An Excerpt from
An Issue of Trust
by Rabbi Noson Weisz
Parshat Mikeitz overlaps this week with the celebration of Chanukah. Interestingly, it brings up an issue that defines the very essence of the holiday — bitachon, trust in God.
But the story of Chanukah illustrates a deeper concept of bitachon as well. The victory over the Syrian Greeks that Chanukah serves to commemorate is the redemption of one of the four major exiles of Jewish history.
When the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2). Rabbi Shimon interpreted this verse as referring to the four kingdoms that took Israel into exile. The word “empty” refers to Babylon, as it is written, I have seen the land and behold it is empty (Jeremiah 14); “astonishingly” refers to Persia, as it is written, and they made extreme haste; and the word “darkness” refers to Greece, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their edicts, because they said to them “write on the horns of the ox that you have no share in the God of Israel…” (Genesis Rabba 2:4)
Each of the four kingdoms is distinguished by the fact that it provides an alternative organizing principle to the one offered by Israel around which human society can be organized. As humans are intelligent, they cannot live in a senseless world.
Israel explains the world as a place God created in which man can earn his reward by serving God. But the Greeks envisioned the world as a self-contained entity. God was a part of it, but Aristotle defined God as a first cause who created the world not because He chose to, but because it was in His nature to do so. Consequently, the world He created was exactly the world He was compelled to create. Man has no recourse but to come to terms with the world he lives in, for the natural world constitutes his entire reality. Greek culture rejects Judaism on the grounds of practicality.
This rejection is focused more at Torah study than at actual observance. The investment of so much effort in knowledge that does not seem to improve man’s lot by an iota seems futile to the Greek mind. All the divisions of knowledge organized by Aristotle were designed to improve man’s lot.
Jews cannot live without a close relationship with a personal God.
But perhaps it can be argued that Judaism is a practical necessity for Jews as Jews cannot live without a close relationship with a personal God. Just as one doesn’t think of one’s children in terms of practical advantages, and would never consider selling them for any kind of price, an emotional attachment to God cannot be measured in terms of its utility either.
Maharal explains that this is the proposition the Greeks were shooting down by making the Jews write on the horns of the ox. This ox is a reference to the golden calf. If the people who stood at Mount Sinai could serve an idol a mere forty days after the experience of bonding with God in such an intensive way, this amply demonstrates that Jews can manage quite well without their attachment to this God of theirs. In the post- First Temple world, Judaism is of no practical or emotional necessity, so why stubbornly cling to it?
The downside of Greek knowledge, which is fully shared by the modern secular culture (which is its great grandchild) is that it is forced to accept a pointless universe. If the universe was not created for any purpose by an intelligent God who designed it in conformity to His purpose, it just is. And, human beings, as they are a part of this pointless universe, also have purposeless lives — they live and they die and it all makes no difference.
It is precisely in this area that Torah knowledge is focused. The Torah teaches us the purpose of the universe. It explains how and why it was created, what God wanted to accomplish with it, and how the purpose of human life relates to God’s design. Man lives in a world of relationships, not in a world of practicalities. The practicalities of the world are related to its purpose and have no importance in themselves. They merely provide the venue in which the relationship between God and man can develop.
CLASH OF CULTURES
The clash of cultures that Chanukah commemorates was over the willingness of the Jewish people to live in a practical but purposeless world, or to insist to the point of self-sacrifice on leading lives of significance and meaning.
Bitachon is only rational in a word that has purpose and meaning. If this is truly such a world, than we can place our trust in God that He will never allow considerations of practicality to force us into leading meaningless lives. No matter what economic or military force may be aligned against the practice of Judaism, a Jew can always succeed in leading his life according to Torah values if he is willing to undergo some self-sacrifice.
Bitachon is the certainty that God will never demand more self-sacrifice than one is capable of. A person who approaches life with bitachon learns to expand his own self-perceived limits. He knows that, if God asks him for more self-sacrifice, then he is capable of demonstrating it.
Read the whole piece here.