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27 Kislev 5766 - December 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Chanukah: Seeing the Light

by Yaacov Polskin

Chanukah is unique.

Its highlight is to kindle neirospirsumei nissa. It nonetheless has a rare brochoh: "Haro'eh ner Chanukah" — one who only gazes at the lights — recites a blessing about the miracles. Why are these nights different from other nights?

HaRav Avrohom of Sochatchov, author of the Avnei Nezer, suggests an original approach which underscores the theme of Chanukah itself.

In the aftermath of the Mabul, the Almighty blessed mankind once more to be fruitful. Noach had emerged from the ark and planted grape shoots he had stored away. He imbibed their produce and became intoxicated.

"Vayar Chom" — Chom beheld the state his father was in, and told his brothers, "Bachutz," in the shuk, publicly, of this, as Onkelos interprets it. Shem and Yefes, sensitive to their father's dignity, did not gaze at him but walked backwards to cover him.

Chom defiled his sight and speech by what he did. Subsequently, his offspring were cursed to be servants. Hence, a Canaanite slave, his descendant, goes free if the owner displaces an eye or a tooth, as they represent the abilities of speech and sight. This is his tikkun — the injury fixes Chom's sin so he need not remain a slave. (Medrash Rabbah 36:8)

There's a lot more beneath the surface, however.

Consider this: Light travels at 186,000 miles/second (300,000 km/sec) while sound goes only 1,700 feet (1,000 m/sec) in the same time. The fact that sight moves much faster suggests that it is more spiritual in nature. The faculty of sight includes not only the physical capability to see, but also the intellectual capability to perceive and discern as well.

Speech is spiritual in essence, too. Onkelos explains the verse, "man became a nefesh chayoh" to mean that a person was endowed with the spiritual faculty of speech.

Since Chom defaced these faculties of the human being, he lost the maaloh of ruchniyus and impacted the potential for his descendants for spirituality — man's purpose on this world. They spend their lives in servitude. They are chomri, people of material existence.

Shem and Yefes chose a different path; they were rewarded with seichel or intellect, the consummate faculty of perception. Of Yefes' descendants, the gemora in Megilloh (9b) sees Yovon (Greece) as his standard bearer. "The beauty of Yefes shall rest in the tents of Shem" (Bereishis 9:27). This refers to the language of Yovon, (Rashi ibid.). The nation of Yovon inherited Yefes' legacy and was given the gift of creative thought, or philosophy.

Shem's descendants received a different wisdom — Hashem's coveted wisdom, the Torah.

Noach's blessing impacted Yefes' children for years to come. "Yaft Elokim leYefes." According to Ramban (Bereishis 9:27) this means, "The Almighty shall widen Yefes' boundaries." This means his descendants will spread out all over the land.

Who was the fountainhead of chochmas Yovon? That in order to accept something as truth one must first experience it. If ordinary man cannot experience Divine Revelation, reward and retribution — if you can't tangibly have "hands on" contact with these phenomena — that means they're not there! Ramban (Vayikra 16:8) comments that the "Yevoni" — (i.e. Aristotle) "Hickchish kol dovor zulosi hamurgash lo" — rejected anything he could not experience firsthand.

During Golus Yovon, a colossal clash between civilizations ensued: Are speech and sight — the essence of a human being — to be utilized as the Syrian/Greeks perceive them, or is the worldview of Klal Yisroel genuine?

The Struggle

During the tenure of Antiochus, the ruler of the Syrian- Greeks, the Jewish people were at a crossroads. The Hellenists confronted them with a culture that glorifies human strength, complemented by philosophic thought based solely on human sight: physical experience. This was at loggerheads with the Torah.

The Yevonim tried to coerce Jews to embrace their lifestyle. Rambam (Igeres Shmad) writes that no Jew could lock the doors of his house — no one could privatize his life and perform a mitzvah alone at home. Kedushoh — something consecrated — doesn't exist. Why not broaden your horizons and explore nature and the universe as freethinkers, instead of being restricted?

Chazal comment (Bereishis Rabba 2:4) with regard to the verse that describes Creation — "there was choshech on the face of the tehome" — "choshech" signifies Yovon. A dark hole would engulf the Jewish people under the Syrian/Greeks. "Inscribe on the horns of your oxen that you have no part in the Elokei Yisroel," they ordered.

Let There Be Light

What is true broad-mindedness in the Torah's terms? King David writes in Tehillim (25:17), "Tzoros levovi hirchivu" — lit. the travails of my heart have widened. The Gra (commentary to Megillas Rus) explains the passage this way: When a person experiences adversity in life, it wakes him up to reality. Someone is watching from on high and is sending you a message! Reality kicks in. Hashgochoh sends a message. Look, aveiros don't pay and man is not in control of his destiny.

In this way, life's challenges broaden a person's perception of living. This is real harchovoh; to live with the reality of the inescapable truth is to be broad in thought. It gives one a commanding view of history and the world.

Based on this, we can gain insight into a passage we say in Hallel, "Min hameitzar korosi Koh" — when one is in a tight place, a person asks Hashem, "Onnoni bamerchav Koh" — make things broad so I can maneuver. A word from the same root — harchovoh — is used once again. When Hashem grants salvation, it opens mankind's eyes to the truth. This is the genuine expansion of knowledge — to comprehend the Borei Olom in this world.

During the Bayis Sheini, the Chashmonaim stood firmly to stop Yovon's designs. They sounded the alarm with the call, "Mi chomocho bo'eilim Hashem" — no matter what military strategy one employs, things are in the hands of the One Above. The Syrian/Greeks said there's no such thing as kodesh to oppose the chol, so the spiritual elite, the five holy sons of the Kohen godol, were moved to lead a rebellion.

The colossal battle had a unique quality: An army composed of a stellar group of individuals motivated for Shomayim's sake — chassidei elyon as Ramban (Bereishis 49:10) refers to them — would engage the mighty Greek legions. Vastly outnumbered, how could they hope to vanquish their foe?

Obviously, the Maccabim went to battle with mesiras nefesh — they were willing to give up their lives for the Torah's sake. They had simple faith that Hashem would save them and the Jewish people. This is the sophistication of simplicity. The Chashmonaim showed what Jewish heroism is really about — not physical prowess or ability, but rather the greatness of the spirit — the belief that, in the end, Hashem will help.

Throughout the oppression, every last vestige of kedushoh was supposed to be erased. Upon returning victorious from battle, the Bnei Chashmonai returned to the Mikdosh to find it full of idolatry; nothing remained pristine, save a single cruse of oil with the Kohen godol's seal.

Matisyohu's sons rededicated the Temple, and Hashem said, Let there be Light! The vessel that always testified that the Shechinah rests among us — the Menorah with its ner ma'arovi that burned twenty-four hours — once again filled the world with illumination, as a single small jug of oil burned in the Menorah for eight days.

It was the victory of eternal Chochmas HaTorah over Syrian/Greek culture; it was Shem's descendants who had the true legacy of the gifts of speech and sight.

We now have a new insight into the posuk we quoted before. "Yaft Elokim leYefes" (Bereishis 9:27) — if the Almighty gave Yefes wide expanses of knowledge, it must be a blessing, but there's a stipulation here — "veyishkon be'oholei Shem!" All wisdom and disciplines must be compatible with Shem's tent. They must first be seen through the Torah's prism — the blueprint of creation.

We can now appreciate the halochoh that, unlike other mitzvos, he who merely sees the Chanukah lights recites a blessing (Shabbos 23a). Shem, son of Noach, was blessed with broad vision for his descendants — the victory of the Chashmonaim demonstrates that it's the Torah that lets a person see the big picture. Thus, Chazal were mesakein a Bircas Haro'eh to correspond to the ayin — the gift of perception through Torah with which Shem's children were blessed — and lehodos, to thank Hashem for the nissim that took place by using the power of speech.

Indeed, Chanukah is the yom tov of chochmas haTorah. Through its study and emunah we will once again merit miracles as in those days, bazman hazeh — in our time.

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