| At the Core |

Be Bold

What distinguishes our chochmah from the wisdom of the Greeks?


sk a child which animal he associates with the Chanukah story and he’ll likely answer an elephant. Elephants were the prehistoric version of a tank, and when straddled by a battle-hardened Greek soldier, they were a military’s most-feared apparatus.

These colossal animals featured significantly in the battles waged between the Chashmonaim and the Greeks; Elazar HaMaccabee was crushed and killed by a collapsing elephant.

However, when we examine the Chanukah story through the lens of the Torah, the dominant creature is not an elephant, but rather… a leopard.


The Leopard Nation

Sefer Daniel recounts a famous nevuah where Daniel perceives the four principal nations to enslave Klal Yisrael as four different animals. Far from a random pairing of animal and nation, each creature embodied the defining essence of its corresponding nation. A leopard is the animal who symbolizes Yavan (Assyrian Greece). What is their common characteristic?

“Yehudah ben Teima says: Be bold as a leopard… to do the will of your Father in Heaven” (Avos: 5:20). Chazal distinguish a leopard by its tendency toward azus, boldness.

While a bold character may strike us as somewhat unrefined, the Maharal (Ner Mitzvah) specifies azus as a prerequisite for chochmah, wisdom. Chazal’s statement “ein habaishan lomeid, a shy person isn’t able to learn” confirms what we know intuitively to be true: Acquisition of chochmah largely depends on one’s ability to be bold and brazen in its pursuit.

Reticence, whether from fear of failure and ridicule or from an inability to question dogma, inhibits intellectual growth. Indeed, Greek culture is synonymous with the dogged pursuit of wisdom: Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, Homer, and Socrates are just a handful of the great minds nurtured and grown in ancient Greece.

Theoretically, the Greeks’ quest for chochmah should have bonded them to the Jews, a nation whose devotion to wisdom far surpassed their own. However, it was the parity between the two nations that instigated the Greeks’ relentless pursuit of the Jews. As the Maharal in Ner Mitzvah explains, when the Greeks recognized the chochmah of the Jews as infinitely superior to theirs, they were consumed with jealousy and resolved to eradicate that which shamelessly overshadowed their own.

What distinguishes our chochmah from the wisdom of the Greeks?

Greek wisdom is predicated on the ability to perceive the world. Their rise to power coincided with the termination of nevuah, and its counterpart, annulment of the yetzer for avodah zarah. With the compulsion for avodah zarah eliminated, man’s reflexive search upward for meaning, and the belief in a higher power, dissolved as well.

The Greeks were the first nation to embody this shift, most demonstrably in their ardent preoccupation with nature. No longer content to rely on the machinations of Heaven, they attributed power and meaning only to what they could observe with their human senses; G-d was not included in this equation.

Choosing nature and human ability over Hashem takes astonishing azus. The Greeks brazenly deified man and invested his intellect with the ultimate power to parse the world. As the first nation to boldly change the script on religious devotion and close the curtain on belief in the supernatural, Yavan effectively cast mundane, limited humans at the center of reality.


What? or Why?

The Greek fixation with the observable natural world is likely what garnered them considerable achievements in math, the sciences, and philosophy. On a perpetual search to fathom the physical environment, they were consumed with the question of “what”: What is this entity? What are its outstanding characteristics? In what way does it react to stimulus? What is its basic composition?

Greek wisdom was called “chochmah chitzonis,” externally focused wisdom; they were preoccupied with the observable, quantifiable aspects of the world. In their overwhelming quest to fathom the “what” of the matter, the question of “why” was never addressed.

Our wisdom, sourced from the Torah, is chochmah Elokis: Wisdom derived from Hashem. Chochmah Elokis addresses not the “what” of the matter, but the “why”: Why is this here? Why did Hashem create it with these specific characteristics?

Through this question — the “why” of the matter — we endeavor to discover the purpose of His creations and how He wishes us to use them to serve Him.

Fingers are wondrous things. Perfectly spaced, tapered to grasp, reach, feel, or scratch, they’re perhaps our most frequently used appendages. Were Greek wisdom, chochmah chitzonis, to examine our fingers, they’d likely invest penetrating thought into the “what”: What are these projections? What is their physiological makeup? What enables their incredible flexibility, their precise movements?

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 673)

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Tagged: Fundamentals