Parashat Miketz (Hanukah)

Body and Spirit

In Genesis Chapter 10, we are told about Noah's sons who were the ancestors of all the nations of the world. The first son was Shem. We all know the meaning of the word "shem" – name. Name is the essence of man, the world of the spirit. Our forefather Abraham was a descendant of Shem so that, in effect, all of us, as Jews, are descendants of Shem.

The name of Ham, the second son, derives from the word "hom", meaning "heat". The word suggests the world of natural drives, the physical, instinctive and sometimes even primitive world. The Canaanites were the descendants of Ham.

The third son was Yaphet, from the word "yofi", meaning "beauty". He is the archetype of the material world – art, sport and aesthetics. It is not by chance that the Torah tells us that Yaphet begat Yavan (Greece), the empire that has been unsurpassed in human history in the fields of art, sport and aesthetics.

To understand the deeper meaning of the Hannuka festival, we should think of the essential nature of Noah and his sons. The Hasmonean war was not only a war to ensure the physical survival of the Jewish people, but also a war to ensure its spiritual survival. It was a war between the values embodied in Yaphet and Shem.

I do not mean that the Jewish people are against aesthetics, art and sport. Jewish tradition did not object to taking care of the body or to external beauty, but never allowed the body to take precedence over the spirit. "Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised" (Proverbs 31, verse 30) does not deny the value of charm and beauty but states that without spiritual beauty they are worthless.

Joseph, whom we read about in the portion of the week, was also "well-favoured", but the sages never refer to him as "the handsome Joseph" but only as "the righteous Joseph", clear proof that Joseph succeeded in overcoming the temptations of Potiphar's wife.

If you ask me what the reason is for the survival of the Jewish people for so many generations after pogroms, blood and Holocaust, there is only one answer: we were never, as a people, enslaved to the material world; not to buildings, not to land, and not even to the tablets of the Ten Commandments. We succeeded in rebuilding our community after the destruction of the Temple. We succeeded in growing as a nation even in the hard times of exile. We knew how to write books after the loss of the tablets. On the other hand, peoples who saw the body and the material world as their purpose appear today in history books, for it is possible to destroy the body, but never the spirit.

We can understand this idea in the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, one of the ten martyrs under Roman rule. When the Romans took him to be executed, they wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set it alight. While he was on fire, his students asked him,"Rabbi, what do you see?" He answered, "I see sheets of parchment burning and the letters on them soaring on high."(Avoda Zara –Idol Worship 8).

It is possible to burn the scroll itself but impossible to lose the spirit of its words. The Hannuka candles testify to the triumph of our spiritual values, not just to the physical survival of our people, because no power in the world can destroy our spirit and our essential nature.

Weekly Torah Portion