Hanukkah All Over Again
Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )
Popular wisdom contends that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The Talmud recognizes the value of popular wisdom, often remarking, "Hainu d'amri inshi, this is what people say." Popular sayings are the product of long experience, and they are usually on target.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Events change. Conditions change. Styles change. But people do not change. Human nature today is no different from what it was a hundred, a thousand or five thousand years ago. Therefore, sooner or later, people driven by the unchanging drives and ambitions of human nature will manipulate the new events, conditions and styles into forms that help them achieve the same goals people have been pursuing since time immemorial.
A little over two thousand years ago, Alexander the Great, at the head of a Greek and Macedonian army, conquered the entire Middle East and introduced it to Greek philosophy and culture. The Greeks transformed the ancient world by rejecting the worship of a Higher Being and making mankind the focus of the culture. The Greeks promoted the importance of the human intellect and the beauty of the human form as ideals to be held up for admiration and even worship. It was the antithesis of Judaism, which focuses on the Creator and gives man value in proportion to the level of his relationship with the Divine.
The Greeks recognized the power of the Torah. They knew it was the mortal enemy of their culture, the force that threatened Greek civilization more than any other, and they mounted a campaign to eradicate Torah observance among the Jews. They passed laws outlawing fundamental Jewish practices such as milah and Shabbos. And they built theaters and gymnasiums throughout Eretz Yisrael to entice the Jews to share in the pleasures and rewards of Greek culture.
Unfortunately, the Greek campaign was very effective. Many Jews, among them High Priests and others holding the highest offices in the land, abandoned the ways of their fathers and assimilated into Greek society. These Jews were known as Hellenizers, since the Greeks referred to Greece as Hellas and themselves as Hellenes. As time went on, it seemed as if the juggernaut of Greek culture and values would completely absorb the tiny Jewish commonwealth and Torah would be forgotten. But then the Chashmonaim, a small band of staunch Jews loyal to the Torah and Jewish tradition, rose up against the Greek oppressors nearly two hundred years after the Greek conquest, and they restored the supremacy of the Torah among the Jewish people. The festival of Hanukkah celebrates this triumph every year.
In our own days, we have seen similar events take place. One hundred years ago, a new philosophy called communism appeared on the stage of world history. The appeal of communism was in the simplicity and apparent justice of its ideas. The rich should not exploit the poor. All the people should own all means of production. Everyone should work according to his ability and consume according to his need. In all else, everyone in society would be equal. As you can well imagine, this was an extremely attractive system for the masses in impoverished and exploited societies, and it spread like wild-fire. It scored its first victory in Russia and then spread to Eastern Europe, China and countries in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as innumerable "liberation movements" across the world.
Sad to say, many Jews were drawn into the communist movement during its early stages. Young men and women chafing under the repressive Czarist and other totalitarian regimes and too restless to adapt to shtetl life sought fulfillment of their natural idealism in the communist ranks. For a while, there was even a Jewish section in the Communist Party called the Yevsektzia. This went on until the 30's when Stalin purged the party of its Jews. Afterwards, the Jews were only on the receiving end of communist repression.
Ultimately, communism was discredited by the old nemesis of all starry-eyed systems, the avarice and ambition of human nature. In the end, the communist system engendered more exploitation and less justice than any other system in history. It remained in force for nearly a century by virtue of state terrorism, and then it collapsed. But in the interim, it brought untold devastation and ruin to the world for an entire century.
Hellenism rose, and Hellenism fell. Communism rose and communism fell. All changes are impermanent. The more things change, the more they remain the same. The only constants are Torah and Judaism. The Rambam writes (Yad, Hilchos Mezuzah 6:13), "[By affixing a mezuzah,] he will be reminded of the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, every time he enters or leaves. He will be stirred from his slumber and realize that nothing endures forever other than the knowledge of [Hashem]." All ideologies are like a fleeting shadow, but Torah endures. Many Jewish brothers and sisters forgot this during the times of the Greeks, with disastrous consequences. Many more forgot it in the last century, with consequences that were perhaps even more disastrous.
For those of us that grew up during the Cold War, the fall of communism was a thing of absolute wonder. Among my childhood memories are Khrushchev pounding the lectern in the United Nations with his shoe. I remember listening to the radio during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. I remember the Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviet tanks crushed the rebirth of democracy in Czechoslovakia. For me, communism was a fact of life, something I expected to prey on my consciousness for the rest of my life.
And then it was gone. Just like that. Poof! The Soviet Union, that dreaded "evil empire," crumbled to dust.
In December of 1989, I was riding in a cab in New York. The driver had a thick Eastern European accent, and I thought he might be a Russian Jew. We began to talk, and it turned out he was a Romanian. By then, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia had already gone the way of the Soviet Union and I remarked that Romania would be next.
He guffawed. "If you knew that tyrant Ceausescu, [the Romanian president], you would never say such a thing. He is another Stalin!"
Well, it didn't take long before Ceausescu fell and Romania discarded communism. Stalin himself could not have stopped this disintegration of a movement that had once seemed poised to take over the world.
What was happening here?
Why did communism have such phenomenal, almost supernatural success in the beginning, and why did it experience such a phenomenal, almost supernatural collapse in the end?
Rav Shimon Schwab believed that communism enjoyed such great success because the early communists were true believers; they were doing it lishmah, for altruistic reasons. They were willing to forgo personal gain and honor for the sake of the greater cause. Altruism can energize any idea, even if it is the greatest falsehood.
Rav Schwab asks a question. The first time Balak's messengers asked Bilam to curse the Jewish people, Heaven forbid, Hashem did not grant him permission to go with them. But when they returned a second time and offered Bilam money and honor, Hashem let him go. What changed?
The first time, Rav Schwab explains, they did not offer Bilam any reward. His curse would have been delivered altruistically. This would have been a dangerous curse. The second time, however, they offered him rewards. Now, his curse would be delivered for self-interest. Such a curse would not have nearly the same power and effectiveness.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked why other religions, which are based on sheker, falsehood, are so successful, while Judaism, which is the emet, the truth, doesn't attract others and even loses many of its own. "True, they serve sheker, falsehood," the Kotzker snapped, "but they serve it as if it were emet. True, we serve emet, but we do it as if it were sheker."
This was the power of the early communists. They were sincere. They were altruistic. They believed in what they were doing. They believed they were creating a utopian society on earth. It was a fantasy, an illusion, a mirage, but their idealism gave it reality for almost a century.
So why did communism fall so precipitously? Granted that the idealism had dissipated over the years, to be replaced by cynicism and corruption, but how do we explain the sudden collapse?
Rav Schwab contends that the only antidotes to falsehood are Torah and mitzvos. During the last years before the collapse of world communism, there was a revival of Torah in the Soviet Union. A small group of people returned to Torah with great mesiras nefesh, dedication at tremendous personal risk. They underwent circumcision even when there were no anesthetics available. They abstained from family relations when they had no access to a mikveh. They studied Torah diligently, even if it meant losing their jobs or being expelled from universities and other institutes of higher learning. They did it because they believed in it, not for personal gain, and their Torah lishmah brought down communism. All the other factors about which one reads in articles and books - economics, finance, geopolitics, military preparedness - are just window dressing. The Torah of the dissidents brought down communism. They are the Chashmonaim of our generation. They wrought the modern miracle of Hanukkah.