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Knowledge Vs. Wisdom

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The secret of why the Greek empire didn't survive more than a few hundred years.

We all know the story: The triumphant Maccabees, having captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple, set their sites on one priority: Lighting the Menorah. They found one flask of oil, and the flame which should have lasted one day burned for eight. So for 2,000 years since, Jews around the world have commemorated by lighting a Chanukah Menorah…

What's so special about the Menorah that the Maccabees made it their priority, and that the Sages made it the prime focus of our Chanukah celebration?

To answer, we need some background:

The Torah describes the Menorah in the Temple as 7 branches bedecked with decorative cups, knobs and flowers - all fashioned from a single, solid piece of gold. But then the Torah adds an interesting detail: "When you light the Menorah, be sure that the [six] outer lamps face the center." (see Exodus 25:31-37)

What do the six outer lamps represent, and why must they all face the seventh center stem?

The Menorah's six outer branches represent the six realms of secular knowledge - physics, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, music and mathematics. But the Torah is telling us that society cannot rest on knowledge alone. Unless this information is focused and directed toward the center stem - symbolizing God, Torah and spirituality - then this wisdom is for naught. Or worse, it is destructive.

Knowledge Without Wisdom?

Greece was a once mighty empire. The Greeks promoted beautiful fashion, fine dining, sonorous music, aesthetic arts, vigorous athletics, captivating entertainment and a bevy of similarly stimulating activities. The Greeks were the most advanced and sophisticated of their time. Were it not for their excellence (applying the principle to modern terms), we would not have heart transplants, ballet, air transportation or, for that matter, the internet.

But why didn't the Greek empire survive more than a few hundred years? Historians concur they were destroyed by moral decay. "Knowledge" without God is a recipe for disaster. We simply cannot and will not survive without a clear moral direction.

Sure, the Greeks had gods. An entire pantheon of gods, in fact. But these were man-made gods, the kind that get jealous and argue and commit immoral behavior of their own. Man cannot develop his own an objective system, because man – as part of the group that the system is being designed for – is inherently subjective. The Greek gods were not the kind to aspire to; rather these were gods which could somehow excuse man's own corrupt behavior.

A jarring example of "sophisticated immorality" is Nazi Germany.Germany was known for its leading academic institutions, advancement in the arts, and impeccable social conduct. So where did this all lead? At the Wanasee Conference (the special Nazi meeting held to formulate the "Final Solution" for the extermination of all Jews), 9 of the 13 participants were PhD's. These were the most creative, scientific minds in the entire civilized world. Yet they used their power for ultimate evil.

Morality holds civilizations together; its absence leads to chaos. The beauty of Judaism is that we are able to constantly gauge our actions against the backdrop of Torah. Torah is our moral compass. It is our outside, objective standard. It gives direction and is a hedge against extremism.

And it is through Torah that humanity is guided by laws proscribing exploitation, gossip, workaholism, pollution, and other abuses of self and society. Without a moral compass, without the guidelines of God's word, anything can happen and we can rationalize our lives away.

Torah and Knowledge Working Together

If Torah is so central, why do we even need the other 6 Menorah branches? The Talmud says: "There is no Torah without Derech Eretz," which means that we cannot separate our understanding of the world from our understanding of Torah. Used properly, all 7 branches will best illuminate our world.

The greatest Talmudic commentator of all time, Maimonides, was an accomplished physician and wrote extensively on topics like medieval science, philosophy and metaphysics. (See "Mishneh Torah" - Foundations of the Torah, Chapter 2.) The Vilna Gaon (18th century Europe) wrote books on geometry, astronomy and algebra.

God commanded that the Menorah be fashioned from a single brick of gold because all wisdom works together in creating a holy and peaceful world.

Temple Light

This light of Torah is symbolized by the Menorah in the Temple. The Talmud notes that the windows in the Temple were of an unusual construction. Usually, windows are built wider on the inside wall and narrower on the outside wall, in order to bathe more light into the interior.

At the Temple, however, the reverse was true: the windows were narrower on the inside and wider on the outside – because from the Temple, spiritual light shown outward to illuminate the entire world. This light guides, assists, clarifies. And this is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he called the Jewish People a "Light Unto the Nations" (Isaiah 42:6).

Who taught the world morals and ethics, if not the Jewish people? Certainly not Sparta and even not Athens, not the Romans, nor the Persians. What if one would stop a warrior on his way to pillage, rape and murder and ask him on what philosophical basis he is permitted to attack? His answer would be very simple: quot;Might makes right!"

The ones who taught the world otherwise were the Jews. Our Torah and prophets gave the Western world:

• Love your neighbor.

• Proclaim liberty throughout the land. (on the Liberty Bell)

• All men are created equal.

• They will beat their swords into plowshares. (adjacent to the United Nations building)

Chanukah Lessons Today

Morals and ethics is the Jewish legacy, and that is the reason we do not celebrate Chanukah with a military parade. We venerate King David not because he was a warrior, but in spite of it. He could not build the Temple even though he desired to because his hands were bloodied. And this even though he fought only at the command of God. His son Solomon, the man of peace, was fitting to build the Temple.

The Midrash (Parshat Be'halo'secha) quotes God telling Aaron the High Priest: "Lighting the Menorah will be your eternal contribution to the Jewish People." The commentators ask: Lighting the Menorah was done only while the Temple was standing. So what does it mean for us today that "lighting the Menorah is eternal?!"

The answer is that the truths we glean from Torah are eternal. Particularly as society grows increasingly desperate for direction on ethical issues, the truth of Torah is precious today more than ever. On a world full of issues like cloning, euthanasia and the homeless, Torah illuminates the delicate middle path of logic and reason.

As King Solomon says in Proverbs 6:23, "Mitzvahs are the candle – and Torah is the light." This is the meaning of the Menorah, and this is our message for Chanukah.

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