Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

Wisdom for a Purpose

One of the most frequently asked questions concerning Chanuka addresses the issue of exactly which miracle does the holiday celebrate. On the one hand, the "'al hanisim" prayer, inserted into the 'Amida and Birchat Hamazon, focuses on the Chashmonaim's victory over the mighty Greek armies. In the G'mara Shabbat (21b), the miracle of the Menora is higlighted. Which is the main focal point of the holiday?

The Maharal (Chiddushei Aggadot, Shabbat 21b) writes that the primary celebration is over the military victory. However, one might have mistakenly assumed that this was not miraculous. Oftentimes, a small, indigenous band of guerrilas can oust a larger, more heavily armed army. The neis nigleh -- open miracle -- of the Menora shed light on the neis nistar -- hidden miracle -- of the victory over the Greeks and demonstrated that the Ribono Shel 'Olam brought about both miracles.

Perhaps we can suggest a further connection between the two miracles. Our answer will also attempt to develop a connection between Chanuka and the Parshiot Hashavua, VaYeishiv and Mikeitz, which largely deal with the life of Yosef, that we read and will read on Chanuka. The Midrash (B'raishit Rabba 2:5) comments that the Greeks told the Bnei Yisrael to "write on the horn of an ox (shor) that they have no share in the G-d of Israel." Rav C. Y. Goldwicht zt"l, the former Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, elucidated this rather cryptic passage as follows. The Greeks symbolized the height of wisdom and culture. Their advances in philosophy, medicine, science, art as well as their strategies of war and conquest were world reknowned. However, their great wisdom did not lead them to a moral, G-d fearing life. The greatest philosophers and scientists of the Greek Empire could and did lead lives filled with debauchery. Torah, by stark contrast, teaches that all wisdom must ultimately lead to a refinement of the person's personality both in terms of his middot (character traits), his system of thought, and his actions. "Tachlis Chochma T'shuva U'Ma'asim Tovim" -- "the goal of all wisdom is to lead to repentance and good deeds." Wisdom that does not lead to a transformation of the individual is worthless.

The Greeks attempted to force the Jewish people to adopt their attitude toward wisdom, one which divorces wisdom from moral actions. They turned to the Biblical "shor" -- Yosef Hatzaddik -- who is referred to as "B'chor Shor" (D'varim 33:17) by Moshe Rabbeinu. Yosef, in Egypt, became at different points in his life a financial planner (head of Potiphar's household), prison warden (when he was jailed), dream interpreter, economist, and chief statestman of the Egyptian Empire. "Look at Yosef," said the Greeks symbolically, "he engaged the other wisdoms of the world besides Torah and he was successful!" This is what is meant by "write on the horn of the shor." Of course, their true motivation was to undermine the Torah and its observance entirely -- "you have no share in the G-d of Israel." Indeed, the Greeks initially were greatly successful by attracting thousands of Helenized Jews to their ranks. The victory of the Chasmonaim, besides its immediate benefit of allowing the Jewish people to serve G-d without restrictions, also served to teach all future generations that even when Bnei Yisrael engage the world, and learn other wisdoms, this cannot and should not lead to an abrogation of the Torah's dictates. All wisdoms should be and must be utilized in the service of Torah. All must lead to a greater awareness of the Creator of the universe and ultimately of all wisdoms. If such study does not achieve these results and certainly if it serves to lead one astray from Torah observance and belief in G-d, then the study must be abandoned. Yosef, the master of all wisdoms, never forgot his allegiance to the G-d of Israel. He demonstrated this by reminding his father, Ya'akov Avinu, before their reunification, of the last Torah lesson they had shared together before their separation -- that of 'Egla 'Arufa (see Rashi, B'raishit 45:27). Even after engaging the world, he remained the same Yosef, always dedicated to his Creator and His Torah.

Perhaps we can suggest in the same vein, that the neis of the Menora highlighted this idea as well. As several Rishonim point out, the seven branches of the Menora represent the seven true wisdoms (e.g. see Rabbeinu B'chaye, Avot, end of Chapter 3) that were studied by humanity. All of the branches, i.e. all of the wisdoms, "must face the middle branch" (Shmot 25:37), which symbolizes Torah wisdom. All of intellectual endeavors must be utilized in the service of Torah and 'Avodat Hashem in order for them to be meaningful. Hashem thus placed his stamp of approval on the victory of the Chasmonaim, which represented the idea that wisdom must be utilized for Divine service and not merely to satisfy curiosity, by bringing about a miracle through the medium of the Menora which symbolizes these ideas.

The Halakhic parameters of the study of other wisdoms as well as the unquestionable primacy that must be granted to Torah study itself are clearly beyond the scope of this article (see for further reference Encylopedia Talmudit, "Chachmot Chitzoniot"; "Sha'arei Talmud Torah", Chapter 7, by Rav Yehuda (Leo) Levi; etc.). But certainly, we glean from the dual nissim of Chanuka that all of human study and achievement must have a higher purpose.

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