The Talmud (Shabbat 23a) asks: What blessing is recited on the Chanuka lights? [Is it] the familiar one, blessing G-d “who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanuka”?.[The discussion continues] “And where precisely was this commanded (since Ner Chanuka is a Rabbinical law)? Rav Avia [derived the source] from Lo Tasur, ‘do not deviate from the word they [the Sages] will command you, right or left’ (Devarim 17:11). Rav Nechemia stated, from ‘Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you’ (ibid 32:7).”
One opinion roots the source of the blessing in the general mandate to obey the commandments of the Sages, and the other in the directive to heed our fathers and elders. What’s the difference? And why is this question raised regarding Chanuka, and not about, e.g., Megila, which preceded Chanuka?
And perhaps the greatest paradox about Chanuka is the unusual relationship we have with Greece. They were enemies to be sure – “‘the darkness upon the deep’ – this is Greece that darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees” (Breisheet Rabba 2:4); and yet, we also are taught that“G-d will extend Yefet,”- i.e. the Greek language – “and it will reside in the tents of Shem, as a Torah scroll can be written in Greek” (Midrash Agada 9). The Greek language was not only beautiful but also had the unique privilege of being the only language, aside from Hebrew, in which the Torah could be written. Isn’t that strange? In one context, ancient Greece was an enemy who filled the world with “darkness” and tried to stamp out the Torah, and in another, Greece was– if not embraced – at least ushered into the world of Torah. How can that be?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanuka, 4) explained this dichotomy in a way that sheds light on the struggle of Chanuka – and why the wars of the Maccabim were not limited to that one time. Jews do not just commemorate the defeat of our enemies; there are many victories that go unremarked. Rather, our Sages highlighted particular types of enemies so that when we would again encounter them, we would recognize them and know how to respond.
It is always easier to combat enemies like Pharaoh, Haman, etc. They cause great harm – but not lasting harm. They threaten Jews, not Judaism. The greatest danger to Judaism always comes from an enemy that assails us on our own turf and speaks to us in our own language. Rav Hutner said that good and evil are two paths that are diametrically opposite, but nonetheless they can, for a time, travel on the same road. “G-d’s ways are straight – the righteous walk in them and the sinner stumbles” (Hoshea 14:10), i.e., he doesn’t always reject those divine paths. Sometimes, the sinner just stumbles. He walks on the same path along with the tzadik, but eventually errs, and then stumbles. But while on the same path, the righteous man and the sinner share points of connection.
The point of connection – the turf we shared with ancient Greece – was wisdom. They valued wisdom and knowledge; they had a defined way of life, with one major difference: G-d’s will came to us in two forms – through the ten utterances of Creation, and through the Decalogue of Sinai. The difference between creation and Sinai is that creation is compulsory. There is no free will in nature – it is “a statute that will not change” (Tehillim 148:6) – while Sinai is all about free choice.
The external world presents itself as completely pre-determined and fixed – but the world of free choice is neatly folded into it, and has to be exposed. This Greece was unable to do. They accepted the wisdom of the universe and accepted the world of the compulsory, but they stumbled – they saw everything as causality, as man following his natural instincts, and developed an entire philosophical system around it.
Ancient Greece was the only enemy to fight us on our own terms – in the realm of wisdom, arguing over what is truly G-d’s will – and on that battlefield, Greek wisdom has its place. Its language is welcomed into the tents of Shem. But that wisdom left unchallenged ultimately darkens our world, because it negates the very idea of free will, reward and punishment, the uniqueness of Israel, and a relationship with G-d; indeed, it cannot tolerate the existence of a nation that lives by a creed that emphasizes free will and minimizes the role of causality in the world of man.
That creed was a legacy of the Avot (our forefathers), who showed us through their lives how to make choices and how to respond to G-d’s will. They too recognized the G-d of Creation, but they showed us the way to rise from recognizing the G-d of nature to a higher level. Indeed, Greece came to induce us not only “to abandon the Torah,” to destroy the potential of Israel implicit in the lives of our forefathers – the source of our relationship with G-d – but also “to take us away from the laws that reflect Your will,” to destroy the fulfilled version, the people of Sinai, who harness their free will to observe the commandments.
Does anyone think that Greece the enemy has been defeated and has disappeared ? On the contrary, it is more active than ever. Greek wisdom (although not its modern economy) is a dynamic force –wherever Jews try to mold the Torah to contemporary mores, whenever Jews are embarrassed by the Torah’s morality and perceive modern “morality” as superior and the measure of all things, wherever Jews subordinate G-d’s wisdom to man’s wisdom, whenever Jews are intimidated by the claims against our rights to the land of Israel or the divinity of Torah, and wherever Jews talk it into ourselves (laymen and Rabbis) that self-control is superhuman and power over one’s instincts is inconceivable – there we experience the power and perversity of the Greek idea.
To all those critics and carpers we say that the source of our law is not only Lo Tasur – a requirement to heed the words of the Sages – but also “Ask your father and he will tell you” – it is because we still relate to our fathers, who gave us life and direction, and their worthy ancestors, who, at great personal sacrifice, went to war against the world’s dominant ideology and culture, and prevailed, with divine miracles and wonders, in that time, in this season, as we will again.
Happy Chanuka to all !