An excerpt taken from Seasons of Nobility published by Maggid Books, 2019.
Seasons of Nobility is a selection of Rabbi Dr. Levine’s sermons on the Jewish holidays and special Shabbatot, transcribed from his manuscripts dating from 1982 to 2011. Drawing upon the author’s deep reservoir of Torah knowledge, the sermons offer original insights into the laws, customs, prayers, and public readings of the Jewish festivals. These stirring messages of faith, Jewish unity, and aspiration for redemption remain as relevant today as when they were first delivered.
To Make Them Forget Your Torah
Sermon origingally delivered on December 3, 1994
The phrase in Al ha-Nissim “le-hashkiham Toratekha,” “to make them forget Your Torah,” encapsulates the objective of our ancient Greek-Syrian oppressors.
Permit me to suggest that the campaign to effect this design did not begin with the specific prohibition against religious practice on the pain of death consisting of the Sabbath, Rosh Hodesh, and milah. It began in a much more subtle and indirect way with the translation of the Torah into Greek, which Ptolemy II Philadephus ordered the seventy-two Sages to do.1 This apparently innocent event is regarded by our Sages as a tragedy.2
And why? Because when a lover of knowledge who denies the divine origin of the Torah wants to translate the Torah, he desires to bring it into the corpus of knowledge on an equal footing. He has knocked the Torah from its pedestal. This is the first blow to making the Torah central in our lives and viewing it in its unique character. In Hellenistic thought, the Torah must be subjected to the same test of practicality and scientific method as secular knowledge; some parts may survive, but others might be rejected or regarded as irrelevant.
The lesson that an indirect, subtle attack can strike a bigger blow than a frontal attack is particularly brought home on the eighth day of Hanukkah. Each day of Hanukkah corresponds to a korban offered by a Prince in connection with the dedication of the Tabernacle.3 The eighth day corresponds to Menasheh.4
In today’s sidrah, we are told that Joseph called his firstborn Menasheh, “Ki nashani Elokim et kol amali ve-et kol beit avi,” “For God has made me forget all my hardship and my father’s household” (Genesis 41:51). Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah asks, what type of person would not be ashamed to openly thank God that his present situation is so satisfying that he forgets family and heritage?5
Without asking the question, the Malbim says that Joseph thanked Hashem because he felt pain for forgetting his father’s home.6 Joseph was the Horatio Alger of the ancient world, experiencing a spectacular rise from lowly felon to Viceroy of Egypt. “The daughters climbed heights to gaze [at Joseph]” (Genesis 49:22). He certainly made the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week!
For a lesser person, all the honor, wealth, and adulation would have drowned out any longing for his father and heritage, with absolutely no pain. But Joseph felt pain for forgetting his father. He named his firstborn Menasheh so that every time he would pick up and embrace his child or call him by his name, he would be reminded of his responsibility to preserve the heritage of his father, review the lessons that his father imparted, and implement the Jewish ideal of hesed in the policies of the government.
Our Sages well understood the insidious process of le-hashkiham Toratekha. It is no better illustrated than with the tragic story of Miriam b. Bilggah. She was an apostate who married a Syrian-Greek military officer. When the Greeks broke into the Sanctuary, she came to the Altar, which was a severe prohibition. She then took off her sandal and beat the Altar, proclaiming, “Wolf! Wolf! How long will you consume the money of Israel, and you do not stand by them in a time of pressing need!” When the Hasmoneans prevailed and restored order, the Sages prohibited not only Bilggah from being a Priest, but his entire clan. This was not overkill. Instead, it reflected the Sages’ insight into how the process of le-hashkiham Toratekha worked.7
Three prohibitions were instituted. First, they permanently affixed the ring of the Bilggah family to the floor of the Courtyard, to tell them that they were not in charge; they were not the boss.8
Second, the members of the Bilggah family were required to divide their share of the lehem ha-panim on the southern side of the Courtyard, even when they were the incoming family. This was contrary to the usual procedure. Each priestly family served in the Temple for a week. At the end of the week, the incoming and out going families would divide the lehem ha-panim between themselves. The incoming family would divide it in the north of the Courtyard, while the outgoing family would divide it in the south. The Bilggah clan was thus treated as if it were always the outgoing family.
Third, the alcove where the Bilggah family stored its knives for ritual use was closed because the Sages did not trust their shehitah. The members of the Bilggah family conducted themselves in their private lives without exuding the requisite yir’at Shamayim and trust – or bittahon – in Hashem. This was middah ke-negged middah, to demonstrate that the Sages did not trust them.
On the eighth day of Hanukkah, the religious rituals of Hanukkah, reach a crescendo. We have eight candles, the longest reading of the Torah of all the days of Hanukkah, Zot Hanukkah,9 and the hasimah of Yom Kippur (i.e., the closure of judgment).10 But the final impression that we are left with is the last verse of mizmor shir at Psalms 30. We say, “Hashem, my God, forever will I thank You” (Psalms 30:13). If this is not to be a sham, we must be equipped to nip in the bud the subtle and indirect forces that make mitzvot mechanical. This means that the end of the verse must be connected to the beginning, “So that my soul may sing to You and not be stilled” (Psalms 30:13). We must eternally be in the shirah mode. If we do not have enthusiasm, we must generate it so that we do not chill the burning candles.
Get Seasons of Nobility today and share Rabbi Levine’s thoughts on the holidays.
1. Megillah 9a.
2. Masekhet Soferim 1:7.
3. Mishnah, Megillah 3:6; Megillah 31a. The biblical account of the offerings of the Princes at Numbers 7:1–8:4 is read on Hanukkah because the dedication of the Tabernacle was completed on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, the first day of Hanukkah. Tur, Orah Hayyim 684 (citing Pesikta Rabbati 6).
4. See Numbers 7:54.
5. R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (Germany, 1785–1865), Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah, Genesis 41:51, s.v. “ve-et kol beit avi.”
6. R. Meir Loeb b. Jehiel Michel Weisser (Malbim, Poland, Romania, and Russia, 1809–1879), Malbim to Genesis 41:52.
7. Sukkah 56b.
8. The rings were used to facilitate ritual slaughter. Twenty-four rings were affixed to the stone floor of the Courtyard in the Temple, corresponding to the twenty-four priestly families that would serve in the Temple on a rotating basis one week at a time. Each ring was in the shape of a circle with an open section. When an animal was to be slaughtered, the ring was rotated so that the open section faced upward. The animal’s neck was placed in the open section. The ring was then rotated until the open section was located in a groove beneath the Courtyard floor. Bilggah’s ring was permanently fixed to the floor so that it could not be rotated and opened. Bilggah was thus forced to use a ring of one of the other groups. Sukkah 56a–b.
9. The Torah reading for the eighth day of Ĥanukkah is Numbers 7:54–8:4. The phrase “zot hanukkat ha-mizbe’ah,” “this was the dedication of the Altar,” is at Numbers 7:84.
10. R. Yehudah Leib of Zaklików (Poland, d. 1826), Likkutei Maharil, Miketz, Derush le-Hanukkah.