Some relevant parallels between what happened bayamim haheim and what we are living through bazman hazeh
Gus is one of the fixtures of the neighborhood. Central casting couldn’t have chosen a better candidate to be the Barber of Lincolnwood. He’s a great schmoozer, name dropper (“Rabbi So-and-so was here yesterday”), makes house calls, and to top it all off, only charges $10, including beard trimming. When asked how he is doing, he always responds “Baruch Hashem,” despite being a heimishe Greek, born and bred near Athens. When our yeshivah advertised the annual dinner by hanging a banner that included my picture, Gus took particular pride in his handiwork on display, and encouraged my talmidim to behave in my shiur.
A few years ago, I came in before Chanukah, and after the usual chitchat, he gave the chair a spin, respectfully looked me in the eye, and proceeded to ask a question.
“So, Rrrrrrabbi, what is the real story behind Chanukah?”
Knowing full well that it is not wise to agitate a man with a scissors in one hand and an assortment of blades at arm’s length, I respectfully responded, “Do you really want to know the truth? It might not sound so flattering to you.”
He responded in kind, “We’re good friends, I can handle it.”
So I told him how the ancient Greeks wanted my people to be just like his, and were ready to kill us if we refused. They insisted that we stop practicing our religion, closed our schools, prevented us from getting married in the Jewish way, and we would have no part of it. We went to war, despite being ridiculously outnumbered, and we were victorious. I shared the story of the menorah and the miraculous find of oil that lasted eight days, and waited for his take on all of it.
Baruch Hashem, as he would say, he took it like a man. He thanked me for the politically incorrect history lesson and affirmed his appreciation that we survived, leaving him with a Jewish clientele to provide him with parnassah. Truth be told, it is unlikely that Gus’s bubbies and zeidies had a hand in any of this; I doubt they were Syrian-Greeks. No matter, it made for fascinating conversation.
If we give it some serious thought, though, there are some relevant parallels between what happened bayamim haheim and what we are living through bazman hazeh.
We recite in al hanissim, “l’hashkicham Torasecha ul’ha’aviram meichukei retzonecha.” Yavan had ambitions to make us forget Hashem’s Torah and transgress the laws He wants us to follow. It is interesting that the tefillah is not worded with the word “l’vatel,” to completely abolish learning Torah, but rather to make us forget.
We may suggest that even the Yevanim knew a decree to wipe out Torah learning would never be followed, as would be seen with the examples of Rabi Akiva and Rabi Chanina ben Tradyon, who courageously taught Torah in public in the face of a harsh gezeirah to ban learning. Even recent history has had its share of heroes, from the former Soviet Union and the like, who would not be denied their morashah kehillas Yaakov. Yavan devised a different course of action. We could learn Torah... but their way, nusach Yavan.
The Maharal explains why Yavan was so resolute on taking away our limud haTorah. He says it is precisely because the Greeks were considered great chachamim who engaged in philosophy and other forms of wisdom that they were jealous of us and our true ultimate chochmah. He compares it to a gibor who is jealous of someone considered stronger than he is. He can’t stand it, so he must take the other man down.
We are familiar with Talmai Hamelech (a.k.a. Ptolemy — although he was based in Egypt, he was also a Hellenistic king, and a product of Greek culture) and his edict to translate the Torah into a foreign language. Chazal compared this to the tragedy of the Eigel Hazahav. Molten images are not our leaders, and Greek Torah is not our Torah. Once Lashon Hakodesh was taken out of the Torah, we would lose our ability to darshen pesukim, extrapolate halachos, and connect to Torah shebe’al peh. Our entire mesorah would be destroyed, chalilah, forever.
By the same token, Rav Leib Bakst ztz”l suggested, these Syrian Yevanim wanted to rob us of our feeling for kedushas haTorah and treat it as nothing more than a book of chochmah. They demanded we integrate their logic, train of thought, and general outlook on life into our Torah. We could learn, all right, but “Yavanish,” not Jewish.
This sheds some light on why in the al hanissim of Purim there is no mention of Haman’s decree to outlaw learning Torah (as per Rashi in Maseches Megillah). That gezeirah could have never come to fruition, for the Torah promises (Devarim 31:21) that Torah will never forgotten from us. However, the Yevanim’s plan stood a chance. There would be a semblance of Torah, but horribly distorted to the point that it barely resembled the real thing. This was the “darkness” Chazal alluded to when finding an allusion to Malchus Yavan in the pasuk of “v’choshech al pnei sehom.” There would be a Torah, but barely visible to us as the Toras Emes that we will not surrender. The only Torah we want is the Torah we always had.
This point was driven home to me on another level some 40-plus years ago. The Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Elya Svei ztz”l, cited a Rambam in his Peirush Hamishnayos, which was originally written in Arabic and later translated into Lashon Hakodesh, and presented a difficulty with the Rambam’s interpretation of a particular sugya. A friend pointed out a different version of the Rambam that would have alleviated the difficulty the Rosh Yeshivah raised, and approached Rav Elya with his find.
Rav Elya’s reaction came as a surprise: “I learn the same Rambam that the Rosh Yeshivah learned” (referring to his own rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l). End of conversation, beginning of a lifelong lesson. Our Torah is not changing.
Yavan had yet another tactic, and that of course was the blunt attack on kedushas Yisrael, eliminating taharah in the family and making marriage as good as impossible. Combining that with the decrees against milah, Shabbos, and other basic pillars of our kedushah, Yavan had us at their mercy — or so they thought.
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl understands this two-pronged attack as shedding light on a gemara in Chullin (91), which brings a disagreement about whether the Sar shel Eisav that did battle with Yaakov Avinu had the image of a talmid chacham or an oveid kochavim. The machlokes is about which image was considered the central modus operandi of Eisav. Was it the image of a talmid chacham, which represents the broad world of wisdom and knowledge, Yavan’s first nefarious plan, to expand the Torah to include their chochmah alongside it? Or was it the brutal image of the oveid kochavim trying to directly destroy our mitzvah observance and allegiance to everything kodesh? Sadly, we are seeing both of these opinions being realized today, Hashem yishmereinu.
The Bach famously writes that we were able to overcome the forces of Yavan because of our commitment to a life of chizuk in our avodah. This reversed the decrees that had been placed upon us due to a weakening of our expected level of devotion.
Although b’chesed elyon we do not find ourselves in the clutches of Yavan today, there is a feeling of a global Yavan rearing its ugly head and spreading its reach all over the world. We are witnessing attacks on milah, shechitah, and chinuch, the likes of which we have never had to deal with before. Governments are attempting to restructure our time-honored way of teaching Torah and we are being called on to respond with mesirus nefesh of a different sort. It is manifest in how we jump through hoops to keep yeshivos and schools open, or how some communities may feel forced to simply uproot themselves and move. And that may be just the beginning. Although it may not involve spears and bullets, our wars need to be waged in back rooms or halls of governors, hardly a place where we are comfortable or necessarily welcome.
There was an asifah of gedolei Yisrael attended by, among others, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk and Rav Chaim Brisker, over what response should be given to the Polish government, which was demanding that rabbanim receive certification as well as an education, and demonstrate proficiency in the language, to be allowed to practice. After a lively debate, the elderly Chofetz Chaim was asked to give his opinion.
He burst into tears, exclaiming, “They want to kill my sister.”
When asked to explain himself, the great tzaddik quoted the pasuk, “Emor lachochmah achosi at” (Mishlei 7:4). Torah is our beloved sibling and they are demanding changes to our mesorah and derech of how to conduct ourselves! The debate was over.
Who knows what the future holds and what we will be called upon to do?
A question, albeit an unconventional one, bothered me for many years. Parshas Mikeitz, which describes the saga of Yosef and the Shevatim, seems to end at a most unlikely stage of the story. The drama rises to a crescendo and leaves us hanging as to what everyone’s next move is… and suddenly ends. An entire week later, we get to see the joyous and emotional outcome and reunion with Yaakov. Why don’t we read the whole episode in its entirety at one time?
I finally came across this question, although to my great disappointment I do not recall who offered the following answer. We are being taught a great lesson here. Life is full of such events — the questions mount, the tzaros accumulate, and there seems no way out. The goalposts keep getting moved on us, and we are hopelessly stuck, with no solution in sight. You are not privy to the answer, sorry. There will be a conclusion, perhaps even a happy ending, but we are not always privileged to see it now. It will have to wait. Be patient, it is coming.
Perhaps this is why we read Mikeitz every Shabbos Chanukah. We need chizuk in believing with emunah shleimah that even as the tzaros mount and there seems to be absolutely no way out, and we surely don’t think a tiny band of talmidei chachamim will overcome the giborei Greece… teshuas Hashem can be right around the corner.
We must be mechazek our avodah as much as our ancestors did, and we too will see yeshuos Hashem. Today might look hopeless, but there is a tomorrow just around the bend.
Back to Gus. While preparing a shiur on minhagei Yisrael, I was curious as to what kind of customs other cultures observed religiously, hoping to compare and contrast our heilige minhagim with theirs, l’havdil. I turned to Gus for help. He had a hard time understanding what I was even asking, but he finally offered some information. Every example he came up with revolved around food or other physical indulgences (drink). Yes, there were ceremonies and events, but the focus was always the Olam Hazeh, and hardly the sacramental nature of the event.
I felt a sense of ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu, as well, as much as things change, somehow they stay the same. He can embrace Yavan. I will celebrate Chanukah.
Rabbi Plotnik,a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponovezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ram in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 839)
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