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HANUKAH’S MESSAGE IS PERFECTLY IMPERFECT

By: Rabbi Zamir Cohen



The Jewish and Greek ideologies represent opposing attitudes toward the purpose of life. The Torah's approach is that Hashem deliberately created the world in an imperfect fashion, so that man could perfect it.

Hanukah is one of the most widely observed of all the Jewish festivals. Everyone enjoys lighting beautiful menorahs and eating lots of donuts. But beneath the festive commemoration of the Hashmonaim’s triumph over the powerful Greek army lies a fundamental ideological battle, one that still rages today.

The Jewish and Greek ideologies represent opposing attitudes toward the purpose of life. The Midrash relates that a Roman leader once asked Rabbi Akiva the question of whose creation is greater – Gd’s, or man’s. Rabbi Akiva surprisingly answered that man’s creation is greater. After all, he explained, Gd produces inedible produce such as kernels of wheat, which offer no benefit, whereas man takes this kernel and, with considerable work and effort, turns it into bread. The Midrash explains that Rabbi Akiva knew the Roman official expected him to say that Gd’s creation is greater, and then planned to ask why Jews perform berit milah, removing part of the body as if to improve Gd’s creation. Rabbi Akiva therefore avoided this question by stating that man’s creation is indeed greater.

How are we to understand this story? Surely Gd’s creation is infinitely greater than man’s!

There was a deeper disagreement underlying this discussion. The Roman in this story represented the Greco-Roman emphasis on the perfection of man. The Greeks idolized the human body and intellect, believing that man was naturally perfect, and the Romans perpetuated that ideology. Consequently, they regarded the Jewish practice of berit milahas especially abhorrent, as taking something perfect and damaging it.

Rabbi Akiva represented the Torah belief that Gd deliberately created the world in an imperfect fashion, so that man could perfect it – such as by producing bread from a useless kernel of wheat. Of course, Gd is infinitely greater than man. However, He wants man to go through the process of turning wheat into something greater. This is also the symbolism of berit milah: Man is not born perfect. He has a great deal of work to do. Specifically, he needs to harnessand control all his powerful drives and use them for growth and to improve himself. Life is one big opportunity to elevate all of one’s natural drives.

In light of this, it not surprising that one of the mitzvot the Greeks outlawed was berit milah. They sought to uproot the idea that man is not made perfect, that life is about developing oneself, striving to eliminate negative character traits and build positive character traits. The Jews fought this prohibition with all their might and eventually overcamethe Greeks, and we have likewise outlived the Romans and all the philosophies that espouse the natural perfection of mankind.

However, this struggle continues even today. We live in a society that places little or no emphasis on improving one’s character,and focuses instead on physical pleasure. We know that true satisfaction is derived solely from growing, from becoming a kinder, more spiritual person, a more thoughtful spouse, a more attentive parent, and, most importantly, a better servant of Gd.