Chanukah: Overcoming Our Greekness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Dear friends:

Chanukah is here!

When you think of the victory of light over the darkness that the ancient Greeks tried to spread, you can’t help but think of the world as it is today, sit by the light and know that there is light in the darkest times.

Everything that we think of as “light,” becomes “dark” in a world in which there is no spirituality. The Greeks weren’t so different than today’s “spokesmen”. They saw the human being as the world’s center.

Everything that makes you a member of a unique people demands that you see things very differently. You didn’t emerge as a Jew out of nowhere. G-d promised the patriarchs that the traits that they developed would live in their descendants beyond their lifetimes. Their heritage is reflected in our value system.

The three most severe sins are idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder. Avraham’s dedication to chessed (kindness) gives us the fortitude to resist temptation to the sins of sexual immorality. You can’t be a giver and at the same time an exploiter; the Greeks negated this principle completely. To them, any relationship that gives gratification to the person more in power is legitimate and healthy.

Today the plague of intermarriage is the way secular humanism, an offspring of Greek thought, is still conquering us, not physically but by making our uniqueness as a people irrelevant. It feels like the most normal thing in the world.

Yitzchak’s dedication to G-d was absolute. The ultimate “idol” is human ego. The moment that Yitzchak showed his willingness to give his life to do Hashem’s will, he transmitted the ability to stand up and deny every possible form of idol worship to his descendants.

The Greeks’ obsession with defiling the Bais HaMikdash showed how completely they understood (not necessarily consciously) that it opposed everything they stood for. It was a place of miracles, awareness, depth, joy! The core of all of this was a transcendental, invisible G-d who could never be totally understood even by the greatest human minds. But the heritage that the Greeks left us is the way looking at every religious ritual as something irrelevant at best and contemptuous at worst. The only god they and their descendants still worship is human ego.

Yaakov grasped the nature of the soul and its eternal connection to G-d. He could never justify murder. By definition, murder means killing someone who is of no threat to you. That would mean somehow seeing him as “unnecessary” in the greater scheme of things. Yaakov saw other people as eternal, precious, and attached to G-d. To the Greeks, human life had only relative value. They habitually abandoned deformed infants to die of exposure on their hauntingly beautiful hillsides.

The clash between these cultures continues.

These issues are not new. The Greek exile is very much with us emotionally and sociologically. The issues are still the same.

There is a fourth issue as well, one that you have to take to heart if you want to make a change. The Haftorah (prophetic portion read after the Torah reading on Shabbos) tells us not just about the three grave sins, but also of one that is worse still. It is oppression of your fellow man. In a similar vein, the sages tell us that there are three cardinal sins, idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder, but that lashon hara parallels all of them in its gravity.

Lashon hara means saying negative or damaging things about your fellow Jew for no positive purpose. It reflects disintegration of our sense of peoplehood, and our grasp of the unique spirituality of each one of us. This is the tikkun that we face now more than ever, because “fixing” the other issues is almost impossible without an underlying sense of love and unity.

Yosef epitomizes both. His early revelation of his dreams reflected not (as people think) his ego as much as his sense of responsibility for his brothers. This comes out more when, as the later parshas reveal, he was able to put aside every normal human desire to humiliate them in return for their betrayal. His sense of their significance was based on his recognition of what it meant to be part of the Jewish people.

In Yosef’s own moment of temptation, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, what saved him was seeing Yaakov’s image before his eyes. Yaakov was able to pass on to his children what the glory of being a human being is really about. The reason that Yosef resisted her (even though, as the Midrash says, she threatened to have him tortured to death), was that immorality would defile him as a human being. His esteem for his own humanity was the basis of his esteem for his brothers.

Chanukah is the time when you can look at the light of the menorah, and let it reflect the light of your soul, and the souls of the people in your life! Enjoy watching the flames, eating the latkes and/or sufganiot, and have a great holiday.

Love always,


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3 comments on “Chanukah: Overcoming Our Greekness

  1. Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Cohen. We Jewish women get bashed around so much (the whole shtick about “Jewish princesses” and “Jewish mothers” and all the stereotypes) that it is quite nice when a member of the opposite gender rallies to our defense.

    There was a time not long ago when the words “Jewish mother” were a blessing and not a curse. When Jewish men eagerly sought to date and to marry Jewish women. When Jewish men defended the virtues and beauty and grace of Jewish women instead of insulting them.

    At Chanukah time, let us remember the righteous Jewish women of that generation who defied the Syrian-Greeks by refusing to submit to the “bride tax” and by circumcising their infant sons despite the cruel decree.

  2. Rashbam comment on 4th Tosefot on Talmud, tractate Megillah, page 4A:

    The main miracles happened though them [the Jewish women]:

    On Purim through Esther, on Chanukah through Yehudit, and on Passover they were redeemed through merit of the righteous women of that generation.

    CHRONOLOGY: Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, born 1083 CE, died 1174 CE

  3. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 23B:
    Rabbi Huna taught:
    A person who regularly lights lamps will have sons who are Torah scholars.
    RASHI explains that this refers to the lamps of Shabbat and Chanukah.

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