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It's All Greek To Me

Friday, 15 December, 2017 - 10:33 am

We are in the midst of a wonderful Chanukah holiday with celebrations galore. (See photos below of Chanukah @ Riverwalk – credit Gil Rubman.)

I would like to take a moment amid the celebrating to reflect on a puzzling element of the Chanukah story. The Hellenists (protagonists of Greek culture) sought to influence the Jewish people to assimilate to their way of life. For over 100 years they were successful to some degree, and many Jews in Israel began to adopt Greek ways. If Hellenist culture was so attractive to the Jews because of its intellectual draw, why were the Maccabees so resistant? One would think that a mind-centered culture such as Judaism would embrace the Hellenist way as a compliment to its own. And if the Hellenists were so cultured and intellectual why did they resort to using force in the face of that resistance? One would think that an enlightened culture such as Hellenism would rely entirely on persuasion as a means of influence rather than to employ force.

To answer these questions in a nutshell, let me point out the spelling of the word Greek in Hebrew, which is Yavan. Yavan has three Hebrew letters, Yud, Vav, Final Nun. This sequence is unique in that all three letters are identical in form except that they get successively longer. The yud is a half line, the vav is a whole line, and the final nun is a line and a half. In Kabbala, Yud represents wisdom. As the leg gets longer to form a vav, that represents the influence of wisdom on life. As the leg gets longer to form a final nun, that represents wisdom being corrupted and dragged down into the nether regions of life.

In Judaism, wisdom is intended to be a spring board to reach for higher – that which is beyond rationale. The core of the soul is beyond wisdom and enables the person to connect to the essence of G-d, Who is beyond intellectual grasp.

As its Hebrew name demonstrates, in Yavan – Greek culture, wisdom is a means of achieving self-gratification. True there is great philosophy, but it also served to justify the basest expressions of human nature.

So when the Jews identified that key difference between Jewish wisdom and Hellenist wisdom they started to resist. When the Greeks realized that Mr. Nice Guy was not going to work, they slipped down from yud to vav to final nun and acted like barbaric savages to enforce their “enlightened ways” upon the Jewish people. The Jews resisted. G-d came to the rescue. The Chanukah miracles took place. The rest, as they say, is history. Have some latkes and a very happy Chanukah!

By the way, history, as they say, has a way of repeating itself. Look out for the Chanukah story playing out again in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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