drone. We text people in the same room and find it too burdensome to open our email.

And what do we have to show for it? We have lost all ability to cope with inconvenience, delay, and change. A website refusing to load, a text not returned in 15 seconds, or our favorite TV show preempted by an amber alert — these are the crises of our times, the insufferable challenges of our era. It’s both laughable and tragic to imagine how we would manage had we to face the hardships of the crossing of the Mayflower, the Great Depression, or the Battle of the Bulge — let alone Auschwitz or the Soviet gulag. The plight of Syrian refugees right now across the sea is too horrific for us to even contemplate.

So we don’t. We’re too comfortable inside our bubbles, insulated from the cold, hard realities that most humans have had to endure through the ages. We hide away from the rest of the word, until something pricks the surface to burst our bubbles — leaving us in pieces and gasping for breath.

But really, we should be grateful for those pinpricks, both great and small. Like the gas that remains trapped beneath the surface, our own potential for greatness remains dormant within us until we are forced to confront the sharp edges of life. Instead of trying to hide from them, we need to prepare ourselves for when they inevitably arrive.

HIGHS AND LOWS

This was the state of affairs in Judea under the rule of the Seleucid Empire 2180 years ago. The prevailing culture of Greek philosophy worshipped aesthetic idealism. Graceful lines, elegant syllogisms, and harmonic symmetry represented the highest expression of human civilization.

But it also represented the lowest. Where the ancient Greeks revered physical and intellectual beauty, they abandoned children with physical deformities or mental impairments and left them to die. They valued the philosophic sophistication of their greatest thinkers less for its content and more for the polished sophistry of its expression. They ruthlessly stamped out all dissonance – as they did by sentencing Socrates, the greatest among them, to death for the crime of exposing the logical contradictions of their philosophy.

Enamored with the cultural idealism of Greece, Jewish Hellenists believed they could blend their practice of Judaism with the prettified ways of their masters. But Jewish philosophy demands that we challenge the external status quo, that we push our personal boundaries outward even as we strive to refine our commitment to the traditions on which our nation is founded. It is a prickly discipline, one in which bubbles cannot long survive.

And so the culture of Greece tried to swallow the soul of Judaism. But in the end, the weak rose up against the strong and the few prevailed over the many. Instead of capitulating to the apparent inevitability of their defeat, the Jews fought for their physical and spiritual lives. By doing so, they broke through the boundaries of what anyone imagined possible, and they set free the potential that would have remained forever hidden if the Greeks had not tried to crush it into non-existence.

And when the hidden spark of determination inside them caught fire, it light up the darkness of exile, just like the tiny container of oil that burned miraculously for eight days – a sign of divine favor because they refused to exchange spiritual identity for the comfort of cultural superficiality.

When we reject comfortable confinement and fight our way out of the bubbles we live in, there is no limit to the miracles we can expect to see in our daily lives.

Published by Jewish World Review.

Lighting our way to the Palace of the King

ballroom-at-the-grand-palace-in-peterhofThere is a story of a prince, a true prodigal son, whose antics and excesses taxed his father’s patience until the king, with no other recourse, sent his son penniless into exile to learn responsibility and humility.

The prince wandered from place to place, half-starving, unqualified for any craft or labor, until he finally found work as a shepherd in a distant land. The job of shepherding was not overly difficult, but the sun burned the prince’s back by day, the wind froze him at night, and the rain soaked through his clothes in winter.

Other shepherds built little huts to protect them from the elements, but whenever the poor prince tried to build himself a hut it toppled over in the first strong breeze.

Years went by, until at last the prince heard that the king was coming to the province where he lived. There was a custom in the kingdom that people would write their wishes upon scraps of paper and throw them at the king’s carriage. Any requests that the king picked up a read would be granted immediately. So the prince positioned himself along the parade route and, as the king’s carriage passed, he took careful aim and tossed his note.

The paper fell at the king’s feet. He unrolled it and, recognizing his son’s handwriting, he began to weep. For the note asked if the king would give the prince a little hut to protect him from the sun and the wind and the rain.

“My son could have asked to return to the palace,” cried the king, “but he no longer knows he is a prince.”

So it was in the days of the Maccabees, when the Jewish people were so steeped in the physical aestheticism and indulgences of Greek culture that many of them forgot that they were in exile, forgot that they were inheritors of a priceless spiritual legacy, forgot that they were children of the King.

But a few didn’t forget. A few risked their lives to honor the Sabbath, to circumcise their sons, to study the Torah of their fathers and grandfathers, to preserve the divine spark that had guided their ancestors for a thousand years. And, when their moment came, those few took up arms against their oppressors and fought for the privilege of living as Jews. They recaptured the Holy Temple and, as they rekindled the menorah, divine light flooded the streets and courtyards of Jerusalem, pushing off the darkness of exile, waking the people from cultural forgetfulness, inspiring a generation to remember its ancient roots cast its aspirations once more toward the heavens.

Today, 2,180 years later, we too live in an age of spiritual darkness, when the loudest and most persistent voices in our surrounding culture cry out to expunge every mention of the divine, to condemn every moral judgment, to sanctify every perversion in the name of “tolerance.” We live in an era of unprecedented material comfort and convenience, tranquilizing our bodies and our minds so that we can easily stifle the yearning of our souls.

slvm5919016But when the days are shortest and the nights are coldest, just then can a little light shine forth and dispel much darkness. Like a lighthouse guiding a ship home, the lights of the Chanukah menorah can draw us back from the abyss of spiritual oblivion. And as we add candle upon candle and light upon light, the growing radiance of the menorah reminds us of the divine flame that has guided us through the darkness of exile and saved us from the darkness of assimilation for generation after generation.

If we, like the Hellenist Jews, allow the material values of contemporary culture to shape our thinking and guide our actions, then we have truly forgotten who we are. Like the prince whose soul longed for nothing but a little hut to protect him from the sun and the rain, we will be destined to live out our days in futility.

But if we cling to all that which is noble within us, if the values of our tradition drive us to perform acts of kindness and charity, to devote a few moments each day to heartfelt and meditative prayer, to treat neighbors and strangers alike with respect, to set an example of morality and character for our children — then we will have rekindled the spark of divinity inside us, and we will have earned the privilege to have our Father, the King, bring us home.

Originally published in 2003 by Jewish World Review

Illuminating the Days of Darkness

3184543T.S. Eliot may have denounced April as the cruelest month, but most of us are far more likely to feel pangs of depression beginning to stir sometime around December.

As the days grow short and gray, and the nights turn cold and dark, that is the time we find our spirits truly starting to wither. We mourn the passing of those slow, sticky summer afternoons, long buried beneath the frost. As the threat of snow looms, we reflect sadly that winter will only grow crueler before we can begin to hope for the thaw.

It may be natural to attribute our mood to the inexorable cycle of nature and the change of seasons. But in this, as with all things, Jewish tradition offers a deeper insight into the spiritual torpor that descends upon us each year with the onset of winter.

The Talmud describes how, after eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam noticed that the days began growing shorter and the nights longer. Adam despaired. “On account of my sin,” he conjectured, “the Creator is gradually returning the world to the state of Primordial Darkness.”

With the passing of the winter solstice, however, the days began to lengthen once again, and Adam realized that the changing of the seasons was just part of the natural pattern of creation. He rejoiced, inaugurating a festival of eight days to celebrate the renewal of the world.

In this same season, 2,180 years ago, the Jewish people inaugurated the eighth-day festival of Chanukah, celebrating the victory of light over darkness.

CULTURE OF THE GREEKS

The number seven symbolizes perfection in nature, the complete, ordered system brought into existence through the seven days of creation. As such, it also symbolizes the culture of the Greeks, which then weighed heavily on the backs of the Jewish nation.

Greek culture worshipped physical perfection, artistic expression, and unblemished aestheticism. It exalted the physical form and physical prowess in their art and their architecture, in their Olympics and in their philosophy. It honored and revered all that the physical world represented.

In their aspiration for aesthetic idealism, however, the Greeks denied the transcendence of the human spirit and rejected the notion of any metaphysical reality. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that we find the gods of Greek mythology to be mere caricatures of men, with exaggerated human desires arid contemptible human shortcomings.

Neither should it surprise us that the Greeks fought so desperately to uproot the Torah, the spiritual compass that has kept the Jewish people pointed toward the light through the darkness of exile.

Judaism teaches that the potential for human greatness is achieved not through the ascendancy of the physical, but by subjugation of the physical to the spiritual. The symbol for this spiritual transcendence is the number eight, representing that which breaks through the bounds of physical limitation (symbolized by seven) and aspires for a higher reality, one that lies beyond materialism, beyond superficiality.

EIGHT DAYS

For this reason do we circumcise a Jewish boy on the eighth day after birth, to signify the covenant charges him with conquering his physical desires and redirecting them in the pursuit of spiritual goals.

bigstock-hanukkah-candles-copyFor this reason did Adam celebrate for eight days, in recognition that the spiritual design behind the workings of nature is even more complex and wondrous than nature itself.

And for this reason do we light the Chanukah lights for eight days: to push off the dark and cold of winter and to remember that we must all see ourselves as lights amidst the spiritual darkness of the physical world, no less than the stars scattered across the heavens.

Only by igniting our own cultural enthusiasm with the flame of our tradition and our heritage will we inspire ourselves and our children to strive toward achieving the spiritual greatness that lies within every one of us.

Originally published in 2002 by Aish.com

Free Judea Under Shimon Maccabee

chabadVirtually everyone has learned about the miracle of Chanukah and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. But the tumultuous 22 years between the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid Greek army and the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state are not nearly so well known.

In 165 BCE, the same year that the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, Demetrius I succeeded Antiochus IV as ruler of Syria. Immediately, the new monarch sought to consolidate his forces with the soldiers still garrisoned in Jerusalem and with the Hellenist Jews still determined to resist the authority of a Torah government.

The early success of the Maccabees evaporated before the renewed Syrian onslaught. Eleazar, eldest brother of Judah Maccabee, was the first Hasmonean casualty of war, crushed beneath the elephant he believed was carrying the king as he drove his sword upward into its belly during the battle of Beis Zecharyah. Only a year later, after defeating an army ten times greater his own and slaying the Seleucid general Nikanor, Judah Maccabee himself fell in battle as he attempted to defend Jerusalem with only 800 men. Both the capital and the Temple were lost, and Demetrius appointed Bacchides, a particularly cruel Seleucid officer, as governor over Judea.

CRISIS AND RECOVERY

After Judah’s death, his brother Jonathan assumed command of the Jewish resistance. Vastly outnumbered and in retreat, Jonathan prepared his army to flee across the Jordan river, where he hoped to reorganize his forces. Before he had completed the operation, however, enemy soldiers discovered and surrounded his hideout. Jonathan barely escaped with his life, while his brother Yochanon was captured and killed.

With his forces too weak to mount a conventional assault, Jonathan returned to the guerrilla tactics of the early Hasmonean revolt. Gradually, he rebuilt his strength until his own army attained parity with the Seleucid forces. Recognizing that Bacchides had lost the will to fight, Jonathan took advantage of the stalemate and dispatched messengers with offers of peace. Bacchides accepted, and Jonathan established himself north of Jerusalem in the village of Michmash, the early home of Saul, first King of Israel.

alexander-the-greatFive years later, an attempted coup against Demetrius back in Syria provided Jonathan with the opportunity for which he had long been hoping. Preoccupied with his own fight for survival, Demetrius posed no threat at all as Jonathan advanced to seize Jerusalem and began refortifying the city’s defenses. Jonathan continued to monopolize on the fractious Seleucid government, playing Demetrius and his rival, Alexander Balas, one against the other. In short order, Jonathan secured his position in Jerusalem and reclaimed his hereditary position as High Priest in the Holy Temple. As the political situation in Syria deteriorated, Jonathan continued to expand his control over Judea.

TREACHERY AND REPRISAL

But Jonathan’s successes in diplomacy ultimately led him too far. When Tryphon, a new king in Syria, marched against Jerusalem, he found Jonathan waiting for him at the head of a much larger army of 40,000 men. Recognizing that he had no hope of victory, Tryphon convinced Jonathan to meet with him in Akko, where he captured Jonathan and subsequently murdered him.

After 17 years of Jonathan’s leadership, his brother Shimon, the last of the five Maccabean brothers, took his place as leader over Judea. In response to Tryphon’s treachery, Shimon threw his support to Tryphon’s rival, Demetrius II. In appreciation, on the 27th day of Iyar, 3619 (142 BCE), Demetrius formally exempted the Jews from their annual tribute and declared Judea fully independent, recognizing Shimon as its sovereign. Twenty-two years after the miracle of Chanukah, the Jews finally gained political autonomy for the first time since the era of the First Temple.

In the course of his rule, Shimon secured the boundaries of his tiny kingdom, repulsed an attack by Antiochus VII of Syria, and led his people into one of the greatest periods of prosperity of the Second Temple era.

Shimon’s own end was less glorious. He was assassinated by his son-in-law, Ptolemy, in the seventh year of his reign. Ptolemy’s ambitions profited him nothing, however, since Shimon’s son Yochanon drove him out of the kingdom. But Ptolemy did succeed in bringing the last of the sons of Mattisyahu to a violent death.

For the family who restored glory to the Jewish people, drove out the Selucid oppressors, resisted the corrosive influence of Hellenism, and returned the divine service to the Temple in Jerusalem, we hardly would expect such an inglorious end. We would also not expect such a mixed legacy: Shimon’s son and grandson both allied themselves with the heretical Sadducees; his great-grandsons began a civil war that resulted in the beginning of Roman rule over Israel and produced the bloody reign of Herod.

Where did the Hasmoneans go wrong?

THE DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGSHIP

Before his death, the Jewish patriarch Jacob prophesied that, “The scepter shall never depart from Judah,” meaning that no tribe other than Judah would ever rule legitimately over the Jewish people (Genesis 49:10). The reputation of Judah Maccabee as a brilliant general and an inspired leader remains unimpeachable. But from the moment he drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, Jewish law required him to petition the Sanhedrin straight away for the appointment of a permanent leader from the dynasty of David. By retaining national leadership for himself and establishing a precedent followed by his brothers and their descendants, Judah sentenced the Hasmonean line to a destiny of one tragedy after another, until nothing remained but the memory of former greatness.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-15-at-9.20.12-AMThere is another, deeper reason for the inevitable downfall of the Hasmonean dynasty. As members of the priestly kohanim,the Hasmonean family had their mission within the Jewish nation defined by the Torah as purely spiritual. Unlike the large majority of Jews who must strive to balance the pursuit of spiritual ideals with involvement in the material world, kohanim have no occupation other than Divine service and no portion in the Land of Israel other than the Temple itself.

Conversely, the kings, whose royal line descends from David himself, live a life of opulence and luxury, through which they endeavor to achieve an absolute synthesis of spirituality and materialism.
By shouldering the mantle of kingship, perhaps not in name but undeniably in practice, the

Hasmoneans encumbered themselves with the burden of kings — to harmonize the physical and the spiritual — obligating themselves in a service diametrically opposed to the austerity demanded by their intrinsic nature as priests.

Unable to succeed simultaneously as kohanim and as kings, the Hasmoneans condemned themselves to failure and, ultimately, self-destruction when they did not return the leadership of the Jewish nation to its rightful heirs, the descendants of the dynasty of David, the true kings of Israel.

Originally published on Jewish World Review

The Secret of the Dreidel

a miracle happened here-printsIt’s more than a shame that Chanukah has become diluted to the point where potato latkes and jelly donuts excite many Jews more than the lights themselves.

It’s not hard to understand how children, with their feverish expectation of presents eclipsing the true meaning of the season, fail to think deeply into meaning of the day. And it’s not hard to understand how children might never look beyond the message of their favorite Chanukah toy, the dreidel, tattooed with the letters nun, gimmel, hei, and shin as a superficial and simplistic acronym for neis gadol hayah sham — “a great miracle happened there.”

But why, as we grow older, don’t we ask if there’s anything more?

As for the dreidel, it truly strikes a dissonant chord that the sages of a people so rich in cultural wisdom and so steeped in spiritual symbolism could have composed no better a message than “a great miracle happened there.”

If the Passover matzah symbolizes exorcism of one’s inclination toward evil, if the shofar blast on Rosh HaShanah symbolizes the eternal cry of the soul to be reunited with its Creator, if the sukkah hut symbolizes the clouds of glory the guided and protected the Jews through their 40 years of wandering in the desert, is it possible that they dreidel could offer no more profound insight into the significance of Chanukah than “a great miracle happened there”? And if there is a deeper message, what is it?

EXILE UNDER FOUR KINGDOMS

The Greek domination that opens the story of Chanukah was only one of four exiles spanning the last 2400 years of Jewish history. Before the Greeks came the Persians; before the Persians came the Babylonians. And, after a brief autonomy following Greek rule, the Jews found themselves subjugated by a power far greater than the sum of the first three: the Roman empire, under whose exile the Jews remain until today, 15 centuries after the fall of Rome. But first to Babylon.

BABYLON — ATTACK UPON THE SOUL

middle-eastern-gentiles-razing-jerusalemFrightened by the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Jews would return to their land after 70 years, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the people from the Land of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar understood that if he attacked the nefesh, the soul of Jewish people, if he cut the Jews off from the source of their spirituality — the Temple and the Land — then he could sever their connection with the Almighty and nullify the prophecy of 70 years.

In fact, he was right. But he was also wrong, for the Jews retained a spiritual connection that Nebuchadnezzar failed to anticipate. Although separated from their homeland and G-d’s Sanctuary, they could not be separated from their Torah, the spiritual wellspring that keeps the nefesh of the Jews connected to their G-d no matter where they may find themselves scattered throughout the world. Jeremiah’s 70 years culminated with the famous writing on the wall, interpreted by the prophet Daniel, which foretold the death of Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, and the fall of Babylon.

PERSIA — BATTLE FOR LIFE ITSELF

The Persians, who conquered the Babylonians, attempted a much more direct approach. Harboring a bitter grudge against the Jewish sage Mordechai, Haman, viceroy to the king of Persia, conceived a plot to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child within the Persian empire. Where the Babylonians had tried to cut off the nefesh of the Jewish people, Haman would act far more boldly to cut down the guf, the physical body of the Jewish people.

When the Jews, by disregarding the counsel of their spiritual leader, Mordechai, forfeited the merit of divine protection against their enemies, Haman had his chance. But the moment the Jews repented the tables turned, and it was not the guf of the Jewish nation that was destroyed but Haman himself who swung from his own gallows.

GREECE — ASSAULT AGAINST THE MIND

The most subtle strategy, however, belonged to the Greeks. Also learning from the failure of their predecessors, they attempted to destroy neither the Jewish nefesh nor the Jewish guf. Instead, they embraced the Jews with open arms, welcomed the Jewish nation into their empire, and sought to seduce the Jewish people with the glittering magnetism of their culture.

The most dangerous and most insidious weapon ever to be directed against the Jews was perfected by the Greeks: assimilation, the attack upon the seichel — the Jewish intellect and the Jewish mind.

Greek culture celebrated the physical and the material, raising artistic expression and architectural design to previously unimagined sophistication and beauty. The Greeks exalted the human body, their perfectly toned and trained athletes performing Olympic feats naked before adoring and exulting crowds. Indeed, Greek philosophy perceived the human form and the human psyche as the pinnacle of creation, with no higher being and no higher authority to rival the perfection of Man.

In their arrogance, the Greeks created a pantheon of gods remarkable not for their kindness or their mercy or their grace, but for their lust, their vengeance, and their spite. The most base human impulses became not only glorified but deified through the Greek gods and the myths extolling them.

The external beauty and indulgent pleasure of Greek culture exerted a powerful attraction over all Greek subjects, and the Jews were not impervious to its assault. But whereas other pagan peoples lacked a commitment to virtue and morality, the substance of Judaism has always called for every Jew to aspire toward moral and spiritual self-perfection. By insinuating their culture into the everyday lives of the Jews, the Greeks undermined the ideological foundations of Jewish belief and Jewish practice, gradually ensnaring the minds — the seichel — of many Jews.

Thus were born the Hellenists, Jews who sought to bond the externality of the Greeks with the substance of Judaism, a marriage that could only result in the ultimate extinction of the Jew and his culture. But the Maccabees, rising up to meet the threat against the Jewish mind, drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, rekindled the lights, and restored the purity of Jewish practice, Jewish tradition, and Jewish culture to the land.

ROME — THE SUM OF OUR FEARS

MenorahFinally came Rome, a culture that produced no innovations but borrowed from the peoples it conquered as it spread its military and political influence across most of the civilized world. As pagan as Babylon and Persia, as materially self-indulgent as Greece, Rome mimicked not only the nations it subdued but also the tactics employed by its predecessors against the most culturally stubborn of all its subjects, the Jews.

Like Babylon, Rome tried to destroy the spiritual nefesh of the Jewish people by destroying the Second Temple and exiling the Jews from their land. Like Persia, Rome tried to crush the physical guf of the Jewish nation through pogroms and violent decrees. And, like Greece, Rome tried to destroy Jewish culture through assimilation, attacking the seichel of the Jews. The Roman strategy, therefore, may be characterized as hakola combined assault against the nefesh, guf, and seichel of the Jewish people.

Until today, long after the decline of Rome, assimilation remains the greatest threat to Jewish survival.

THE SECRET OF THE DREIDEL

b52c45282c4ed5cc4f5cfbd3ae8fe553The word Chanukah derives from the Hebrew word chinuch — Jewish education. The greatest defense against spiritual, physical, and cultural attack is the knowledge of one’s own beliefs and the commitment to one’s own traditions that endure only when they are founded on a solid education of cultural thought and practice. The flames of Chanukah symbolize the light of self-knowledge and the wisdom that comes from knowing what it means for Jews to live as Jews.

The dreidel does indeed recall far more than the simple formula that “a great miracle happened there.” It reminds us of the tactics employed by the four kingdoms that sought our destruction. The letter nun recalls the Nefesh of Israel that the Babylonians tried to cut off. The letter gimmel stands for the Guf of Israel that the Persians tried to cut down. The letter shin echoes the Seichel of Israel that the Greeks tried to corrupt. And the letter hei stands for Hakol, the combined efforts of Rome to destroy the Jewish nation on every front.¹

Yes, a great miracle did happen there. But to see nothing more than that shallow message is to miss the profound depth of the miracle itself, to see the dreidel, the lights, and the miracle of Chanukah as a Greek would see them.

To see them as a Jew, with all their complexity and substance and beauty, is to truly appreciate and truly commemorate Chanukah in all its glory.²

Originally published in Jewish World Review

 

¹The gematria (numerical equivalents) of the letters of the dreidel — nun (50), gimmel (3), shin (300), and hei (5) — add up to 358, equaling the gematria of nachash (serpent), the influence of which has dominated the world since the Serpent in the Garden of Eden convinced man to sin, as well as the gematria of Moshiach (Messiah), whose influence will ultimately conquer and replace the influence of the Snake in the End of Days.

²Adapted from the Chassidic classic, B’nei Yissasschar

The Candles and the Tree

640x-1It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”

“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation stopped me before I asked. Maybe she didn’t know, either.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.

SEEKING SPIRITUALITY FROM A TO ZEN

When I went away to college, I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because, ultimately, that brought good karma and tranquility. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to Truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge amoral self-interest, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.

TOO LATE FOR THE HIPPIES

filmore-cars-vw-bus1I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

Half a year into my journey, Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought to have a classical Jewish experience — volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, oblivious to the signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS UNTIL JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.

THE CLASH OF CULTURES

Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the ruling governments began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men.

And even though it was no longer the Greeks who controlled Israel, the Ptolemys of Egypt and later the Seleucids of Syria had thoroughly absorbed the cultural values of the empire that had briefly ruled over them.  How offended they must have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Syrian-Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had turned to violent oppression, the cultural successors of Alexander’s empire posed a much more subtle danger: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, Antiochus IV of Syria banned only three practices: the Sabbath, bris milah (circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the physical universe:  without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with the Creator of all. Bris milah testifies to the divinity of life:  it is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh testifies to the divinity of time:  it is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

hanukkah_within_articleThe Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Syrian-Greeks resorted to more draconian decrees and eventually violent repression. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to those three basic precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Sabbath, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Grecian oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new syncretism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the absolute incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and they foresaw that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the torch of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.

ILLUMINATING THE GENERATIONS

Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the threat from Greece did not disappear. To this day it persists in its cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children have grown up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction.

Through the generations and across the world, the Jewish people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.

Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light and Aish.com.

The Heroism of Giving Thanks

Originally published in 2002 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun.

Will Rogers couldn’t have said it better: No nation has ever had more, yet no nation has ever had less. And it’s easy to understand why the two go together.

The Talmud observes that the moment a person acquires $100, he immediately wants $200. The more we have, the more we want. And the more we believe in our own entitlement, the more likely we are to forget both our humble origins and our obligations to others.

The-First-Thanksgiving-DinnerIt’s somewhat heartening, therefore, that Thanksgiving has retained so prominent a place in American culture, even if most of us rarely give a passing thought to the Puritan ideals that gave birth to the first Thanksgiving.

Who were the Pilgrims? The settlers who stepped off the Mayflower in 1620 were not adventurers or opportunists. They were devout Protestants seeking a pure, uncorrupted expression of the Christian values they had found wanting in their native England.

They paid a high price for their idealism: Half of them died during that first, brutal, Massachusetts winter. But summer brought hope, and out of hope they declared a festival to thank their Creator for their survival and for their hard-won religious freedom.

Political freedom was still a novel idea in Europe then, although the concept had existed for nearly 3,000 years, since the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The notion of religious freedom, introduced to the world somewhat later, was already 17 centuries old when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

3-Emperial-ELEPHANTSBack then, the Jewish nation had been at war not only with the Selucid Greeks, which controlled Israel, but also with itself. The Hellenist Jews found much in Greek culture that they admired and eagerly sought to incorporate into Jewish practice, while the majority of the Jews recognized the inherent incompatibility of Judaism, with its focus on the perfection of the soul, and Grecianism, with its self-worship of body and intellect. Behind the Hellenists, however, towered the full power of the Selucid Empire, before which the ideal of Jewish cultural purity seemed to have little hope of survival.

But the weak rose up against the strong and the many were vanquished by the few. Shouts of freedom echoed through the streets of Jerusalem as the Maccabees rekindled the lights of the Temple in purity, and the festival of Chanukah was established as “days of thanksgiving and praise to [the Almighty’s] great name.”

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“This year we’re having goose instead. It was flaunting its wealth and showing off its golden eggs.”

The complacency of the Jews and their unwillingness to toil in the preservation of their own cultural values put them in danger of cultural extinction. The complacency of Christian Europe, in the eyes of the Puritans, led to a dilution and a depreciation of Christian values. And the ultimate realization of the Jews, like the realization of the Puritans centuries later, was that ideals not fought for and defended cease to remain ideals.

The true heroes in any society are those prepared to struggle for their ideals, those ready to sacrifice for a greater good, those who understand that nothing of value ever comes cheap or easy. When we take freedom for granted, we stand in danger of losing it. And the surest way of taking anything for granted is by failing to express appreciation.

Life begins with struggle. And when struggle ends, life ends with it. Indeed, it is that very struggle that makes life worth living. Both Thanksgiving and Chanukah remind us to be grateful not just for the success, but even for the struggle.

Especially for the struggle.