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Beit Hamidrash

Yosef and the Chashmonaim

By: הרב רונן נויברט

The story of Yosef is a classic story of a Jew struggling to overcome the dangerous influence of a foreign culture, and to remain a "נער עברי". Similarly, the story of Chanukah is also a story of a cultural struggle...


The story of Yosef is a classic story of a Jew struggling to overcome the dangerous influence of a foreign culture, and to remain a "נער עברי".  Similarly, the story of Chanukah is also a story of a cultural struggle, ending with the victory of fighters for preservation of Jewish identity. The triumph of Chanukah is primarily a spiritual achievement rather than a physical one.


We tend to think that the struggle between the Chashmonaim and the Greeks was a battle between the forces of the good and evil, between the light and the darkness, the sacred and the profane.  We tend to refer to the Greek nation as a pleasure-seeking hedonistic society, aiming to replace the spiritual profound Jewish tradition. Of course this approach is logical, at first.  Nevertheless, this concept misses out on a basic aspect that lies within this struggle.   According to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook's explanation, which appears in detail in the book "Mo'adey Hare'iya" (written by Rav M.Z. Nerya the founder of Bnei-Akiva) there was a deeper cause for this battle.


In fact, the Greeks where not only involved with materialism and hedonism, but also with spirituality. The Greek philosophers achieved great spiritual insights. Their insights were so profound that some of our sages have even studied Greek wisdom. As the Rambam says in his introduction to the Eight Chapters: "Accept the truth from whoever said it" (meaning Aristotle and his colleagues.)


Nonetheless, the Greeks had substantial faults in their approach to spirituality. Greece was divided to two major disciplines - Sparta and Athens. Sparta enhanced the culture of beauty, physical prowess, body building and sports.  Athens, on the other hand, emphasized philosophy and spirituality. Life in Athens was completely detached from worldly matters and from materialism. Greek individuals were expected to choose between these two, apparently contradicting, approaches - being engaged with material matters in Sparta or alternatively - being engaged with the spiritual issues in Athens.


The Greeks aimed against Am Yisrael's ability to integrate the realm of the sacred with the secular. The Greeks accepted the supreme value of the spiritual world (Maharal, Ner Mitzva).  They didn't object to the involvement of Jewish individuals in spirituality. Their main concern was the Jewish integration of the realms. "ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים"- a Kingdom that deals with a political leadership, that dealt with material needs and a priesthood that provided the spiritual leadership, both united and consolidated. Am Yisrael's ultimate role is to institute a political state (with all its components: army, police, economy, hi-tech, etc.), but founded on roots of holiness. 


The Greeks challenged this combination of physical and spiritual matters by focusing all their negative decrees on the mitzvot that embody this integration of heavenly and earthly concerns.  They forbid Shabbat observance. One way in which Oneg Shabbat is accomplished is by bringing Kedusha into our meals. Each Shabbat meal is a holy experience, said Ha'ari Hakadosh.  They forbade Brit Milah, which raises the profane to a level of holiness by marking a physical limb capable of profane acts with a holy sign. They forbade Mikvah, which raises physical attraction to a spiritual level.


Therefore, explains Rav Kook, specifically the Chashmonaim were chosen to defeat the Greeks.  The Chashmonaim were spiritual Cohanim, yet at the same time fearless fighters fighting with courage and bodily strength. Matityahu, the Cohen Gadol, was also the military leader.  He had all the levels of greatness required for a High Priest. which was the leader of his brothers not only in terms of spirituality and sacredness but also in terms of physical beauty, strength and wealth (Toseftah, Yomah 1:6).


Yosef embodied the combination of spiritual and physical matters. Rashi (based on Chazal) explains that Yosef would fix his hair so as to be handsome. Yosef was a realistic, down to earth person, involved with management and economic issues.  Yet, above all, Yosef was a spiritual, holy leader. Pharaoh, overwhelmed by this unique combination, exclaims: הנמצא כזה איש - אשר רוח אלוקים בו" ".  The characteristics of both Yosef and of Matityahu, the Cohen Gadol, symbolize the triumph over the Greeks - the victory inscribed in the partnership between Heaven and Earth.