Days of Darkness| January 1, 2020
Today, we walk in darkness — but we strive for the light
Chanukah has ended, yet the memory of the Chanukah lights that burned so brightly has not faded. Our triumph over the Greeks and their tenets is one we carry on with pride. But a mere week after we put away our menorahs, we encounter a pervasive darkness as we recall how the Greeks did manage to snuff out much of our greatest light — our Torah.
The Gemara in Taanis relates that on the 8th of Teves, Ptolemy (known as Ptolemy II — Philadelphus) commanded the Torah be translated into Greek. On that day, three days of darkness descended on the world. Ezra Hasofer died on the 9th of Teves, signifying the devastating end of prophecy in Klal Yisrael. On the 10th of Teves, Nevuchadnetzar surrounded the walls of Yerushalayim.
Chronologically, the translation of the Torah, or Targum Shiv’im, was the last of these three events. Yet, teaches Rav Moshe Shapiro (Shiurei Rabbeinu, Rav Yosef Braunstein), it is the power of the incomparable tragedy of the translation of Torah that brands all three of these days as “the three days of darkness.”
Maseches Sofrim (1:7) draws a parallel between this event and the Sin of the Golden Calf. He explains that the reason for this analogy is that the Torah could never be fully translated. Rav Shapiro reminds us that the Sin of the Golden Calf is the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish People — one for which we have yet to receive complete atonement.
What was the great loss at the time of Golden Calf? What precious opportunity was crushed with the broken shards of our first set of Luchos? Perhaps if we understand this we can understand the darkness of the translation of the Torah.
“The Luchos were fashioned by Hashem,” the Torah tells us, “and the writing was the writing of Hashem inscribed on the Luchos” (Shemos 32:16). The second set, lovingly inscribed by Moshe Rabbeinu, are the ones passed on for posterity, while the shards of the G-dly ones lay beside them in the holy Aron.
All the losses commemorated during these three days actually share a common theme with the tragic loss of the first Luchos.
Rav Shapiro quotes the Beis HaLevi, who explains that the loss of the first set of Luchos was a loss of supernatural G-dliness. All of the Torah that has been extracted and derived throughout history was inherently apparent from the first Luchos. Instead, to acquire Torah, Klal Yisrael would have to derive and discover — a process of beauty and growth, to be sure, but one that has incurred much struggle, strife, and loss. We no longer have a direct connection with Heaven; this is the source of every bit of confusion, misinterpretation, and even complete distortion of Torah throughout the ages.
The Silence of Hashem
The loss of Ezra Hasofer signifies an end of prophecy. The Talmud, in Gittin 56b, quotes the verse from Az Yashir (Shemos 15): Who is like You among the gods, Hashem? From the words “ba’eilim Hashem,” Rabi Yishmael extrapolates, Who is like You ba’ilmim, Hashem? Ba’ilmim — among the silent. The cessation of prophecy signifies G-d becoming silent. He no longer communicates directly with man. Though there was a small group of later prophets, their messages were mostly ruach hakodesh, Divinely inspired. The death of Ezra ushered in the silence of Hashem.
Today, there are so many of us who fail to see or hear Hashem in our lives. That silence of Hashem is what causes the shrouded mystery of so much of our personal and national suffering.
To this we must respond with a valiant commitment to seek Hashem and serve Him despite the pain of the distance. We can build closeness by striving to find meaning and purpose in our learning, davening, and mitzvos.
Nevuchadnetzar’s siege of Yerushalayim further represents a minimization, a squeeze.
This theme of minimization, of restriction, is best symbolized in the translation of the Torah. Each letter in the Torah holds layers of meaning, each word holds so many nuances. The Mishnah, the Talmud, and countless commentators — including the more modern commentary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch — highlight endless lessons derived from specific words and sentence structures.
All of that is squashed in the Greek translation — a sophisticated but ultimately empty text.
“In that momentous translation the Greeks ‘stripped’ the Torah and left it naked,” the Chasam Sofer wrote. “What is a Torah that is not a Jewish Torah? It is a string of letters and words without Hashem! The Maharal teaches that the very shape of the letters and flow of the words contain myriad deep secrets of Torah.”
Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that all of these tragedies can be reduced to two basic themes: hiskatnus and pizur, reduction and dispersion.
When the Torah was translated, it was placed in a siege and in a stranglehold. When prophecy was lost, we lost our potential to reach Hashem; we were placed in a siege and stranglehold. When Yerushalyim was surrounded by Nevuchadnetzar, the Shechinah was placed in a siege and stranglehold.
The Zohar teaches that Yisrael, the Torah, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu are one — and the tragedies of Teves affected each one.
Seeking the Light
These themes have accompanied our people throughout our long and bitter galus. This is the darkness that the Chashmonaim lit up. While their battle was brief, their triumph continues to propel us to seek the light despite the darkness, to search for the Truth in a world that is morally decrepit, and to toil in Torah and let its light shine.
The dangers of darkness are twofold. You can lose your sense of direction — but you also may mistake a stray path for the one of truth. It is our job, therefore to constantly seek and fight for the light.
Yeshayahu Hanavi (9:1) assures us that we can — and will! — fight the darkness. “The nation that walked in darkness saw great light.”
Today, we walk in darkness — but we strive for the light. We know that our history and our galus have placed us in a siege and stranglehold, but with equal confidence we know that we can break free, that we can blossom and flourish.
We are not confined to darkness; our neshamos connect to the Eternal Light of Hashem and His Torah.
Rebbetzin Aviva Feiner is the rebbetzin of Far Rockaway’s Congregation Kneseth Israel (The White Shul) as well as a mechaneches in TAG and a visiting lecturer at Stern College.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 674)
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