Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Ah, Chanukah is upon us again.  While everyone else is running around trying to figure out what to give everyone on their gift lists, I'm trying to figure out what to figure out in my Chanukah article.  Go ahead read that sentence again and let me know if it makes sense.  The annual search for meaning in this joyous celebration is beckoning again.  It's never easy.  Chanukah presents the observer with certain problems not found in other holidays and historical clashes.  Usually, the bad guys in our tales were both really evil and stood for principles the world no longer considers legitimate.  The villains were easy to hate.  Not so, the Greeks.  There were Greeks whom our ancestors really liked, for example Alexander the Great, Ptolemy II, and Aristotle.  Plus, many Greek innovations and ideals still find adherents today.  We still admire many aspects of Greek culture, from the Parthenon to geometry.  So, when we scrutinize our Greek adversaries what do we find worth fighting against?

            At the outset, let me point out that Greek culture and philosophy are not monolithic.  They are very diverse, with many competing positions.  However, there are a couple of ideas which were held in common.  Two points of which I believe are central to our dispute with them.  First of all, the Greeks generally believed that they had all the answers.  The idea that mankind could solve every problem and understand every issue was fundamental to Greek philosophy.  Judaism never believed that   We Jews have believed from the outset that there would always be mysteries beyond our ken.  When Moshe asked God to see the Divine Glory, we understand the sentiment.  However, the response is that humans can't see the reality of God's greatness and still be denizens of this earthly abode.  We reject the Greek position, because we firmly believe that humans are limited, finite.  There will always be a new set of problems to solve as long as humans inhabit this world.  Science has come around to the Jewish position.  Very few modern physicists or biologists expect to get all the answers to all their questions.  Right now physicists are hot on the trail of a sub atomic particle called the Higgs boson, also called the God particle.  Scientists believe that this particle will help them understand that critical moment of the Big Bang when energy transformed into matter.  However, none of them think that we won't have new questions after this, like where did the energy come from?

            Secondly, Greeks lived in an anthropocentric universe, where mankind was the center of all.  The world was understood only as it related to mankind.  Humans were understood as above nature in ways that they ultimately believed that they could control the forces of the world.  The Greeks, therefore, claimed that the world was one of harmony and beauty.  The word cosmos actually means order.  That order derived from the machinations of mankind.  The real conflict with Greek culture wasn't over polytheism as with so many other ancient civilizations.  The real issue was the deification of man. We Jews on the other hand saw the world as theocentric.  God stands in the center of all things.  We stand in awe of the unlimited power of God and nature, which we neither control nor fully understand.  Even though we see man as the apex of Creation, astride all other creatures, nevertheless this is in the context of worship of God as the Cosmic Director.

            This is why it's so appropriate that Chanukah usually coincides with parshat Miketz.  Few sections of our Tanach are as clear on the fact that God controls the forces of nature and we are mere witnesses to its humbling power.  Yosef is considered the wisest and most capable man in Egypt not because he displayed any mastery over nature, but because he was able to observe and strategize tactics for surviving the ravages of the overwhelming drought and famine.  He continually tells Pharaoh and anyone else who will listen that what little skills he has for dream interpretation or long term planning all come from God.  Then we see our Patriarch Ya'akov, who has been renamed Yisrael or the one who strives with Divine power, totally devastated by the famine.  Greek heroes, like Ulysses, Perseus or Prometheus defy and even defeat the gods and the forces of nature.  No such characters exist in Jewish tradition.  Resistance to God is futile and folly, remember the story of Jonah.  He tries to flee from God, but that's impossible because God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.

            Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstien of Yeshivat Har Etziyon pointed out that:  The Greek stance was immoral not in and of itself, but rather in the priorities it set. Greek values were not completely wicked; rather, they were flawed, incomplete, and imbalanced, to such a degree that they became totally corrupt. The dominion of Man and his mastery over nature can be part of worship of the Creator, but Man's greatness can become so central that it becomes a religion in itself.

            We learn from this week's Torah reading the same message that we learned from Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami, namely that we can't control the forces of nature.  Religion teaches us the humility of worshipping forces that are greater than us.  Yosef was the great leader, because he understood this reality and used that wisdom to serve mankind, not elevate himself to demigod status.

            For the Jewish nation, the Chanukah War was the first modern conflict.  It wasn't modern because of the weaponry used.  It was modern because it was a war of clashing ideologies.  It was a modern struggle, because the dispute was nuanced, not a tension between black and white, but a divergence of shades of gray.  On Chanukah we really need the light of our candles to help differentiate between the beneficial and dangerous in the culture around us.  It's the hardest war we ever fought, and it's the war we continue to encounter in our world.   Happy Chanukah!     




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