One, less than serious, answer to the question of why we eat an abundance of fried foods during the glorious days of Chanukah is that we do so to counter the Greeks and their worldview. Because the villains of the Chanukah story exalted the human body and the beauty of its form, we eat particularly fattening foods to demonstrate our lack of concern for physical appearance!
While meant as a joke, the premise of this response is a solid one. The Greeks did, in fact, glorify the human body, and the military victory of Chanukah which culminated in the miracle of the oil during the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash does embody a deeper triumph over the worldview the Hellenists sought to force upon the Jewish nation. Indeed, it is this underlying battle between the Jewish and Greek worldviews that transforms the Chanukah tale from a set of historical events into a living fountain of insight and relevance for our holy nation in every place and for all time. In order to appreciate the nature of this conflict and its meaning for us, today, it is important first to dig beyond the surface of the Greek fascination with the human body and its external appearance.
Our sages teach that the human being is a microcosm of the world. One implication of this foundational concept is that, just as the human being is a composite of body and soul, so too is the world similarly composed of two elements – an external layer of physicality, the world we can see, feel, hear, smell, touch, and thus comprehend, as well as an interior layer of spirituality, a fountain of ineffable essence from which all perceptible reality derives. The tzaddikim explain that the Greek esteem for the strength and beauty of the human body was only the most specific expression of a more general worldview, one that denied the existence of a spiritual realm and recognized only the tangible, physical layer of reality. Whatever couldn’t be sensed, whatever couldn’t be explained or understood was flatly presumed not to exist, and a cultural sentiment echoed in every crevice of Greek life, “whatever there is to know, that we shall know someday.”
This perspective is, of course, absolutely antithetical to the fundamental foundations of the Torah. The same Torah that describes the first man as having both an earthly component, “afar min ha’adamah”, as well as an animating spiritual essence rooted in the infinite Creator, “vayipach b’apo nishmas chayim” (Bereishis 2:7), goes on to outline a lifestyle that often frequently defies human comprehension and places on a pedestal those things which, to the Greek mind, seem absolutely pointless.
A prime example of this approach is the primacy of Torah study in the life of a Jew. Consider this individual, slumped over an ancient text for hours on end, pondering hair-splitting dialectics which often carry no consequence even within the realm of Jewish observance. What is he accomplishing? What did he create, invent, originate, produce? How does this scholarship benefit the world? Even within our very own communities, there is often a sentiment of scorn; a feeling that those who have devoted their lives to Torah study (within the parameters of reasonable responsibility, a subject beyond the scope of this article) are somehow less-than, that they do nothing all day and then rely on the financial success of those who actually accomplished something in the world for support. The ancient Greeks may have been long defeated, but their influence lingers still – the common assumption that the value of a thing depends on its perceptibility, on the import of its functionality for the physical world.
To the Jewish mind, the exact opposite is true. The soul’s invisibility does nothing to detract from the reality that it alone powers the body with all of its remarkable processes. On the contrary, this invisibility is an effect of the soul’s ability to animate – it derives from a realm beyond this world, a realm of life-force that transcends the physical reality around us. And the stronger the soul grows, the more vibrant the body will become, the more its capacity to function will increase. Similarly, while the effects of Torah study may not be readily perceivable in the physical realm, it is Torah study that keeps funds in the bank accounts of those who support yeshivos and kollelim, not the other way around. “Were it not for My covenant day and night, I would not maintain the strictures of heaven and earth,” (Yermiyahu 33:20) “Im ein Torah, ein kemach.” ( Avos 3:17) All life-force and vitality in the world, that then allows for development and accomplishment in the physical layer of reality, is a result of Torah study, not despite the fact that our eyes can’t see exactly how this works, but because of it.
The yom tov of Chanukah represents the rectification of the Greek perspective on existence and its residual impact on minds and hearts, even today. In parshas Vayishlach, Yaakov Avinu battles the angel of Eisav, a battle from which he emerges victorious – but not before the angel succeeds in damaging Yaakov’s thigh. The Zohar HaKadosh (Vayishlach 171a) teaches that the thighs, which represent the traits of Netzach and Hod, are the place of the “Tamchin d’Oraysa”, those that support Torah study, which is rooted in the sefirah of Tiferes that sits above them. This blemish in the place of Netzach and Hod, referred to by the Gemara as “the shaky legs of the Talmidei Chachomim” (Berachos 6a), takes the form of the seductive Greek perspective that causes a weakening of our appreciation for Torah study, leading to a far lesser level of support for the proliferation of that which literally fortifies every particle of physicality that it deserves. However, the Arizal teaches that the days of Chanukah serve to rectify these traits of Netzach and Hod. These days fortify the Jewish perception of and reverence for the ineffable spiritual realm that underlies the physical dimension, our faith in that which transcends what our limited minds can grasp and the essence that fills all of physicality with meaning. Fascinatingly, Chazal teach that the small jug of oil Yaakov Avinu crossed the Yabok River to retrieve was the very same jug of oil that would later last for eight nights in the miracle of Chanukah. (Birchas Shemuel, parshas Mikeitz) “Hikdim refuah l’makah” (Megillah 13b) – the Greek influence of Hellenistic leanings inflicted upon the supporters of Torah by Eisav’s angel would be rectified by the very small jug that Yaakov had gone back for. The light of miracles, eight nights that transcend the sevenness of perceptible nature, connection to the soul of existence – this is the victory over the presence of the miniature Greek that abides within our hearts and minds each Chanukah anew.
This theme surfaces again in the actual Chanukah candles themselves. Unlike other candles used in our tradition – Shabbos candles, the candle for bedikas chometz, or the havdallah candle, the Chanukah candles are forbidden to be used. This seems strange. Of what function is the kindling of lights that serve no pragmatic purpose? Additionally, unlike the other candles mentioned above, it is only the Chanukah candles that are referred to as “holy”. Why is that?
Based on what we have learned, the answer to these questions should be fairly intuitive. The Chanukah candles encapsulate the essential message embodied in our victory over the Greeks and their culture, reminding us that the value of a thing is not limited to its functionality, how we can make use of it in the material world. There is more to life, more to reality, more to the human being than what meets the eye or can be grasped by the mind. Therefore, the primary mitzvah of Chanukah involves the performance of an action whose apparent functionality is then specifically restricted, for the purpose of communicating this message, that there are things whose value is determined not by the tools of assessment in our physical world, but by their meaning in the hidden realm, in terms that transcend the human mind’s capacity to comprehend. “Haneiros hallalu kodesh heim”, a shiver shakes our being when we stare into these eternal flames not because of their overt implications in our physical reality, but specifically because of their holiness, their separateness, the concealment of their true essence in the spiritual realm above.
In Rebbe Nachman’s seminal tale, The Lost Princess, we are told of a king who has six sons and one daughter. As we explore at great length in my explanation of this tale, The Story of Our Lives, the king’s children – six and one – represent contrasting elements; the six sons allude to the six days of the week, days of external action, accomplishment, and tangible success, while the princess alludes to Shabbos Malkesah, a day of soul, faith, and inwardness. As the story’s title suggests, this element of the princess frequently becomes lost along the personal and communal journey. We become obsessed with externalities, oblivious to the depth of life, to the spirituality that exists within everything – even within the realm our religious observance itself. This focus on the “six sons” of life to the detriment of the princess is the influence of Yavan, whose three Hebrew letters – Yud, Vav, and Nun – point progressively downward: away from the spiritual realm of concealment, of silence, and into the din of the revealed, tangible world below.
Chanukah allows us to regain a connection with the princess of youthful simplicity, wonder, vibrancy, and depth. When we kindle these flames in a low place, illuminating the cold darkness of winter, we are able to tap into the soul of reality, channeling a world of warmth and vitality, a world of miracles, down into the revealed mundanity of our everyday lives.
With Hashem’s help, may we merit for the dancing flames of the Chanukah candles to fortify our essential Jewishness, our faith in the spiritual realm and the unique ability of our holy nation to discover this energy, the presence of the Creator, from behind the veil of reality. Wishing you ah lichtigen Chanukah!