Last year I was asked to speak at a small Chanukah gathering for a kiruv organization. The crowd was a mixed one ranging from not- yet-shomer shabbos to fully frum for 15 years. As always, I didn’t know what to speak about until the night before. This is what I said:
Last night my family and I went to my mother’s house for a Chanukah party. We do that every year, getting together with my brothers and their respective families. Even though there is a minhag to have dairy on Chanukah, at my mother’s house we always have meat. (You have to listen to your mother) Everything was going along fine. My mother was giving the grandchildren “the chocolate gelt”, which no Chanukah party would be complete without, and there was a whole tumult. I was in charge of buying the gelt this year because my mother doesn’t drive and she couldn’t find pareve gelt close to her home. I walked over and asked what was going on. They screamed “these are dairy, they’re dairy!” I asked myself “How did I do that?” I remembered when I had bought the gelt that the packaging of the dairy and the pareve coins were strikingly similar. Usually, they put the dairy coins into the blue nylon plastic netting and the pareve ones in the red netting or the gold foil is the dairy and the silver foil is the pareve. But these were exactly the same except for the little writing on them saying “pareve” or “dairy”. I grabbed the gelt and sure enough they were the pareve ones, call me the “Man who saved Chanukah.”
I was thinking about what we can learn from that confusion. We see in the story of Chanukah that there were two warring cultures, the Greek culture and the Jewish culture. We usually spend our time discussing the differences between these cultures, how disparate they were and that, thank G-d, the Jewish culture was able to win that physical war and that ideological war.
What we often overlook is that there is a lot that is very similar between the two cultures. Winston Churchill speaks of how the Jewish people and the Greek people have made the greatest contributions to Western civilization. He says that Jerusalem and Athens were the prime places from which wisdom and knowledge eminated. But we don’t have to rely on Churchill for this point. The Rambam, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers, says that Aristotle, the greatest Greek philosopher, was just a step below prophecy. There is a halacha that a sefer torah can be written in one of two languages. One of them, of course, is Hebrew, the other is Greek. There are many references in the commentaries, especially the Zohar, that speak in praiseworthy terms of the Greek culture and how there is a certain level of respect that must be given to it and that the “ancient Greeks” had a certain level of “emunah” that should not be ridiculed. I was thinking how this is a very interesting thing. I think we find in our struggles, in our daily lives, that most of us are not running after something that is obviously “not Jewish”, obviously “not Jewish”. If there is any type of a question or any area that we personally or communally fall into it’s because it is something that “looks” Jewish, it is something that sounds good, it sounds right. We’re not running out to do something that we know is completely forbidden. What we can learn from that, just like the story of the chocolate coins, is that you’ve really got to look very well at whatever it is that you are interested in incorporating into your life. You’ve got to look to see if it’s pareve, see if it’s dairy, see if it’s kosher. Even if things are packaged exactly the same way, you’ve got to look deeper than the surface.
One of the understandings of Chanukah is that we bring light into our homes, into our lives. Light is exactly what we need in order to distinguish between two things that are apparently the same.
The gemorah (Brachos 53b) states that you cannot make the brocha on the havdalah candle until you have benefited from its light. The gemorah defines “benefit” as being close enough to the light to distinguish between two coins. That is one of the reasons that some people look at the tips of their fingers in the light of the havdalah candle (since the difference between the nail and the skin can be determined by the same amount of light that you need to distinguish between two coins). We need to shine the light of our intellect and the light of the Torah into our lives so that we can properly discern what is Jewish and what is “all Greek to me.”
A Lichtiger (Illuminated) Chanukah to everyone.