Thursday, December 25, 2008

Lighting Up: the Beauty of Chanuka

מצות נר חנוכה מצוה חביבה היא עד מאד

'The mitzva of the lighting of the Hanuka lamp,' says Maimonides, is a very beloved mitzva.' To encounter this passage on its own, you might forget that scholars like to call Maimonides a 'rationalist,' instead we get here a rare expression of enthusiasm - not only an adjective, but even an adverb! There are 613 mitvos in the Torah, and many more decreed by the rabbis, but nowhere else do we find Maimonides in his massive legal compilation evidencing such enthusiasm for a mitzva. We may wonder, adapting the idiom that my kids use when a sibling is evidencing too much enthusiasm for an activity - lama ata kol kach mitlahev? - 'why are you getting so excited?' or more literally, 'why are you so lit up?' Why is Maimonides so 'lit up' by the mitzva of Hanuka?

But there other questions to which we'd have to attend as well. Continuing, Maimonides writes, 'a person should be careful so as to make known the miracle (הנס), and to multiply his thanks to G-d and praise him for the miracles (נסים).' Why is there a disagreement in number? which one is it - miracle or miracles? The inconsistency in Maimonides is paralleled by a seeming inconsistency in the sages. For example, when the sages of the Talmud ask 'what is Hanuka?' - that is, on what basis was Hanuka established as a holiday? - the answer given is the miracle of the oil that should have lasted only one day, but lasted eight days instead. Yet in the prayers on the eight days of Hanuka, there is no mention at all of the miracle of the oil, only the miracles of Jewish victory against the Greeks - that the stronger and more numerous Greek forces succumbed to the weaker Jewish minority. So in the question of miracles - to Maimonides we ask, 'how many?', and to the sages, 'which one?'

The miracle of Hanuka - or the miracles - become clearer in relation to the Greeks and the particular threat they represented to the people of Israel. For the sages, the Greeks occupy an ambiguous position. A Torah scroll can be written in two languages - Hebrew and Greek, but the sages say that it is forbidden for a father to teach his child Greek! Further, while the sages recognize that of all the nations of the world the Greeks have the greatest claim to wisdom, they associate the Greeks with the aboriginal darkness - the חושך - from before the Creation. The Greeks with their decrees, our sages say, darkened the eyes of Israel. The means through which they brought about that darkness, as well as the response of the Jewish people, may provide a way into better understanding the miraculous nature of Hanuka.

The parallels - or better the contrasts - between Hanuka and Purim help in explaining the distinctive nature of galut Yavan, the exile of darkness imposed on the Jews by the Greeks. On Purim, the Jewish people transgressed through attending the feast of the Persian King Achashverus. That is, they transgressed with their bodies, and as a result, the threatened punishment was to their bodies: Haman wanted to destroy all of the Jewish people. He was not interested in Jews who wanted to convert - Jewish father or mother, or even grandparent: their fate would be the same. To avoid the threat against them - they appealed to G-d through fasting, again with their bodies. So when salvation came, the Jews celebrated with their bodies - with drinking and eating, objectifying their joy through physical pleasure. In contrast, the transgression which leads up to the Hanuka story was the neglect of the service in the Temple. As a consequence, the Jews were threatened not with the destruction of their bodies, but their minds and souls. The Greeks had a consistent strategy: they did not destroy the oil; rather they defiled it, leaving its external form, though rendering it impure. So also, they left the Temple in Jerusalem standing, but transformed it internally, turning it into a gymanasia, a place celebrating the primacy of Greek wisdom. So the decrees of Antiochus were not against the body of the Jew: the latter retained his external form, but he, like the oil and the Temple, was defiled internally. The strange exile of Greece - the Jews still in their land! - is the internal and spiritual exile of assimilation. The Greeks were מחלל - they turned sacred into secular - literally leaving a חלל or void in the people of Israel. To avoid this threat against them, the Jews renewed their spiritual efforts, they dedicated their souls - they were מוסר נפש - to divine service. So when salvation came after these trials, the Jews celebrated not through food and drink, but with thanks and praise to G-d.

Praise or hoda'ah - הודאה - is connected to הוד or hod, that is beauty. The kabbalists tell us that the eight days of Chanuka are eight days of hod; the days of Hanuka are days of both praise and beauty. Both words imply flexibility even dependence - to praise G-d is to confess and recognize a reliance upon the divine. Hod is a particular form of beauty - there are many - that defines itself through an acknowledged vulnerability, a yielding. The Greeks emphasized the beauty of the external form, yofi or יופי, but such beauty begins and ends with the external. Unlike the beauty of Greece - yofi - hod represents a beauty that comes about when the physical first joins and then yields to the spiritual. The hod of Moses splenderous face in Numbers is not the external beauty of Greece, but an external testimony to an inner state. Hod is a beauty that breaks forth from the physical, yielding to a force beyond it.

Here is the beauty of Chanuka - in the hod of the Hanuka lamp, burning for eight days. Ask Aristotle how long the lamp will burn, or ask Newton - they will both tell you: one day. The lamp that burns for eight days testifies to a force beyond both the Aristotelian laws of physics and the Newtonian laws of nature. The Greeks are darkness - Maimonides tells us that they were the first of the nations of the world to embrace atheism. Other nations of the world may have worshipped strange gods, but the world of the Greeks was godless. As great as their wisdom was and is, they darkened our eyes, habituating us to a world in which there is nothing more than the laws of nature - a world exhausted by the empirical and defined by the expression 'seeing is believing.'

So Maimonides tells us be careful to make the miracle (in the singular) known - this is the miracle of the oil, the miracle which the eight days of Hanuka commemmorate. But I might ask: why do I have to be careful? I live in a Jewish neighborhood! There are thousands of menoras - of course the miracle is known! Maimonides may emphasize that I need to make the miracle known not only to others, but to myself. Be careful to recognize the hod of the Hanuka lights which testify that nature is flexible; it bends; it yields. First comes the acknowledgement of the hod of the Hanuka lamps, then the hoda'ah or praise for the miracles (in the plural) of the Jewish victory. The Hanuka lamp is acknowledged as a miracle in and of itself, but it also provides a lens through which to see the נסים, the other miracles. The wars between Jews and Greeks can be reduced to a history book example of geo-politics - and they are by the Greeks. But the hod of the Hanuka lamps leads to the hoda'ah or praise for the miraculous nature of the everyday - starting for us with the Jewish victory over the Greeks, but leading outward to the other miracles of our lives. The mitzva of the Hanuka lamps is beloved - חביבה היא עד מאד - in allowing us to thus find light - even hod - in the darkness of Greek exile. Acknowledging the hod of the lamp activates praises and thanks for the miracles that are less easily seen in a world where the Greeks have darkened - and may still succeed in darkening - our eyes. So Maimonides gets 'lit up' by the lights of Hanuka. G-d transformed the oil of the lamp. And through the lamp - if we see the hod - the world we see is also transformed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wounding, Vulnerability and Identity: Jacob's Scar

The most famous scar in Western Literature is that of Odysseus. Disguised as a beggar, he returns from his voyages to Ithaka; to prove his identity to the still faithful servants, he shows his wound. Not his driver's license, or his college ID, but the scar on his thigh. Odysseus's scar is what defines him.

What's in a name, Shakespeare's Juliet asks Romeo: 'would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?' The answer for Homer - as for Shakespeare - is no! Odysseus's name is central to his identity: his grandfather, in the Homeric version of the bris, names him: 'I have suffered and caused other to suffer says his grandfather, let his name be Odysseus' - a name which means to suffer and to cause suffering. Not the name that proud Jewish parents would bestow! And so Odysseus lives out the fate of his name, suffering, causing suffering, and winning glory. As a young man, he hunts a dangerous wild boar - which 'hooks him aslant,' ripping 'his flesh just beneath the knee.' The young Odysseus finally triumphs over the wild beast; and when he returns home, he 'spins the tale' of how he got his wound. His wound defines him. When, he returns home, disguised as an old beggar, his old nurse washes him, and only when she runs her hands over the groove of his wound, only then does she cry out, 'Odysseus, it's you!'

Odysseus's scar is famous, but there are other famous wounds.

Fearing the vengeful wrath of Esau after having taken the birthright, Jacob sends emissaries to his brother with gifts; takes special precautions for his family; and then finds himself alone, isolated on the banks of the Yabok river in the middle of the night:

And Yaakov was left alone, and someone wrestled with him until break of day. He saw that he could not prevail against him, so he touched the upper joint of his thigh - which was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

Our sages say that the dust which whirled up from these two wrestlers 'rose up to the Throne of God.' Not any ordinary wrestling match, Jacob was in battle with the 'ministering angel' of Esau - a battle between Israel and the culture of the West which Esau represents. Jacob also suffers a wound - his thigh was dislocated. And as a result, Jacob limps through history. In the end, the sun does shine 'for him,' and the healing light promises an end to the painful traumas - the experience of suffering and exile. But for now, Yaakov limps through history. After their meeting, Esau receives instant gratification - he travels directly to Mount Seir to the seat of his inheritance - Jacob builds a sukkah, a temporary structure, anticipating the path of the people of Israel - a path of wandering, first in the desert, and then throughout history.

Odysseus uses his wound - narrates his suffering - to win himself glory: 'I am Odysseus!' he proclaims to the Cyclops he defeats. Jacob's wound, by contrast, has a different purpose. Following Jacob's triumph over Esau's 'guardian angel,' G-d commands that Jacob abstain from eating the gid hanashe - the sciatic nerve. 'Nashe' means weakness or vulnerability. Odysseus suffers and brings himself glory -through retelling his exploits; Jacob however embraces the law of the sinew of weakness, foregoing the physical strength of this world. Esau in his physical prowess - our sages tell us that he was born with hair, fully formed - cannot recognize the infirmity of others. The law of the sinew - bringing glory or cavod to G-d in its observance - reminds Jacob to embrace his vulnerability, not to forego it. Esau expects - in his desire for instant gratification - perfection from the world. Those of us who are in constant search of 'happiness' or constantly affirming our own contenment may have a bit of Esau in us.

In acknowleding his vulnerability, Jacob is prepared to see the vulnerability of others. When Esau invites Jacob, 'come with me,' the latter refuses, he rather 'leads on softly' - accommodating the pace and needs of his cattle and 'tender' children. Jacob will one day fulfill the fate of his name of Israel - when the dawn breaks, at the end of history, and Israel will prevail over his brother. But in the meantime, he is Jacob, the one who comes from behind, who is incomplete, and who lacks. So Jacob leads on softly.

The wounds of Odysseus and Jacob stand both as a testimony to the sufferings of life. The wounds - in the respective frames - define what it means to be alive. But how does one respond to suffering? Odysseus pursues glory; Jacob pursues cavod shmayim - glory to heaven - all the time recognizing his own vulnerability, allowing him to be open to the vulnerability and needs of others.