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Let us go back to the ancestors of Israel and Greece, Noah's sons Shem and Yafeth. The Torah tells us that Noah became drunk and uncovered himself in his tent - and, even worse, was ridiculed by his own son, Ham. Shem and Yafeth draped a garment over their shoulders and walking backwards to avoid seeing their father's shame, went in and covered him. When Noah learned what had happened, he blessed his two loyal sons: May G-d extend Yafeth, but He will dwell in the tents of Shem (Gen. 9:27).
Although Shem and Yafeth (ostensibly) did the same compassionate respectful deed, Noah gave them different blessings (See Rashi on Gen. 9:23). Obviously, Shem's blessing was superior – or was it?
Yapeth's boundaries were vastly expanded, it is true: Alexander and his successors ruled the world. His esthetic boundaries, too, were extended. The Talmud (Megillah 9b) derives both Yapeth's name and the word with which he was blessed, Yafeth from Yaffa, beautiful. He was blessed not only with territory, but with beauty. And that blessing endures to this day wherever Greek philosophy is studied, Greek plays are performed and Greet athletic events are emulated. These and other manifestations of Greek culture all flowed from Noah's blessing.
Shem was blessed with none of these. He was rewarded with the promise that G-d's Presence would find a home in his tents. Abraham, as Shem's primary descendant, produced the nation that accepted the Torah, built the Temples and remained loyal to their teachings and concepts even in the darkest moments of many exiles.
What is the essential difference between the two blessings?
Yafeth's was an external gift… The architect of physical beauty, the composer of scores that meld the talents of a hundred musicians – even the playwright and philosopher – do not approach the inner depth of one whose mind is engaged with the wisdom of G-d, whose heart tingles with love of G-d, whose limbs are sanctified by the acts ordained by G-d…
When Yafeth lets his sensitivity and knowledge be guided by the Presence that rests in the tents of Shem, then he, too, becomes a chariot for G-d's glory. But if he perceives Torah as his competitor, he will drag it down to the level of just another ancient literary classic as King Ptolemy did (in having the Torah translated into Greek), or he will wage war against it as Antiochus did.
With the reign of Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks, a kulturkampf came to the Land of Israel. The Syrian-Greek bearers of Yafeth's blessing imposed their culture upon Israel and attempted to destroy its allegiance to G-d. They defiled the Temple and chose three Commandments as their prime targets: the Sabbath, the proclamation by the Sanhedrin of the New Moon and circumcision.
The Sabbath is the eternal witness that in six days G-d created existence from absolute nothingness. If G-d is the eternal Creator and continuous Resuscitator of the universe, and if His Torah formed the blueprint and formula for the existence and purpose of Creation, then Greek culture would have to stand aside and bow humbly before the tents of Shem. This, Antiochus could not countenance.
The New Moon is the symbol of man's obligation to instill holiness into time, for when the Sanhedrin proclaims Rosh Chodesh, it makes possible the time-related festivals like Rosh Hashanah and Passover that cannot exist without a calendar. Man's power to proclaim the New Moon proves that time, the symbol of nature's tyranny over man, can be subjugated. When the Sanhedrin hallows the New Moon, the festivals - the appointed meeting places in time between G-d and man - enter the calendar and raise it from a record of material pursuit and struggle to a vehicle of holiness. Antiochus had to fight this concept, for it meant that culture had value only as a means toward a higher purpose.
Circumcision demonstrates that the physical and spiritual must be intertwined. The body must bear the mark of allegiance to G-d's covenant, the restraining mark that says: "You are a servant, not a master; you are host to a soul and must elevate yourself to its exalted level. Beauty and pleasure are not the independent virtues Antiochus ways they are. They are regulated by the Torah, or they are nothing!"
A world without a Creator, a calendar without holiness, a body without restraint - these were the goals of a culture that had accepted the gifts, but not the goals of Noah's blessing to Yafeth, a culture of grace and splendor covering a corrosive emptiness. To this had the potential of Yafeth's beauty been pulled down.
Small wonder that the Midrash comments that the primeval darkness (Gen.1:2) alludes to Greece. A tragic miscarriage of purpose! Greece should have placed its culture at the service of Shem, used it to help provide a glorious dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Instead, its splendor became darkness.
Of all the periods described as exiles, only that of Greece took place while Israel was still in its land and the Temple stood. Thus, in a sense, it was the most damaging kind of exile, for it happened when Israel's potential for greatness was highest, when it could have illuminated the world, especially since the vaults of the Oral Torah had been opened wide. Over this splendor, Antiochus cast his impure pall.
And this was why the victory of the Hasmoneans was symbolized both at the time and in our annual commemoration by the flames of the Menorah, the glow of the Torah, the spiritual presence that illuminates the tents of Shem – whether they are on the Temple Mount or in the humblest Jewish home that holds Torah sacred.