Chanuka - in the Shadow of the Olympics
Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald
After the athletes have walked away with the gold; the financiers, the green; and the losers, the black and the blue; Olympics 2000 have but all been forgotten. For many, even amongst those who view sports as being crassly commercialised, this international sporting event has become a venerable icon only surpassed by the likes of Coca Cola and several animated Disney characters. For Jews, the Olympics carry special significance, since they were originally founded by the Greeks; the very same people who brought us the story of Chanuka and the victory of the Maccabees. Only the Olympic people were on the opposing team. However, the story goes back even further than that.
The Midrash says that the rise of Greece as the dominant world power in 337 B.C.E. was due to the meritorious act of their progenitor, Yefes, son of Noach1. After Noach and his family left the ark, Noach's son, Cham, obscenely disgraced his father when finding him in a state of drunkenness. Noach's other two sons, Shem and Yefes, sensitively covered the nakedness of their father, thus restoring his dignity.
For this act of nobility, Noach gave eternal blessings to his two righteous sons. Shem, who initiated the good deed, was blessed that his seed would be the forebears of spirituality on earth. This blessing was fulfilled with the birth of Avraham, a descendant of Shem, who is the forefather of the Jewish people. Yefes was blessed with aesthetic beauty, which became actualised by his descendant, Yavan, the father of the Greek Empire. Greece was the first civilisation in mankind which was committed to the advancement of art, architecture, literature, drama and philosophy and whose contributions carried over into the Roman Empire and are felt until our time.
But Noach's vision for the role of Yefes was not one typical of the patron of arts. Far from seeing the value of "art for art's sake", he felt that there should be a symbiotic relationship between Yefes, and his more spiritual brother, Shem. Shem was the essence; he had the message of spiritual supremacy to teach mankind. However the ordinary folk were incapable of appreciating the message as delivered by shem. Noach's blessing to Yefes was that his beauty and artistic flair "should be found in the tents of Shem"2. In the true marriage between form and function, Yefes the artist was enjoined to beautify the truths of Shem3.
This ideal was realised in the historic meeting between the legendary Greek ruler, Alexander the Great, and the Jewish Sage, Shimon HatzadikI. When Alexander saw Shimon Hatzadik he alighted from his chariot and bowed down before him. When Alexander's advisers asked why a great king like himself bowed down before this Jew, he replied, "An apparition, the likes of this man, appears before me on all my battlefields, and predicts the victory for me before each battle. Blessed is the G-d of Shimon Hatzadik"4. Through that gesture, the mighty world ruler acknowledged ultimate superiority to the spiritual heirs of mankind.
The Jewish sages held the positive aspects of Greek culture in mutual respect. Appreciating the expressive beauty of the Greek language, the sages made an exception to permit the Torah to be written in Greek5. The Rambam6, however, writes that while the halacha follows this opinion, Greek may no longer be used for Scripture, because the classic Greek that the sages permitted had become corrupted over time.
Unfortunately, the ideal symbiotic relationship between the Jews and Greeks was short lived. In Midrashic literature, each world power in history corresponds to a specific animal which shares the unique characteristics of that nation. The animal which corresponds to the Greek empire is the rabbit7. The rabbit os one of those rare animals which has just one of the two required characteristics of kosher animals; it chews its cud. Thus, the organs associated with its mouth has the potential for holiness, as was actualised through Alexander's humble homage to the G-d of Israel.
Ironically, Greece's ultimate perfection is linked tot he awareness of her deficiency; the rabbit's feet lack split hooves. The beautiful poetry of Homer, the noble philosophies of Aristotle, were all mental exercises. This is similar to the rabbit whose most conspicuous feature is its long ears, which exaggerate the head to much larger-than-life proportions. But those lofty ideals were divorced from their legs, the limb which controls action. The rabbit's short and stubby unsplit paws, demonstart that something's not kosher about it. Both Greece and the rabbit have an unusually big head for unusually small feet.
This dichotomy between Greece's noble mind and spirit on the one hand, and lack of physical control on the other, is best illustrated by the following vignette. Aristotle was well renowned for his brilliant ethical lectures which extolled the virtues of a moral life. Once he was discovered in a place of ill repute and was asked by the incredulous spectators for an explanation of his behaviour, which flew against all he preached. Aristotle appeared unfazed. In a very unphilosophical reply, he stated simply, "In the house of study, I am Aristotle. Here, I am not Aristotle."
At this point, Greece may counter in righteous indignation: "What right do you have to denigrate us for our moral lapses? You admit we were created with limited faculties for self control. So how can you expect any more from us? This is just the way we are."
To fully answer this question, and to understand the intended Divine plan for the Greek dynasty, again we have to return to our humble rabbit. In Proverbs, King Solomon describes four small weak creatures and how they wisely compensate for their natural handicap in order to survive. One of those creatures is the rabbit. "Rabbits, though no a mighty tribe, make their home in the rocks"8. The rabbit may lack the natural strength of other animals, but still attains the same level of security by choosing to dwell in a protected environment. Similarly, the perfection of Greece is achieved when following Noach's directive, "May Hashem extend Yefes, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem"9. This requires Yefes's awareness of his own moral deficiency, but even more important, the humility to submit to the nation which lives by spiritual ideals, the descendants of Shem: the Jews.
There is another interesting thing about rabbits. Gentle, cure and innocent looking, the rabbit family has a definite place in the world scheme. Like other animals in the ecosystem, they contribute a productive role to furtherance of life on the planer. But this is contingent if the rabbit is confined to its proper place and climate. If brought to another country, where its population can multiply unchecked, the innocent rabbit transforms into a powerful monstrosity. The situation becomes an intolerable "hare raising experience".
Like unfettered rabbits unleashed on Australian soil, the Hellenist Greeks too quickly forget their proper place. Forsaking the protective constraints of the tent of Shem, they sought to develop their culture unrestrictedly. Instead of harnessing art to the furtherance of G-dly ideals, they used their gifts of beauty to glorify the physical. Instead of romanticising spirituality, Hellenism glorified the wonder, attraction, passion, beauty and accomplishments of the human body.
"Like a golden ring in the snout of a pig, so is a beautiful woman whose good sense has departed"10. When observing something beautiful, one often feels a deep stirring in one's soul. On a deep level, this basic human emotion is derived from the yearnings of the soul, which is purely perfect, which longs to connect with things similar to itself. Physical perfection intimates to a deeper truer perfection - the spiritual dimension. As and expensive gold ring befits the human hand, we expect the external beauty of a woman to reflect similar inner qualities. When the two don't match, there is a profound disappointment; a gorgeous container promises delights but then has nothing to offer.
The Greeks' aggrandisement of physical prowess quickly led to an overblown sense of power. No longer the small timid rabbit it once was, Greek advancement of culture was combined with unspeakable barbarism and bloodshed. This more violent aspect of Greed behaviour is alluded to by another Midrash, which compares the Greeks not to a gentle rabbit, but to the powerful ram11. After successfully imposing Hellenistic culture upon all lands under their rule, the Greeks then turned towards their ideological nemesis which opposed all they stood for. The Torah of the Jews.
The Chanuka miracle was a result of a small band of loyal Jews who stood up against the Syrian army to uphold the honour of Hashem; the Chashmonaim. Unlike the mythical depictions of Maccabees as Shwartzenegger type muscle men, a contemporary account of the warriors were, "You [Hashem], delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah"12. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l observed that a more realistic description of the Maccabees would be a group of lanky, undernourished yeshiva students! (In a similar vein, the Chofetz Chaim a couple of millennia later, expressed regret that he didn't gather the yeshiva students of his time to wage war against the anti-religious Communist regime! He said that certainly some would die in the course of the battle. But he was confident that had they demonstrated self-sacrifice, they too would ultimately have been victorious, as was the case by the Chashmonaim.)
Hashem granted miraculous victory to this small army of G-d.
The Midrash draws several striking parallels between the Greeks and the Chashmonaim. The tribe of Levi, of whom the Chashmonaim comprised, was the third son of Jacob; the Greeks, the third world empire. Both have three letters in their Hebrew name, both wore distinct garments and both blew instruments, (the Levites, trumpets during the Temple service; the Greeks, trumpets of war.) But there was one stark difference between the two: the Greeks possessed a powerful large army; the Chashmonaim, a small weak one. And the large army fell in the hands of the small army13.
The yearly celebration of the Chanuka miracle proclaims that in the eternal conflict between the physical and spiritual, impure vs. pure, and brute force vs. righteousness, the ultimate victor is the spirit. In the Al Hanisim Chanuka prayer it says, "...And for the victories and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time." This means that the battle between the Greeks and the Maccabees is very much alive today. Western civilisation's obsession with glorifying the physical exploits of the human body in the arts, sports and war are the living legacy of Greek culture. And as the spiritual heirs of the Maccabees, our role is to oppose those vapid ideals.
The recent Olympic games brings out this point. While superficially appearing as an innocent pastime, it does not stand up to deeper scrutiny. In an international competition, one would imagine the wreaths of honour would be awarded to the country which aids its poor, sick and elderly the most, or possesses the lowest crime rate. But instead of such worthy ideals, the Olympics demonstrate their perception that the epitome of human development is represented by the country which can produce and individual who can run momentarily faster than a fox or dingo. (At least if the runners were EMT's, we can appreciate their swiftness in rushing to the aid of a hurt accident victim. Or if weight lifters would patrol crime-ridden areas to protect the innocent and the weak, that too would be an admiral quality. But if after the events, the athletes do nothing more useful than wave their arms in victory, drink a few bottles of Gatorade, and land fat contracts to promote dieting aids or underarm deodorants, something stinks about the whole affair.)
But all this is not surprising, in light of the fact that the Olympics has its roots in ancient Greece. The Greeks worshipped the Temple of the human body, and nothing more important existed outside of it. But there is an even darker side of the Greek value system. Narcisstic idolisation of the body leads to egocentricity, and finally, violent behaviour. The ancient Greeks represented the epitome of culture and philosophy, but at the same time were unspeakably cruel and barbaric. Athens and Sparta were both military societies constantly at war, plundering, capturing slaves, and holding scant regard and tolerance for human life. Even to their own they exhibited cruelty, as demonstrated by the ancient Spartan custom of abandoning their weak and deformed infants to die in the woods.
This dichotomy in which terrible cruelty can coexist with art and beauty, has a modern day parallel which is especially relevant to Jews. There is an ugly reality which lurks behind the glitzy facade of the modern day Olympics. In 1936, well after Hitler began his vicious persecution of the Jews, the International Olympic Committee had no problem allowing the Olympics to take place in Nazi Germany. Nor did any country boycott the Olympics because of Germany's brutal treatment of the Jews. Thirty-six years later, 1972 Munich, the Olympics again displayed its same darker side. Oblivious to the dignity of human life, the Munich games continued even while PLO terrorists massacred two Israelis and held the remaining Israel Olympic team hostage at gunpoint within sight of the area. There is even television footage of athletes sunning themselves in the Olympic village, while a short distance away a terrorist with a machine gun pokes his head out of a window, where the Israelis were held hostage. Not only were the games not cancelled, but not one of the Olympic teams of the other nations had the decency to leave Munich with the survivors of the Israeli contingent.
Ironically, the Olympics preside with a cloak of nobility. This is due in great part to the solemn opening ceremony which has spiritual, if not religious, overtones. With pomp and splendour a flaming torch is borne over vast distances and finally ignited upon an altar-like edifice. This spectacle is the actualisation of Noach's blessing to Yefes, granting him the ability to produce moving symbolism which triggers strong emotions in the eyes of the spectators. But while fire and light are true metaphors of spiritual concepts, the torch relay is just another example of the Grecian ability to dress even the emptiest activities in a respectable wrapping.
The Midrash relates that when the archangel of Esau fought with Yaakov, the angel struck his finger in the ground and the ground shot out a flame, in order to scare him. Yaakov told him, "With your little spark you wish to scare me? I'm all fire."14 The Chanuka lights proclaim a similar message. The modern-day Greeks of the world use flames and lights to sublimate their worthless causes and to convince themselves that they are the rightful bearers of a light in this world. But in the eyes of the Jews, those flames are no more than artificial sparks. We possess the true light and a real fire. And that spiritual light is symbolised by the lights of the menora which we light each night of Chanuka.
1 Eliyahu Rabba20.
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