It was a Friday afternoon, a short winter Friday, and I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office on the bad side of town. On a fluke, we hadn’t been able to get insurance clearance before this date, and this was the only possible time and place to cross some essential t’s and dot some vital i’s before a long holiday break. The place was grimy, the secretary resentful of being there alone before a holiday weekend, and the characters in the waiting room were very colorful. The loud, often crude and angry, conversations filled the air and I felt completely out of place. We sat in a corner seat, right in front, next to the receptionist’s desk, and very carefully minded our own business.
Two people sitting in room got into a loud fight, and others felt the need to join in the argument. We huddled further down in our seat and just waited for our turn. From the corner of my eye, I saw a tough looking lady brush into the office and come straight up to the receptionist saying she needs to talk privately. I tilted my body away, and continued to very carefully fade into the background.
The clock ticked on, and we were finally seen, tested, and sent back to the waiting area to wait for results. We sat right back down next to the receptionist and waited. Suddenly, the door of the exam room opened, and that same lady walked out with her child. She did a sweeping look around the crowded waiting room, and marched straight to me. I looked up, somewhat alarmed and very cautious, and waited to see what she would say.
The Bitter Cold Kislev
We’ve mentioned before that the Torah divides the year into six seasons. Kislev, the month of Chanuka, enters us into the season of Choref, the harsh winter months. It is now the dead of the winter, and windy storms and cold rain abound. Days are short, and the moon reigns over long and dark nights. Forestry and vegetation have long since browned and died, and animals have hibernated or migrated, leaving man alone in the darkness. We’re told that Adam HaRishon, upon experiencing the shortening of days and the prolonged darkness, despaired, thinking that the world would progressively end. Though we know in our minds that the darkness isn’t everlasting, at this time of year it is all too easy to fall into a similar despair.
Interestingly, the winter, Choref, is a time in which the Oral Torah, the Torah she’baal peh, flourishes, as it is compared to the night time, while the written Torah is compared to day. Chazal teach us that just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, the Oral Torah reflects the written Torah. In fact, when Moshe Rabbainu was on Har Sinai for 40 days, he did not sleep or eat, and only kept track of the passage of time based on what he learned: Day time was for learning the written Torah, and night time for the oral. In keeping with this rule, both of the holidays of the winter, Chanuka and Purim, are rabbinical in nature and thus tied to our oral tradition.
Sefer Yetzira lists an attribute or concept that each month is connected to. The month of Kislev is linked to the word ‘שינה’, sleep. Animals have hibernated, nature is dormant, and the world is steeped in darkness. Though the world continues to rotate and survive, the presence of Hashem is hidden, as He too seems to be sleeping.
Galus Yavan, and indeed, the philosophy of the Greeks, fits right into this mentality. In the very beginning of the Torah, this galus is hinted to with the word: וחושך, and darkness. While all exiles, by definition, are times of darkness, there is something especially dark and sinister about Yavan. Let’s explore what the essence of the Greeks and their philosophy was, in the context of the month and time of year.
What the Greeks Believed
Darkness is by nature most dangerous when we don’t realize how dark it is; statistically, accidents happen most frequently at dusk, when people are not quite aware and adjusted to how dark it’s gotten. The comparison of Yavan to choshech, darkness, is apt because of the specific danger they posed. Their darkness was snaring and lethal precisely because it did not present itself as darkness, but rather as enlightenment and wisdom, presenting the image of a parallel universe in which G-d was irrelevant and physicality was sublime.
Chazal compare Yavan to the trait of wisdom. They represent this trait because they were able to present their views as enlightenment and wisdom. They approached the Jews with philosophical explanations, contending that our views and theirs were not too far apart, and surely with debate and bipartisanship our nations could come closer together. More dangerous than Haman’s threat to kill outright the entire nation, this trap ensnared the souls and caused many to abandon their faith, as it did not attack outright, but hid instead under a guise of sophistication and attacked covertly.
The darkness they represented seeped sneakily into the mindsets of the people. They sought to corrupt our wisdom, to skew our view of the world and our role within it. They sought to corrupt our understanding of the Torah, relegating spirituality to the back burner and claiming that it was no longer relevant. They preached of the sole importance of the physical body, and claimed that there may or may not have been a G-d that created the world—who cares—but certainly He was no longer involved. The tainted oil is the quintessential example of the damage the Yevanim wrought—a subtle, spiritual, taint. Chazal symbolize the trait of wisdom with oil. Thus, the contaminated oil parallels the contamination of Torah-true philosophy.
Oddly, the Yevanim instructed the Jews to print a verse declaring that they had no part in the G-d of Israel on an ox’s horn. An ox’s horn was significant both in that it represented prosperity, as ownership of cattle equaled wealth, and also in that the horns were used to feed the young, as makeshift bottles. Let’s try to understand what point they were trying to make.
The Yevanim’s contention was that man is purely physical. To them, spirituality was unenlightened and backwards, and man was merely the perfected animal specimen. The Yidden, to the contrary, believed of course, that man was a combination of physical and spiritual—a body with a soul, placed on Earth to perfect his spirituality by harnessing his bodily needs. By telling the Yidden to inscribe this on the horn of an ox, they wanted to bring them down a notch by reminding them of the sin with the golden calf. They wanted to claim to B’nai Yisrael that if they could sin so greatly immediately after a grand Divine revelation, that in itself was a proof that by nature man was nothing but that of an animal, of whom nothing better could be expected.
The answer to this claim is found in that very same ox’s horn. After Adam Harishon sinned, he brought a sacrifice as a means of teshuva. Chazal teach that the animal he chose was an ox—one that had just one horn. The lesson, teaches the Sh”lah, in bringing an animal sacrifice is for the person to see the death of the animal and to relate it back upon himself, thus feeling deeper repentance. The danger is relating too much to the animal, and deciding that perhaps spirituality is too much to expect from a mere human.
Adam, with his sin, lost the incredibly elevated spiritual level he was created on. Before he sinned, his face had a Heavenly glow, a glow that Moshe Rabbainu later earned when we are told, “קרן עור פניו” (karan ohr panav, the skin of his face shone). Adam chose an animal that also had a “קרן”—in this context, a keren, horn—on its face to show that he was aspiring to regain his lost level, and not resigning himself to an animalistic life.
Yefes, the ancestor of Yavan, was blessed with beauty: יפת אלוקים ליפת. But the possuk continues, וישכון באהלי שם, commonly translated as, “and He (Hashem) will dwell in the tents of Shem.” The meforshim, however, read an additional meaning into the possuk, saying that the subject of the second verse is still beauty—Hashem has granted beauty to Yefes, but still it (true beauty) dwells in the tents of Shem, our ancestor.
B’nai Yisrael don’t deny that there is beauty and pleasure to be found in the physical, yet, we seek to utilize the physical in service of Hashem. This is the line that the Yevanim sought to blur. They were saying, “We’re an ox! That’s what we aspire to: beauty, strength, and prosperity!” B’nai Yisrael would answer by agreeing to the value of beauty, strength, and prosperity, but saying that all of those are there only to serve something of even higher value, asserting that we, humans, can control our natures and impact the world around us.
(This was also the meaning behind the ban on Rosh Chodesh, the execution of which seems fairly minor compared to the actions of Shabbos, Bris Milah, and Talmud Torah. In essence, when a Bais Din declared Rosh Chodesh it showed that we are the rulers of nature, going against the philosophy of the Yevanim.)
The Yevanim believed that the spirituality, like nature in the middle of the winter, was dead. That Hashem, like animals and nature alike, was dormant or absent. They didn’t necessarily believe He didn’t exist—after all, they didn’t want the Jews to inscribe on the ox’s horn that there is no G-d. Their concern was that we shouldn’t feel like He is relevant—their inscription of choice was “I have no part in the G-d of Israel”–the G-d who they claim is still around, just hiding His face; the G-d who says that beauty and physicality have a part in His service but are not ends of their own; the G-d who says that He is still relevant and people can aspire to serve Him—that is the G-d they were renouncing.
We mentioned previously that Kislev is the month associated with shainah, sleep. The Yevanim wanted to say that the Master of the World is asleep and that the world was running on its own, automatically cycling through the linear calendar. Their argument was that the Creator is gone, and that there is nothing new under the sun, and no depth beyond what the eye could see. Our answer, in clinging to our mitzvos, like Rosh Chodesh, was that we are a nation that lives by the moon, and monthly joins in with the very present and active Creator to move the spiritual forces of each month in and out.
Parashas Mikeitz is always read around Chanuka time, usually on Shabbos Chanuka, because the message of the parasha directly connects to how we are supposed to connect to this holiday. Let’s explore the parasha briefly and draw a connection.
Pharaoh wakes up, disturbed by a dream. He goes back to sleep, only to have a similar dream. He decides that the dream must have a meaning or message, and seeks an answer. His steward recalls a young man who correctly interpreted dreams while he was in jail, who was even able to predict his final judgment and that of his cellmate. Yosef is brought before Pharaoh and gives his interpretation: for 7 years, he says, the land of Egypt will be blessed with bountiful produce. The land will be prosperous and rain would be plentiful. These seven years would be followed by seven years of scarcity; of drought, hunger, and starvation. During the seven years of bounty, Yosef continues, provisions must be made to store food and plan ahead for the upcoming years of hunger. Pharaoh, who previously rejected all other interpretations, accepts Yosef’s words and appoints him in charge of the storage and provisions.
The odd detail here is that it seems that Yosef is offering his own solution, when all he was asked to give was an interpretation. The Ramnan teaches that Yosef did not in fact give his own solution, but that it was included in his interpretation of the details of Pharaoh’s dream, and was part of the message of the dream. Pharaoh, too, when he heard Yosef’s words, recognized them as the true and full interpretation and nothing more.
The solution was a message from Hashem regarding how to act in times of light so as to be prepared for times of darkness. The miracle of Chanuka happened at a time of darkness. Yavan, with all their attributes of darkness, confusion, and corruption, attacked us at a spiritual low point and tried to trap us into thinking that they were the enlightenment and that Hashem’s providence was no more. We then experienced miracles and wonders that made Hashem’s love and involvement with us clear as day—a virtual beam of light in the darkness.
Chazal learned the lesson implanted in Pharaoh’s dream, and knew that it wasn’t enough that they celebrate only in that generation. They knew, that along a journey of exiles lasting hundreds of years, there would be many times of darkness, of Hester Panim, of temptations of false enlightenment that would cross the path of the Jews. And just as Pharoh was meant to save from the good years to nourish his people in the bad years, Chazal took the light of the miracles performed בימים ההם, in those days, and established a holiday that would carry the light across many exiles, בזמן הזה.
Back to our story…
To my absolute shock, she addressed me in a broken Hebrew to see if I was Jewish before switching back to English.
She asked me for my name. Still hesitant as to who she was and why she wanted to know, I didn’t answer and waited instead for her to elaborate. (Let me just point out that this was a bad area, an area where I’d often be stopped multiple times on my way to my car by people obviously under the influence of various substances looking for money.) She sat down beside me and pulled out her phone, and started to explain.
“Last year,” she said, “I myself had a surgery. Not here, not this kind of doctor, I’m here for my child too. But while I waited to be rolled into the ER, an observant Jewish lady who was waiting for the same surgery told me that if we each pray for one another, our prayers will reach G-d and we will both be answered. When I saw you sitting here, I thought that maybe this is the reason G-d sent me in today.”
I was entranced. “So you’re better now—your surgery was successful and so was hers?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’m better, but we didn’t exchange anything but Hebrew names. I pray for her that she is better, but I don’t know. Let’s exchange names now for our children, and pray for each other.”
We did—no names, no numbers, just Hebrew names for davening—and with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, she breezed out. Seconds later, we were called in for our results and we were out the door too. But I no longer questioned or bemoaned where G-d had placed us this short, winter Friday, clinging instead to the warmth I felt.
By day, may Hashem command His kindess [towards us] יומם יצוה ה’ חסדו
and even at night, may His song/dwelling be with me ובלילה שירה עימי
[This is] my prayer to the G-d of my life! תפילה לקל חיי
Throughout our lives, Hashem does many kindnesses for us. We have our individual times of darkness, where we struggle to see Him, struggle to remain steadfast in our belief that He still cares and wants us to try. The times where we see His chessed and his hand clearly are likened to the day time, when the sun shines bright and clear. Our job is to learn the lesson of Chanuka from Yosef too, and at times of darkness, when the philosophy of the Yevanim seems wise, to have some real light to draw back on. When we have our own nissim v’niflaos, miracles and wonders, then, in our hearts, we make a song of joy, of gratitude, of Hashem’s love and light…and that sustains us in the dark. A beam of light at a hard time…a seeming coincidence that feels like a Divine wink…these experiences have the power to sustain us.
When we enter our homes, the mezuzah, a symbol of Divine presence and protection, is on our right side. The Chiddushai Harim points out that the menorah which is placed on the left side as we enter, is on our right side as we exit—almost like a mezuzah as we enter the outside world. The outside world has by and large bought into the enlightenment of the Yevanim, with atheist and agnostics abound, and little expectation that man should be anything but the animal lucky enough to be at the top of the food chain. As we leave our houses and enter this world, our protection is to remember the pure oil, the pure wisdom of the Torah and the message of Hashem’s constant presence.
May the light of Chanuka light our souls afire, and keep us warm and lit through dark times, and may we merit to notice the miracles and wonders, sparks of light, that Hashem, in His infinite kindness, sends our way…
שעשה ניסים לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה…
…Who did miracles for our forefathers, in those days, and in our times