Waging an impossible battle: to fuse physicality with spirituality
By: Dovid Samuels
On Chanukah, we celebrate a miraculous victory in our battle against the Greek Empire. The question is, why did we, as a people, decide to stand up against our tormentors and wage war with them, when so many other times in Jewish history, Purim being one of them, we made a national decision to avoid fighting and instead engage in more spiritual activities like communal fasting and prayer? What is the appropriate Jewish response towards our enemies: war and fighting or prayer and fasting?
To begin to answer this fundamental question, because as Jews we have had our fair share of opportunities to ask this question, we need to look at a rather puzzling reaction by Yehuda, the son of Yaakov our forefather. When Yosef, as leader of Egypt, gathered all his brothers again after previously dismissing them with one of his valuable goblets hidden amongst their possessions, Yehuda suggested that, as punishment, all of the brothers remain behind in Egypt as servants of Yosef (who hadn’t revealed his true identity to them yet). He was willing to submit himself and all of his brothers to a lifetime of servitude in a foreign land to a foreign leader. To this, Yosef responded: “How could I do that?! The man with whom the goblet is found, he should be the one to serve me, while the rest of you go back to your father in peace.” A seemingly merciful compromise on Yosef’s part, sparing all of the innocent brothers and holding back only the single “guilty” party, who happened to be Binyamin.
Yaakov would not need to suffer the loss of all of his sons in one swift moment, but only one. Surely this is better than the option that Yehuda had provided. But Yehuda’s reaction, as taught to us in a Midrash, was to say, “You’ll grab Binyamin and there will be peace in my father’s house?!” and then, with anger, he screamed out with a massively loud cry. This is perplexing, as Yehuda had just offered Binyamin, along with all of the other brothers, to remain behind as slaves in Egypt, meaning he was apparently okay with Binyamin being separated from his father’s house. But now that Yosef is mercifully sparing the rest of them and holding on to Binyamin alone, Yehuda reacts with extreme emotion and rage. What changed?
The answer to this question will help to answer why on Purim we chose, based on the advice of Mordechai HaTzadik, the path of fasting and supplications to Hashem, engaging in Torah learning and repentance, whereas against the Greeks we opted for battle as our primary response. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, ztz”l, explains the difference in approach by analysing the threats presented by Haman and the Greeks. Haman decreed an absolute annihilation of the Jewish people: men, women, and children. He didn’t forbid Torah learning, performance of mitzvos, or any other Jewish practice. It was Jewish life itself that was in the crosshairs. When the physical existence of the Jewish people is at stake, we are supposed to understand that this is a decree from Hashem and that His decree is to prompt a spiritual improvement amongst His people. Our response: increase prayer and all forms of supplication in an attempt to cancel the decree. If, however, our enemy spares our bodies, but wages war against our holy Torah and the fulfilment of its mitzvos, as did the Greeks, then this cannot be viewed as a Heavenly decree (as Hashem would not decree anything against His own Torah), but rather we must respond to it with all of the physical abilities that we have at our disposal. Our reaction: to fight for Hashem’s sake, as well as the obvious prayer and spiritual mending.
This response, however, appears to be the opposite of what one would normally expect. Against a spiritual threat, one would assume a spiritual response to be the appropriate one. And, likewise, against a physical threat, a physical response should be utilised. But the real Jewish reaction is to respond to a physical danger with spirituality, and to a spiritual danger with physicality. So much so that against Haman there was absolutely no fighting in an attempt to nullify the decree and prevent a holocaust. Fasting, praying, pleading. But no fighting. Whereas against the Greeks, who were happy with the Jews to exist and wanted purely to remove all forms of spirituality from our religion, leaving behind nothing but a Jewish “culture”, the Chashmonaim refused to remain silent and instead raised arms and waged war against the giant Greek army. To save Yidden, we pray. To save Yiddishkeit, we fight.
This approach was taught to us by our holy forerunner, Yehuda, in the above episode. Knowing that there would be some consequence after the apparent theft of Yosef’s goblet, Yehuda decided to volunteer all of the brothers into slavery. This amounts to a physical trial, one which can be seen as a Heavenly decree, to which the appropriate response would be to pray and plead and repent, to nullify the decree. To this, Yosef responded that he would take only the guilty man, only Binyamin would stay behind. Yehuda knew that one man alone in the vastly impure spiritual desert of Egypt would stand no chance at maintaining his religiousness. Without the other brothers there to support him, his Yiddishkeit was at stake. All of the spiritual abilities he had learned and inherited from Yaakov, his father, were at risk of being lost forever. To this threat, Yehuda could not be silent. He could not accept the Heavenly decree with a spiritual response. He would do something physical, anything possible, in face of the spiritual peril. He screamed!
But what did Yehuda hope to achieve by screaming? Could anything come of such a response? We know that not one action of our holy predecessors detailed in the Torah was in vain. So what was the point? Really, one should be asking the same question when we look at the battle of the Chashmonaim against the Greeks. We say in the Al HaNissim prayer: “You handed over strong into the hands of the weak, multitudes into the hands of the few.” What were they thinking? A few men waging a campaign against the largest and most successful, skilled, and powerful army in the world?! What did they hope to achieve? And the answer to both of these questions, which is a fundamental lesson in Jewish thought and practice, is that when it comes to matters of spirituality, one mustn’t stop and question what his action will actually achieve. He mustn’t rationalise spiritual matters and doubt the efficacy of his efforts. On the contrary, a Jew must exert whatever effort he has, and Hashem will make sure that the effect of those efforts is enough the get the job done. Yehuda’s shriek was his only physical option available to him. What did he hope to achieve? He felt the need to respond in whatever way possible against the impending spiritual jeopardy. He knew that he could not fight against Yosef, but he could scream, with anger and emotion. The result: Yosef had mercy, and revealed his identity to his brothers.
What did the Chashmonaim hope to achieve against the Greek war machine? They realised that something, whatever they could do, needed to be done, and it would be up to Hashem to make their limited efforts have the desired result. In the end, that is exactly what happened. Against all odds, Hashem caused the weak minority to prevail against the powerful majority, simply because they did whatever they could to fight for Judaism. This message is preserved for us in lighting the Chanukah lights, where we commemorate our ancestors who lit the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash for eight days with one jar of oil. But why did they bother? They knew it would not be enough! But they acted, and did whatever they were able to do, however small and seemingly insignificant, and Hashem saw their efforts and miraculously made their actions have more effect than otherwise possible.
Although this might be hard to internalise, it is a necessary and fundamental belief in every aspect of Judaism. Our mission in this world is to achieve spirituality – to come closer and closer to the Source of all perfection through His Torah and commandments. But how can we, physical human beings with limitations, expect to connect in any way to anything spiritual and G-dly? The answer is, naturally we can’t. But our response is that of Yehuda, that of the Chashmonaim: to do whatever physical action we can, no matter how outwardly futile and inconsequential, and Hashem will perform a miracle and allow mere flesh and blood to attach to spiritualty, perfection, and eternality. The Mesillas Yesharim explains that ultimately achieving the level of Kedusha, holiness, is a gift, awarded to those who put in the effort to achieve it. The mussar master, Rav Yisroel Salanter, ztz”l, in discussing the concept of perfecting one’s inner drives, says: “What can a man do with these inner forces, which he doesn’t even know about and cannot even feel? These inner powers might have the ability to rule over him more even than external forces! … For this, our Sages have taught us that Hashem will help him. When a person does whatever he is capable of, and tries to take care of the more external behaviours and drives, Hashem will send holy assistance in helping him overpower his innate drives and unconscious forces. One just needs to start working.”
This is exactly what the Greeks were fighting against when they targeted our religion. We believe in wisdom, and the Greeks believed in wisdom. Ours, however, is G-dly. They argued: How can a mere man connect to a wisdom which comes from heaven and exists in the spiritual realms? This question, unanswerable to them, was the motivation behind their assault against the Torah. But we had the answer all along. The truth is, as humans, we alone cannot connect to the G-dly wisdom of Hashem’s Torah. Physicality and spirituality do not naturally dwell together. But we believe, and we know, that all we need to do is what we can, to put in effort, to use our physical abilities, to fight for kedusha, and Hashem will allow those efforts to miraculously connect us to spirituality, to Torah, and to Hashem Himself.
- Midrash Raba 93:7 ↑