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A Second Chanukah: What Could Have Been
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Basically, there are two possible answers to that question. One possible answer is why not? The world just is, you can’t ask these kinds of questions. That’s one answer but there is another possible answer and that answer is ‘because’, this universe came from somewhere, somewhere outside this universe. If there were something out of this world that brought this world, this universe into existence, it came from somewhere. The laws of physics come from somewhere. It can be traced back to a transcended source. A source that we call God. ‘Why not’ and ‘because’, science plays a kind of game. How far can we get in explaining this universe, solely in terms of this universe? Without reference to anything outside of it, without reference to any transcended realm. And that’s a good game to play. You can explain a lot about the universe just in terms of itself but does the mere fact that we chose to play that game when we engage in science, mean that there is no such thing as the transcended realm. It does not, science does not give us guidance about things beyond this world. It is silent about them. Ultimately it gets down to why this stuff is here. Why not or because. Greek thought truth is the answer ‘why not’. Plato had entertained the idea of transcended world, Aristotle his student focuses very much on this world and this world alone. Aristotle’s view, this world is eternal, it’s just is, the great answer to why is why not. Aristotle had a student, a student he tutored into 16 years old, that student was Alexander of Macedon but there is another great answer to that question. The great answer of the Jews and our answer is ‘because’ and one day their leader the those who said because encountered the leader of those who said ‘why not’ and it happened when Shimon Hatzadik met Alexander the great. Beauty was the point of contact.
I want to argue that there is something in beauty that is a kind of bridge, a bridge to transcendence, a bridge to something beyond. That accounts for the kinds of the adjectives that we attach to beauty, out of this world, heavenly, all of these words are about transcendence. That’s the way we describe beauty. When we see beauty in the world we sense it as a kind of quasi-religious experience, there is something about hiking in Yosimite National Park, which is very spiritual, you feel like you are as close as you can get in this world to the next world. Beauty is the bridge to that transcendent. To see it by the way, in the book of Psalms. Psalm 104, barchi nafshi et-Hashem, my soul, extols God, Elohai, my lord, gadalta meod, you are very great, you are beyond transcendent, hod v’hadar lavashta, you wear beauty like clothing. When you look at someone’s clothes, you don’t see them. You see the way they express themselves in this world. That’s why the way we dress is so important to us, it is how we present ourselves to the world. For beauty is the way God present himself to the world. It is not God himself that you see in beauty, it is God’s cloths. Oteh-or kasalmah, it is as if God dresses himself in light. Light is a part of the physical world but it is the most spiritual part of the physical world. Light is inherently mysterious. What is it, a particle or a wave, turns out that it is both. How come something is both the particle and the wave? Richard Feynman, the great scientist called it the central mystery of quantum mechanics and utter impossibility in our world. But maybe it doesn’t come from our world, vayihi or, light is the first thing that God brings in to our world. There is something about light that is by nature transcendent. When Shimon Hatzadik, goes out to Alexander of Macedon and he goes with two things, the beauty of his cloths and the light of the torches and with those two, those bridges to transcendent, he goes out to greet the kind of Japheth, the king of beauty because this is the moment the beauty of Japheth could dwell in the tents of Shem. And in that connection between Athens and Jerusalem, between Japheth and Shem, beauty could reach its ultimate meaning because beauty and its meaning doesn’t lie in itself. It lies in the fact that it is a bridge that it takes you somewhere, it takes you beyond. That’s why beauty is so pleasurable.
God makes oranges pleasurable, pitches pleasurable, grapes pleasurable, the pleasure is there to go for you to eat it. It’s good for you. The pleasure of beauty is there because it is good for you too, it is there to lure you in, to draw you on to the bridge. So you can connect to what’s beyond. The message of beauty is that pleasure doesn’t just reside in your own body, in your own experience. Pleasure can reside in the appreciation of something outside of you, it draws you outside of yourself, it says, there’s pleasure here too. There is pleasure in connecting with the transcendent.
Who are Japheth and Shem? Shem is about devotion to God, Japheth is about devotion to beauty. When Japheth dwells in the tents of Shem, beauty is elevated as a letter to transcendence, we can work together, Shimon Hatzadik, is telling Alexander the great. You have conquered civilized world and you are the scion of beauty, come with me, I value beauty too of the fire that I hold in my hands of these torches and the splendor of my cloths. These are bridges to somewhere and the union of our worlds, we can help bring the world to the doorstep of heaven.
This was the first meeting between the Greeks and the Jews, it happened over a hundred years before Chanukah but on the calendar it came exactly 30 days after Chanukah. This was the potential of Chanukah but this was not the actual Chanukah because tragedy intervened, Alexander died young at the age of 33. Alexander was a great man. Intellectually formidable, spiritually curious. One of the greatest strategists in generals of all time. His tactics and strategies are still studied in WestPoint today. Alexander had no heir, there was no one person that could fill his shoes. Instead his four generals differed and fought amongst themselves, dividing up the territory of his ancient empire among themselves but it wasn’t just the territory they couldn’t keep together. They couldn’t keep the vision of Alexander together either. Greece’s devotion to beauty began to fragment and crumble and on the Jewish side something eerily similar took place. The Gemara says, that for the 40 years that Shimon Hatzadik was kohen gadol, those 40 years represented the height of spiritual progress of the second temple era. During those 40 years the western candle of the Menorah used to burn longer than all the others. It would burn somehow miraculously even when there was no more oil. That miracle happened every day in Shimon Hatzadik’s time. Everyday was Chanukah when the oil burned and burned, as the sign of transcendent God living in our world.
When Shimon Hatzadik died, that vision fragmented too. The office of the high priest soon became something that was bartered and bought. There was never again another Shimon Hatzadik and so over a hundred years later, there was another encounter between the Greeks and the Jews but it was just a shadow of their first encounter. The Greeks never had a man again like Alexander and we never had someone like Shimon Hatzadik and so there would be another encounter between Japheth and Shem but this time, Japheth would come in war against the values of Shem.
Antiochus was a strange man, a man given to headiness access. He would dance naked with his dancers at opulent feasts. He nicknamed himself Antiochus Epiphanes, which means Antiochus God made manifest. The people made fun of him with a nickname Antiochus Epimanes, which means Antiochus, the mad one. Antiochus represented devolution of the Greek spirit. Greece enraptured by beauty but by the time, you got to Antiochus, the Greek vision had run its course and fragmented because in a world of why not, where does beauty take you? If beauty is a bridge to transcendence, it’s meant to help take you to the beyond but there is no beyond in your philosophy. Then beauty is a bridge to nowhere. Then what happens? At some point, you don’t even praise the beautiful anymore. All you praise is the pale by product of beauty, pleasure, God gave you a sense of pleasure in eating fruit because fruit is good for you but if you want, you don’t have to eat fruit. You can eat fruitybables. All the pleasure and none of the goodness and that’s Antiochus. Antiochus God made manifest is the same man as Antiochus, the mad one. One leaves you to the other because if there is no transcendence, if you are the most powerful one around, the closest thing there is to God then the beauty that you supposedly praised in your philosophy is bankrupt. It is just empty pleasure and when you on an empty pleasure, become obsessed with it. Well, that’s Antiochus, the mad one. It’s like eating fruitybables all day long, it is the insanity of the permanent sugar high. This corruption of devotion to beauty leads Antiochus to madness. And it also eats him, to his vicious war on Jewish worship because the Jews still held on to a vision of something more. A vision that said it doesn’t end with ‘why not’, there is a ‘because’ and Antiochus wants to stand down to the ‘because’. So he says, there is no more Jewish worship, you can’t do it. There is no bridge to transcendence. There is no transcendence. During the time of Antiochus, the Jews finally revolted against corrupt priests and righteous priests, lead by Yahuda Maccabeus and his brothers fought the Greeks and prevailed. The Chanukah that we celebrate is the Chanukah of that victory of because over why not but the Chanukah that might have been still echoes as a kind of utopian dream. How would world history have been different if the beauty of Japheth instead of coming to battle against the tents of Shem and allowed itself to be elevated in the tents of Shem?
On Chanukah we celebrate beauty, we institutionalize beauty. Everybody in the family lights candles and everybody lights one for each night, it is hiddur mitzvah, for what purpose? For the purpose of hoda’ah, for the purpose of recognizing the existence of the transcendent in our world. V’kavu shmonat yemey Chanukah elu lehodot ulehalel leshimcha hagadol, that’s part of the miracle. Not just that we won the war but what we did after winning the war. To establish these days as the days of recognition but winning the war was just not about us. It was about that force beyond, the force that we try to get to through beauty and that is what we glorify on this holiday of lights and these days of hopes and prays.
Hey, thanks so much for watching this course. I really hope you enjoyed it. I want to let you know that we do have another course on Chanukah and I want to encourage you to go take a look, you can find it right over here. This other Chanukah course actually traces Chanukah some of the earliest stories in the Torah itself even though Chanukah is a rabbinic holiday, it seems to have these ere kinds of premonitions that emanate from early on from the story of Exodus.
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