Worse Than Extermination
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Chanukah parties with family and friends are one of the highlights of this special time of year. Though an appropriate way to celebrate, the Shulchan Aruch paskens that these parties are not obligatory because, as opposed to Purim, Chanukah was not established as a holiday of “feasting and joy” (Orach Chayim 670:2). Why was Chanukah instituted this way? Why is the celebratory feast central to Purim, but not Chanukah?
The Levush suggests that Purim commemorates our salvation from the physical threat of annihilation, and so we celebrate it in a physical way. By contrast, Chanukah only commemorates a spiritual threat. The Greeks did not seek to annihilate us, but rather to assimilate us. Because our lives were not in danger, Chanukah is commemorated spiritually, through the neirot, but not with physical feasting.
The Taz rejects the Levush in very strong terms: “This is not correct!” The Taz felt that the Levush minimized the significance of the Grecian threat by presenting it as “merely” spiritual. He cites Chazal who say: גָּדוֹל הַמַּחֲטִיא אֶת הָאָדָם יוֹתֵר מֵהוֹרְגוֹ, “Causing another to sin is worse than killing him” (Orach Chayim 670:3).
The root of this teaching is the Midrash’s explanation of the Torah’s harsh treatment of the nations of Ammon and Moav. Sefer Devarim prohibits marrying converts from these nations – even ten generations after their conversion (Devarim 23:4)! The Torah even commands us to ignore their needs and welfare. The Midrash Tanchuma explains these verses as referring to a time of war. While we offer peace to other enemies before declaring war, we make no such offer to Ammon and Moav (Pinchas 3).
By contrast, the following verses exhort Am Yisrael to welcome converts from the nations of Edom and Egypt, whom we are permitted to marry after only three generations. Why do we welcome the converts of Egypt, a nation that enslaved us and killed our children, but not the people of Ammon and Moav?
The Midrash Tanchuma explains that while the Egyptians attacked us physically, Ammon and Moav did something even worse, conspiring with Bilaam to ensnare our ancestors in sin with Moabite women. Luring another to sin is worse than killing them, because killing only removes the victim from this world, while sin removes one from the next world as well.1
For this reason, the Taz objects to the implication that a spiritual threat is less significant than a physical one. Chanukah commemorates salvation from a spiritual threat – a greater salvation than that of Purim!
The Midrash and the Taz remind us to live our lives in this world in a way that enhances our life in the next one, for “this world is merely an entryway into the next one” (Pirkei Avot 4:17).
For this reason, the Mishnah teaches that if someone is forced to choose between saving the life of his father (when one’s father did not teach him Torah) or his rebbe, he should prioritize his rebbe. His father brought him into this world, but his rebbe brings him to the next one.2
While most enemies of the Jewish people have sought to destroy us, the Greeks tried to change our identity and the nature of our religious conviction. The Chanukah victory was not merely a military victory of the few over the many, but a reassertion of and commitment to our unadulterated Jewish identity.
Chanukah commemoration throughout the generations emboldened our ancestors to resist the temptation to assimilate into the surrounding culture. It inspires us to remain a distinct people committed to our Torah and traditions.
In recent generations, sustaining our unique identity has become more difficult. In many countries, we were freed from the ghettos and offered acceptance within broader society. Most Jews have taken advantage of the opportunity and assimilated in one form or another. Though we are still attacked and killed because of our ethnicity, we lose far more people to assimilation and intermarriage.
Assimilation and even intermarriage threaten Jews in Israel as well. Though we live as a free nation in our own land, modern media and the internet constantly expose us to the world’s culture and mores. Chanukah reminds us that what we learn from the world around us must not steer us away from our Torah and traditions.
May Chanukah inspire us with pride in our unique spiritual identity and strengthen our commitment to our eternal heritage.
1 Many commentaries explain the Haggadah’s description of Lavan as having tried to “destroy everything”. Though Lavan did not want to kill Ya’akov and his family, he wanted to assimilate them, which was tantamount to their destruction.
2 This is why the best expression of ahavat habriyot (love of Hashem’s creations) is bringing them closer to Torah (Avot 1:12), and why the righteous are described as being alive after their death, while evil people are described as being dead even in this world (Berachot 18b). True life is in the next world. We are alive in this world when we live in a way that earns us a place in the next one.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.