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A Second Chanukah: What Could Have Been
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There are two qualities of Chanukah which make it kind of unique among all Jewish holidays. One of those is the role that thanks plays in a holiday. The two great rabbinic holidays in the Jewish calendar are of course Purim and Chanukah. On both of these days we insert a special edition into our prayers known as the Al HaNisim prayer. But the Al HaNisim prayer of Chanukah differs from that Purim, an interesting respect. Look at the end of the prayer. The end of the Al HaNisim insertion of Purim, v’talu oto vaet-banav al haetz, it is the last thing we hear is that they hanged Haman and his children upon a tree and that’s it, that’s the end of the Al HaNisim prayer. In the Chanukah version of Al HaNisim we also have a recounting of the miracle. But after we tell about the war, after we tell about the lights, Al HaNisim prayer goes and adds something else, v’kavu shmonat yemey Chanukah elu lehodot ulehalel leshimcha hagadol, that afterwards they establish these days of Chanukah as days of thanks and of prays. In Chanukah it seems almost that we got A for the miracle and B for our response to the miracle. That we establish in these days, the days of thanks. In some strange ways that’s part of the miracle too. We will get back to that but here is the second way which Chanukah is kind of distinct, in the role that beauty plays. We know that any given mitzvah in the Torah can be done in the regular way and can be done in the beautified kind of way what we call hiddur mitzvah. You can buy an etrog and you can buy a really beautiful etrog and if you buy a really beautiful etrog, then not only you have done the mitzvah but you have done hiddur mitzvah, you have done a beautification of the mitzvah too.
In Chanukah there is also beautification of the mitzvah, really the mitzvah itself is just to light one candle. That which we light many candles, one for each night and that which every one of the family lights one, these are aspects of hiddur mitzvah, a beautification of the mitzvah but that’s interesting, isn’t it? How the people do you know light only one candle every night of Chanukah? Nobody does this. The beautification of the mitzvah has become the standard, this is just what we do, it’s what everybody does. There’s no other mitzvah that I can think of in the entire Torah where the hiddur mitzvah becomes the absolute standard by which it’s done. We just haven’t done this with any other mitzvah. What’s going on here?
Okay, let’s stop a minute and talk about beauty and its relationship to the interaction between Greek culture on one hand and Jewish culture on the other. The truth is that this interaction even though it happens in the history after the time where the bible has canonized nevertheless that it seems to be foretold in an ere kind of way in a verse in the very beginning of genesis and that verse appears in a blessing that Noah gives to two of his children, Shem and Japheth, the verse says, yaft Elokim l’Yefet v’yishkon b’ohalei-Shem, let God grant beauty to Japheth and let Japheth dwell in the tents of Shem.
Now it’s an oblique verse, it’s hard to understand, what does it mean but look at the children of these people are, Japheth, gives birth to a child by the name of Yavan, but later on becomes a nation state. Yavan is of course is a name for Greece and who does Shem gave birth to? Shem of course is the father of the Semites, the Jews, the Jews and the Greeks. Way back when in genesis there seems to be this premonition that Greeks and Jews will meet and the point of connection somehow will be beauty. Yaft Elokim l’Yefet v’yishkon b’ohalei-Shem, God will grant beauty to Japheth and that beauty will dwell in the tents of Shem. Interestingly the flavor of the verse is not one of conflict but one of alliance. The way history played out the holiday that we celebrate is a holiday that commemorates a war between Greece and the Jews, between Japheth and Shem but seemingly it didn’t have to be that way. It’s almost like that war is a corruption of the original prophecy. There is place for that beauty in the tents of Shem, what is that place?
Well let’s talk about beauty a little bit. Beauty of course is a cardinal Greek virtue. The Greeks were enraptured by beauty. They tried to embody it in art, architecture, poetry and music. They tried to capture it in all areas of human endeavor. Beauty is a Jewish value too but in a different kind of way. Perhaps the greatest symbol of beauty in Jewish culture is the beauty of the clothes of the kohen gadol. Beauty which normally belongs in the beit hamikdash which occasionally can go outside too. When does it go outside? It goes outside to greet the sion of Greece, Alexander of Macedon. It is almost as if the kohen gadol is bringing beauty with him as he goes to greet the king of Japheth. Japheth of course means beauty although the verse yaft Elokim l’Yefet v’yishkon b’ohalei-Shem, let God grant beauty to Japheth and let it dwell in the tents of Shem seems to suggest that there is a kind of synergy here that if you can bring the energy of the Jewish world with you together with the focus on beauty and the Greek world for you the whole can be somehow be greater than some of its parts but the tents of Shem in a way are the natural place for the beauty of Greece.
But in order to understand that we need to understand beauty itself. There are two qualities of beauty that I think are striking. First is pleasure. We human beings take pleasure in beauty and if you think about it, that’s a very strange thing. Why is it that we take pleasure in beauty? I mean taking pleasure in ice cream, I can understand. When I take pralines and cream ice cream and I eat it, that’s very delicious. When I get a massage it’s wonderful. It feels good, it tastes good but that’s not the way we experience pleasure with beauty. When I see a beautiful sunset, I don’t get anything out of that sunset, when I see an extraordinary renaissance painting, I am what I am, I am just appreciating something outside of me, what do I get out of that? How come my appreciation of that things beauty leads to a sense of pleasure for me? It’s extraordinary, very different than the other kinds of pleasures we experience in the world. Even the word, we experience, would be associated with the pleasure normally that we experience. That involves my body, myself but the pleasure of the beautiful doesn’t involve myself, does involve something outside of me. All I am doing is appreciating that.
So that’s one interesting thing about beauty and here is the second interesting thing and this I think, gives us a key to understand the beauty of Japheth and the tents of Shem. The second interesting quality of beauty you can see, in the kinds of ways we describe beauty. You look heavenly, a beauty that is almost magical. You just look radiant and transcendent. Do you see where I am going here? All of these adjectives have to do with something beyond our world. That’s where beauty leads us. The truth is beauty is a kind of bridge, it’s a bridge to a realm beyond our world.
Let’s explore that in our next video.
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