Throughout the ages, the nations of the world have attacked the Jewish People, for one reason or another - and often enough for no logical reason at all.
There have been endless variations on the major theme of anti-Semitism. We find that the Sages alluded to the different forms our exile would take already in the Book of Genesis, in the very first chapter:
And the land was empty and confused, and there was darkness on the surface of the depths.
The Midrash explains that one of the allusions of the word "darkness" is to the period when our people were under the rule of the Greeks, who "darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees."
Indeed, we find that each of our enemies persecuted us in a unique manner. We suffered under the Greeks in one way, and later, under the Romans, in a different way.
The verse speaks of "the depths." The Sages tell us that this refers to Rome. With the destruction of the Second Temple began the period of the Roman exile, which persists yet today. At the hands of the Romans and their spiritual descendants, our suffering has been so great and our trials numerous that they are referred to as an abyss so deep that its bottom cannot be detected.
This exile is typified by suffering for its own sake. Our persecutors sought not to gain wealth, not to convert us to their faith, but only to impose anguish and suffering on the Jewish People because they are Jews.
The result? A bottomless pit of indescribable suffering and anguish, too profound for the human heart to put into words.
In his "Message to Yemen", Maimonides writes that the source of the nations' animosity to Israel is their secret envy, embedded deep within their hearts, because the People of Israel were granted G-d's Torah, while they declined this precious gift.
They realize that the people of Israel have a special, closer bond with the Creator than they themselves have, and hence, they are jealous.
Most of the gentiles express this jealousy not by trying to imitate the Jewish people, and thus gaining a share in their special privileges, but rather by hitting out at G-d's "favorite child" and attempting to do him harm.
Our sufferings at the time of the original Chanukah story were of a different nature. Darkness – this is Greece, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their evil decrees." Darkness is an attempt to conceal the truth. This was the method of the Hellenists, to conceal the truth and to blind the spiritual eyes of the Jewish people. Cloud the spiritual perception insight of the Jewish people. The suffering which the Greeks brought upon Israel found expression in the imposition of a foreign culture and its alien values, in an attempt to cloud our vision, lest we see the truth.
These distinctions between Rome and Greece arise from the intrinsic differences between the two cultures. Rome is the spiritual heir of Esau, described from the moment of his birth as being "ruddy." The verse tells us that he was "kulo aderes sei'ar."
Even his name, Esau, from the Hebrew word, "asui – alludes to his inner nature. He was born already complete, fully formed, with no room for growth and improvement.
His physical state is an indication of his approach to life. Esau's ideology propounds that man is comparable to the beast of the field. There is no need or reason to add wisdom and understanding, for man is basically an animal and nothing more.
The Greeks rejected this approach. As descendents of Japheth, they stem from a different line than Esau and Rome. Japheth, Yafet in Hebrew, embodies the ideal of yofi, beauty and esthetics. Japheth holds man to be superior in some ways to the beast; he is not born whole and complete, but must be educated and trained in order to achieve his potential. He achieves this by perfecting himself in culture, the arts and wisdom.
However, Greece also fell victim to human imperfection. The Hellenists viewed man, not G-d, as the center of the universe.
The distinctions between various cultures and the Torah are myriad. Secular wisdom circles around the center point of mankind. It begins and ends with the knowledge accumulated by the nations. The gods of the Greeks were also subject to human weaknesses and flaws of character. They were subject to all the emotions of man: anger, jealousy, lust, and a desire for prestige and honor.
The Greek doctrines claim that man is capable of reaching great heights of achievement in the arts and sciences, but no more than that. Whatever cannot be attained using the senses and man's power of reason is beyond the grasp of flesh and blood. In fact, it does not even exist for the Greek.
In contrast, the Torah starts out with basic assumptions that are diametrically opposed to those of the Greek dogma. On the one hand, the Torah clearly points to mankind as the crown of the creation; nonetheless, man is most clearly not held to be the center of the universe.
Judaism teaches us that it is the Creator Himself Who is the focal point of our existence, Man's importance and his elevated position within the structure of the Creation derives from the fact that he was created "in the image of G-d," as the Sages taught: "Man is cherished, for he was created in the (Divine) image."
Consequently, Judaism and Hellenism relate in such different ways to wisdom and its application in life. Greece sought to derive the maximum from man so far as wisdom and thought were concerned, irrespective of morality.
Not so, the Torah. Judaism reveres G-d, and those who succeed in drawing near to Him by emulating His ways in their daily lives. In the words of the saintly Ramchal, man achieves his greatest potential when he "takes pleasure in closeness to G-d and enjoys the glow of His divine presence." (Chapter One of Mesilas Yeshorim).
All the wisdom and knowledge of our world are given to us only in order to help us achieve this goal of drawing near to G-d.
In his famous prophecy, Jeremiah declared:
Thus says the L-rd: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches.
But let him that takes pride, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the L-rd who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness, in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the L-rd.
Wealth and power and vast storehouses of knowledge are not a valid reason for man to feel himself accomplished. All these are gifts of Heaven, and do as such, are not to be viewed as valid sources of pride and gratification.
What then, according to the prophet, is the true measure of man?
Who deserves our praise? Who should be deemed worthy of our admiration?
"He who knows G-d, and walks in His ways."
When we look at the world around us today, the situation seems far, far from the Torah ideal of "the beauty of Japheth (Greece) in the tents of Shem."
Man today creates much beauty, but not for the purpose of enhancing Torah.
Rather, it appears that in our times, Rome and Greece have joined hands to declare war on the Creator and His chosen people. Our environment is rife with the evil of Esau-Rome, whose culture of materialism is overrun with the falsehood of beautiful externals sheltering a hollow, or even rotten, interior.
The superficial esthetics of Japheth have become an intrinsic part of the tent of Esau rather than that of Shem and the disciples of Torah.
Each Chanukah, we again renew our firm conviction that eventually, the truth will win out and rise to the surface once again. Although, in the words of the Chanukah hymn, Maoz Tzur, "the exile continues to be so long", truth will again reign in all its sterling beauty.