This week, our Chanukah vort is being sponsored by Avraham and Miriam Deutsch of Efrat who wish Kol Am Yisrael Chanukah Same’ach! To the Deutsch family, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.
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Shem Mishmuel (Sefer Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, translated to English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, pages 78-80) cites Gemara Shabbos 21a in describing the historical context of the miracles of Chanukah and comments:
When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all of the oil there. When the… Chashmonaim took control and prevailed, they searched, but could only find one flask of oil preserved with the seal of the Kohen Godol. (Gemara Shabbos 21a)
It is well known that wine is rendered unfit for Jewish use if handled by an idolator. We are not, however, aware of a similar halachah applying to oil. In what context, then, do Chazal mean that the Greeks defiled the oil of the Temple?
Author’s note here: the Chashmonaim (aka the Maccabees) were Kohanim and that the seal was that of the Kohen Godol of the time, presumably Yochanan Kohen Godol.
Shem Mishmuel then speaks about three great gifts which Hashem brought to the world; wisdom, strength and wealth:
Of these three gifts, wealth is the most external to a person, since it is not actually part of him, but rather an appendage and thus most visible to others. Strength is a little less external, since it is not possible to determine a person’s might with a superficial glance…. Of the three, wisdom is the most personal and concealed. The intellect of a person resides in the deepest recesses of a person and is completely obscured from others.
The… exiles to which the Jews were subjected correspond to the these three gifts. In each case, the oppressing nation was able to subjugate a particular aspect of the Jews’ identity. Bavel was characterized by might and power…. At the beginning of the Purim story we find that Persian king Achashveirosh “showed them the glorious wealth of his kingdom and the majesty of his royal greatness.” (Esther 1:4)
The Greeks were known for their outstanding wisdom; their philosophers and their ideas have been tremendously influential.
Thus, when they oppressed Yisrael, they were even able to reach the wisdom of Torah and enslave it to their own ends. Oil in Torah thought expresses wisdom (the Menorah in the Beit HaMikdash represents the light of Torah radiating to all corners of existence). So when Chazal, in our original quote, say that the Greeks defiled the oil, they mean that they [the Greeks] were clever enough to subjugate the very heart of the nation — to contaminate their Torah wisdom, the oil of the Jews, and to defile it with Hellenism…. That is, their twisted form of wisdom seized hold of all areas of Torah wisdom.
Shem Mishmuel notes, citing Iyov, that Torah wisdom holds secrets over which the Greeks could never gain control:
These [secrets] are the most personal, internalized revelations of Torah that exist. In what sort of person do we find this great wisdom? Iyov asks: And wisdom, where will it be found? Where is the place of understanding? (Iyov 28:12)
Humility, recognizing the worthlessness of oneself when compared to the supremacy of Hashem, is a prerequisite for receiving the deepest, most internalized brand of wisdom. …Hashem revealed the reason for the parah adumah [the red heifer], as well as many other secrets of the Torah, only to Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest man towalk the earth. We also find that in the majority of disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the halacha is decided in favor of Beit Hillel, who were known for their humility.
So we can read… greater significance into the “flask of oil preserved with the seal of the Kohen Godol.” Aharon HaKohen, from whom all Kohanim are descended, was a man of tremendous self-effacement, as we learn:
“Moshe and Aharon said to the entire Jewish people, ‘He has heard your murmurings against G’d. What are we, against whom your murmur?’ (Sefer Shemot, Perek 16, posukim 6-7)
“…And Aharon, who is he that you should murmur against him?” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 16, posuk 11)
The “seal” of Aharon was his great humility; only someone with such self-effacement could merit receiving the greatest secrets of the Torah.
The Greeks, although they were steeped in wisdom, were renowned for their arrogance…. Humility is a prerequisite for comprehending the greatest depths of the Torah, the Greeks could never contaminate the holiest sages and their wisdom. Thus Chazal tell us that the Greeks polluted all of the oil in the Temple, except for one vial, which was sealed by the Kohen Godol. This means that the influence of Hellenism extended to every sort of wisdom possessed by the Jews except for the very deepest and holiest. This type of penetrating understanding was beyond their arrogant reach, as it was sealed — that is, possessed — only by the Kohen Godol, the symbol of the true Torah Jew, who was remarkably wise but nevertheless the paradigm of humility.
The Chanukah story has great lessons for us in our times. Just where are the paradigms of humility — prerequisite for receiving the deepest wisdom of the Torah when our generation in the Jewish world, albeit carrying the scars of generations of oppression and persecution by the nations, seems consumed with stubbornness, ego, sinat chinom (causeless hatred) and polarization between Jews, self-interest and expediency at seemingly every level of life, from governance, to bureaucracy, to police, courts and justice, to merchant/customer relationships, between one Jew and his brother or brethren, perhaps even in the way we pray or learn? Has the deepest wisdom of our Torah been obscured and subverted by marriage to distorted “western morality” regarding a Jew’s connection with and legacy to Eretz Yisrael?
May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard’s true freedom — his return home to Israel, and that Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the other MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of 1 1/2 years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.