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In Control of What Matters

Man alone has the capacity to say “no” to himself


When the tomes of history speak of ancient Greece, it is as the standard-bearer of intellectual and cultural enlightenment in antiquity. But where the historians see light, Chazal saw only the blackest darkness. V’choshech al pnei s’hom, zu Yavan — “choshech,” they tell us, refers to Greece. And the metaphor of darkness appears again when Chazal teach that when Ptolemy compelled the translation of the Torah into Greek, “three days of darkness descended upon the world.”

What happens when the world goes dark for someone? He’s not dead or injured; he’s physically and mentally intact. But the inability to see anything at all renders him immobile, inert, almost lifeless, save for his basic senses of hearing, smell, and touch. Even in his own home, surrounded by everything that’s most familiar and comforting to him, he is a prisoner, chained to his place by invisible shackles. It is a particularly excruciating form of psychic torture, as the Egyptians learned during the three days of Makkas Choshech.

Greek society celebrated the fullness of human self-expression, the seemingly limitless aesthetic, physical, and intellectual potential of the individual. This was humanism at its best. The problem is that just as Communists have little use for the simple folk of the commune, many humanists don’t truly have all that much regard for humans.

True, these self-conceived champions of the human spirit believe deeply in the freedom to self-actualize, to realize one’s potential in every possible way. Yet their conception of humanness is fatally flawed, because it doesn’t account for humanity’s defining feature — a soul. To be ignorant of the soul’s existence is no less tragic than to be introduced to human physiology by a copy of Gray’s Anatomy missing the section devoted to a not inconsequential organ called the heart.

And as a result of that flawed conception, self-actualization is reduced to nothing more than the unfettered ability to do what one desires, when and where he wants to do it, without restraint of any kind. Bereft of a soul — sometimes known as “conscience” — one is a very advanced form of animal, not a human.

Man alone has the capacity to say “no” to himself, to deny himself his desires based on moral principle. The possibility of self-mastery, to be powerful and independent and thus G-d-like, is the source of his uniquely human dignity. And it should be obvious that only someone who believes in human uniqueness is the true humanist.

The Greeks sat in darkness, pathetically unaware of the very existence of a human soul within. They sat there, chained to their limited conception of human reality, unable to break free to soar and soar ever higher. They could develop the mind, the body, the aesthetic sense, within the limits of their physical selves. But no further. Eventually, there was always a ceiling to bump up against. They could become highly accomplished Homo sapiens  — but not angelic beings, reflections of the Infinite who could partake of eternity.

All this is not to say we Jews, whose awareness of the human soul makes us the ultimate humanists, believe humans are all-powerful. Chazal teach, after all, that hakol b’Yedei Shamayim, meaning we control almost nothing of what goes on in the world at large nor what transpires in our individual lives.

Almost nothing. Chazal’s statement ends with one three-word qualification that is of monumental import: chutz mi’yiras Shamayim — other than fear of G-d. Man has complete discretion over his ethical choices, to choose to govern himself or to allow his body to rebel against and dethrone his soul.

But from that one little corner of human autonomy called yiras Shamayim, that “almost nothing,” can ultimately come everything. Since the entire point of the creation of the cosmos and all they contain was puny, mortal man himself, when he exercises his free moral choice wisely and masters himself, he gains a concomitant mastery of all those worlds too, and Shamayim places “hakol” — all of nature — back into the hands of man.

That Divine transfer of nature into human hands is what we call a neis, a miracle. It is the circumstance of the supernatural surmounting the natural, and it happens as a consequence of another neis, that of man’s supernatural, soulful essence asserting control over its natural, bodily encasement. It is why, as the Midrash states, the sight of the aron of Yosef Hatzaddik — he who successfully withstood the overwhelming nisayon of Potiphar’s wife — was capable of bringing about the miracle of Kri’as Yam Suf.

The Jewish and Greek worldviews are thus diametrically opposed. Theirs posits that man can  manipulate and control the world around him for his own purposes, but is powerless to rule himself. Ours teaches that within Hashem’s vast world, our own selves are all we can directly control.

(Interestingly, contemporary practitioners of psychology often emphasize that we cannot control our life circumstances or how others treat us, but we most certainly can choose how to respond to those circumstances and that treatment, which dovetails with how Jews approach life.)

On Chanukah, an unusual halachah comes into play, that of kavsah ein zakuk lah. This means that a Jew fulfills the mitzvah of lighting the menorah merely with the kindling of the neiros, regardless of whether they continue to burn. So long as he chose to light the menorah in an appropriate manner and place, it is irrelevant that the flame may have extinguished five seconds later.

We only control our internal choices, not our external circumstances. And when we exercise that choice wisely, setting our souls — the ner Elokim nishmas adam — aflame, we fulfill a mitzvah and gain mastery of mortality, earning the eternity that eludes those who see the world through Greek eyes.

A lichitigen, freilechen Chanukah to all!


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 888. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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