> Holidays > Chanukah > Themes > Deeper Themes

Israel's Glory vs. Greek's Beauty

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky

The Greeks restricted the world to physical beauty while the Jews opened the eyes of the world to the spiritual glory that lies deep within.

The mandrakes have released their scent, and at our doorsteps are to be found delicacies. (Song of Songs 7:15)

The Midrash interprets this verse in a surprising manner:

  • the "mandrakes" refer to Reuben;
  • the "releasing scent" alludes to his heroic act of saving Joseph from his brothers' designs to kill him;
  • and the "delicacies" on the "doorsteps" refer to Chanukah (since the Menorah is placed on the doorstep).

While this type of veiled reference is common in the Midrash, usually the various allusions have some sort of inner connection. For example, the Midrash will at times present a series of verses alluding to the three patriarchs and to a series of connected historical episodes. However, the two events, Chanukah and Reuben's attempt to save Joseph, do not seem to be connected in anyway.

(It is noteworthy, however, that Chanukah usually occurs during the week that follows the reading of the Torah Portion of Vayeishev, which recounts Reuben's intervention on behalf of Joseph.)


One fascinating point about Chanukah may help us understand this cryptic Midrash.

All holidays involve the recitation of Hallel, which is a song of praise to God as well as recognition that the festival commemorates an event recognizable as God’s doing. Chanukah, however, has an added facet: lehodot u'lehallel – "to thank and to praise." What is the nature of this gratitude and why is it added to Hallel?

Among the various expressions in Hebrew denoting beauty, two are especially noteworthy:

  • yofi, which is the primary expression for beauty, and
  • hod, which implies a beauty that is majestic and awesome, arousing some sort of fear.

While hod is customarily translated as "glory," the Metzudat Tzion repeatedly explains it as "a type of beauty." (See also the commentary of the Vilna Gaon to Chronicles I 29:2, as well as Jeremiah 22:18, Rashi.)

This concept is rather difficult: Are beauty and fear actually compatible? One usually thinks of beauty as exerting an attraction while, by contrast, fear tends to repel a person. Further, hod would seem to be linked to hoda'ah, an expression of gratitude, as well as a term that implies admission of guilt. How is hoda'ah connected with beauty?


The essential difference between the two terms – hod and yofi – lies in how the surface attraction in each case relates to the inner nature of the object.

The world was created on two separate planes – the material, which is tangible, and the spiritual, which cannot be perceived. One might say that the world is of spiritual essence, cloaked with a material exterior to which the spiritual gives life and substance.

The ten utterances of God with which He created the world ("Ethics of the Fathers" 5:1) manifest themselves in the resultant creation. His spoken word is the spiritual core of the tangible world. As King David said, Forever, 0 God, Your word stands firm in the heavens (Psalms 119:89).

Similarly, the essence of man is his Divine soul, which resides in a physical body and animates it. This interplay of surface and substance was also present in the vessels in the Tabernacle, which in the main were fashioned out of wood and coated with gold.

It is in the relationship between the exterior and the interior that we encounter the concept of beauty. True beauty is present when the packaging of an object directs us toward its content, which is similar to the exterior, as when the outer attraction of a luscious fruit proclaims: "Eat me; I am tasty."

By contrast, the cactus and the desert are both formidable in appearance and seem to shout, "Stay away!" In their case, the surface is also consistent with the substance.


There are three possible variations in this relationship between surface appeal and substance:

  • If the outward appearance is more appealing than the interior warrants, this is called false or hollow beauty. The attractive surface makes a positive statement that has no backing; it is a misleading advertisement.
  • If the packaging is a true reflection of the inner content, then we have beauty in the true sense of the word. It is a positive attribute, for it attracts people to something that is beneficial for them. For instance, the Temple is described as a "beautiful view" because the majestic exterior of the Temple is a true exposition of that which it contains. In fact, visual attraction invites the viewer to enter and drink deeply of its spiritual content.
  • There is a third possibility. Sometimes we sense that the value of the inside of a vessel by far exceeds the outside packaging. It is as though the bag is straining to hold its contents; it is simply bulging, its seams coming apart. This overflowing abundance of substance is also a type of beauty called hod, "glory." It is a case of the exterior message being overwhelmed by the interior, bowing to its weight, as it were.

In the first case, the exterior dominates the interior; in the second, it is commensurate to the interior; in the third, the exterior is succumbing to the interior. Thus, the term hod is closely associated with hoda'ah. The exterior yields to the interior and demonstrates the inadequacy of the body to convey the richness of the spirit. Ultimately, the packaging does portray the content by projecting its own inability to contain it.


An example of this type of hod is Moses’ karnei hod, "rays of glory" that graced him when he descended from Sinai to return to the Jewish people (Exodus 34:30). These karnei hod resulted from his heightened spiritual status, which his corporeal body could no longer contain within itself. These rays were in effect the overflow of his inner spiritual glory. Only by adding another cover to himself, the veil, could he shield others from these dazzling rays of hod.

Our awe at seeing a great Torah personality is not in response to his physical stature; rather, there is a sense of something Divine or spiritual emanating from within the person. His physical presence, as we see it, is only a vessel for the soul, and the soul is overflowing the bodily boundaries, manifesting itself to those who encounter him. This sense of confronting spiritual greatness is what evokes the awe and fear associated with the type of beauty called hod.

This is also the cause of "The wisdom of man brings a glow to his face" (Ecclesiastes 8:1), which we witness when we see a Torah scholar.


The nation of ancient Greece was endowed with yofi, "beauty" as the verse in Genesis 9:27 states. Israel, on the other hand, is depicted as hod in the Book of Daniel 10:8.

Daniel, in describing his dreams that foretell the fate of the four kingdoms, cries out: "My glory has turned to destruction." (Daniel 10:8; see also R. Tzadok HaCohen, Pokei'ach Ivrim, p. 50). It was specifically the hod, "glory," of Israel that was devastated by the yofi, "beauty" of Greece.

How does this tension between hod and yofi manifest itself in the struggle between Israel and Greece?

We can find a precedent for this in the undercurrent of rivalry between Reuben and Joseph.

The nation of Israel is built on two foundations: the two wives of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. (The maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, were each complementary to her respective mistress.) Just as the patriarchs each contributed a unique facet to Israel, so too was each of these matriarchs a distinct pillar of character strength in the development of the Jewish nation.


Rachel is described as yefat to'ar, "beautiful in appearance." (See Genesis 29:17). Her outer grace conveyed her inner spiritual beauty.

Leah is described only in terms of her eyes. The eyes have been called the window to the soul; Leah's beauty lay in her internal qualities, which radiated outward through her eyes, notwithstanding her external visage. By appearances, she was meant to be for Esau; yet it was she (along with her maidservant Zilpah) who bore the vast majority of the sons/tribes.

Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, is the child that she rightfully deserved. Judah, Leah's fourth child represented more than her share. She named him Judah, or Yehuda in Hebrew, from hoda'ah, declaring her gratitude and admitting this was far, far beyond what she justly deserved. This distinction was evident in the matriarchs' offspring as well: Rachel's son Joseph is described as being endowed with yofi while Leah's son Judah is associated with hoda'ah, both in name and action (see Genesis 38:26 in his public confession regarding Tamar).

Rachel's descendant is Saul, the king whose stature of being "head and shoulders above all the nation" reflected his majestic bearing. Leah's descendant was David, who is described as Jesse’s "small son"; only God, who peers into one's heart, could single him out for leadership.


One can use the contrasting terms of yofi and hod in describing how a person's conduct achieves – or fails to achieve – consistency with his inner status. For example, a tzaddik gamur, a fully holy person who never sinned is the epitome of yofi. His outward actions are a genuine portrayal of a body in step with the instructions of his soul. In this vein, our Sages tell us that the features of a sinner become distorted; his pristine yofi is lost.

On the other hand, we have the ba'al teshuvah, "one who returns to God." While his "countenance" is flawed and disfigured (Isaiah 53) from his burden of sin, there is something within him struggling to rise above his current status, and in his struggle to repent, a special inner force is reaching for self?enhancement.

On a deeper level, one can say that the ba'al teshuvah is endowed with hod. Indeed, the Talmud (Shabbos 56b) tells of Rabbi Nassan d'Tzutzita, a great ba'al teshuvah, who was crowned with a halo – his own karnei hod, "rays of glory" as it were.

Thus, Joseph is the personification of the holy person (he is in fact called Yosef HaTzaddik, unlike anyone else in Scripture), for he is distinguished by having overcome temptation, never sinning. Yofi is his domain. Judah, on the other hand, succumbs, and in his struggle for repentance, his hod becomes manifest.


Let us return to the "scent of the mandrakes."

Reuben, the eldest of Leah's children, is the heir apparent to Jacob, and it was Joseph who seemed bent on usurping this birthright from him.

(Incidentally, the episode of the mandrakes is another example of hod: Reuben had given the mandrakes to his mother as a gift. These were meant to be instrumental in producing another son/tribe. They were: when Leah gave them away to Rachel, yielding the blossoms that were hers, Leah conceived an additional child!)

The struggle between Joseph and his brothers came to a head when he was condemned by them to death. It was at this point that the hod of Leah's children burst forth. Reuben protected Joseph, and Judah finalized the process of saving their rival by proposing that he be sold as a slave.

The firstborn, Reuben, acquiesced to Joseph, eventually granting him the rights of the firstborn. Can one imagine a greater act of overcoming one's self?interest than granting life, and ultimately leadership, to one's rival? Indeed, we are overwhelmed by the scent of the mandrakes that symbolize hod.


Let us turn the clock forward to over a millennium later. Greece is the dominant force of the world. Its strength lies in yofi – not the yofi of a Yosef HaTzaddik, to be sure, not even the yofi that finds direction and fulfillment in the tents of Shem in keeping with the blessings of Noah; only the hollow yofi achieved by the secular observer of the universe.

"The world only contains that which reveals itself" was the substance of their worldview. If one fully understands the phenomena of the universe, they maintained, one understands all; that which is out of sight and beyond one's range of observation simply does not exist.

Not so with the Jewish nation. Our belief is that the world that is revealed merely points the way to the world that is hidden from our view, beyond the reach of our senses. For the person who is discerning, the world reveals much more than is apparent at first glance. Thus, Greece restricts the world to yofi, and a shallow beauty at that, while Israel opens its eyes to the hod, the glory that lies deep within.

It is only fitting, then, that self-sacrifice be celebrated on these days of Chanukah, for self-sacrifice is the essence of hod – the way in which a person achieves more than his apparent potential. As long as a person does mitzvot within the framework of his own existence, respecting his limitations, he can bring his fine traits to full fruition but not more than that. He performs great deeds, but they do not carry him beyond his potential.

When a person is willing to put his life on the line for the sake of Torah, however, he demonstrates that there is a world of Torah and Godliness that far exceeds his own narrow confines. He outgrasps his reach, as it were, and declares a praise that exceeds his apparent limitations.

The ultimate in hoda’ah – confessing one's own limitations – reveals the majesty of hod, linking one up with something greater than oneself.

Thus, on every holiday, when we celebrate God's Divine Providence, we recite Hallel. The days of Chanukah, however, are dedicated to lehodot u'lehallel – so we first recite thanks then praise.


Chanukah is a holiday that is not recorded, neither in Scripture nor in the Mishnah. Its source is from deep within the individuals whose self-sacrifice brought the victory in that region of the soul where hod springs forth.

The Maccabees drew upon a strength of commitment that transcended the limitations of all inborn instincts for survival as they risked their lives to defy the Greek?Syrian oppression. God, in turn, responded with a miracle that "delivered the many into the hands of the few," by endowing Judah, the Maccabee and his band of fighters with a prowess far beyond their natural capacity -– a feat impossible from the standpoint of yofi.

In addition, the cruse of oil became a medium for more "light" than was inherent in it; the radiance that resulted was surely a feat that resonated with hod.

So we respond with hoda'ah.

The Jewish nation has labored long and hard over the centuries to bring out that unique quality of hod from within itself. We first see it in Reuben's magnanimous act of selflessness. Ultimately we reap its fruits on Chanukah, when, at our doorsteps, a small measure of oil shines forth with an abundance of radiance.

Excerpted from Rabbi Lopiansky's book, "Timepieces", Targum Press.

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