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The Mudswamps of Hella

The Mudswamps of Hella

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And He raised me from a tumultuous pit, from the Yavanite mire.

Psalms 40:3

Yavan means mud.

Rashi, ibid.

Chanukah celebrates the victory of Judea over Greece, of a small band of Jews over those who sought to subvert their faith and profane the sanctity of their lives.

In the course of the four millennia of Jewish history, many ideologies and cultures have sought to compromise our allegiance to G‑d and His Torah. But there is something unique about the challenge posed by the Hellenists 21 centuries ago--something that marks Chanukah as the ultimate triumph of spirit over matter and of light over darkness.

Soil and Water

In general, the factors that might undermine the integrity of a Jew's faith and his commitment to G‑d fall into two categories.

Most blatant are the challenges of a material sort. The Jew living in Middle-Ages Europe had a choice: cleave to your faith and suffer humiliation, poverty, frequent expulsion and outright slaughter, or submit to the faith of your hosts. Twentieth-century America offered the same choice, albeit in more humane terms, beckoning to the Jew to shed Shabbat, tefillin and kashrut for smoother distillation in the melting pot and enhanced access to the American dream. On the individual level, we are daily challenged by the choice of devoting our lives to serving our Creator and fulfilling the purpose of our creation, or to the pursuit of physical gratification and material gain.

More subtle are the ideological challenges: doctrines and philosophies that lay claim to virtue and truth, and might even espouse altruistic behavior and transcendent aims, but are utterly alien to the Jewish soul. A Jew disconnected from his roots and ignorant or unappreciative of his heritage is ready prey for the foreign waters that offer to quench his spiritual thirst.

But infinitely more noxious is a third category: doctrines that blend the soil of materialism and the fountains of reason into a lethal muck.

A person buried in corporeality can claw and dig his way out to sunlight. A person sinking in a sea of spurious reason can struggle to the surface and swim to shore. But he who adds water to his soil--who saturates his materialism with intellectual fluid--creates a morass from which it is infinitely more difficult to extricate himself. When his soul is moved to reach beyond the mundanity of the material, a host of rationalizations rise to still its yen; and when his mind begins to wake to the fallacy of the alien creed, the grasp of earth pulls him down. The person is thus steadily sucked down, as his efforts of mind and will to rise above his mired state are counteracted by the bog of idealized hedonism.

Such was the challenge that faced our forefathers during the Greek domination of the Holy Land. Yavan, the Hebrew word for the Hellenic culture, means mud (as in Psalms 40:3--see Rashi and Metzudat Zion commentaries on verse). The Hellenic reformers did more than entice and coerce the people of Israel to embrace the body-worship of Greece--they also sought to indoctrinate them with a philosophy that exalted the physical and made its worship a virtue and an ideal. The Greek was not merely pagan; his was a paganism aestheticized by art, glorified by poetry and hallowed by reason. The Greek was no mere materialist, but one who kneaded his earthiest wants with the subliminal waters of his intellect to form a mucilage that fastened on the soul and drew it, inch by inch and limb by limb, into the quagmire of Yavan.

The deadliness of the mudswamp is further illustrated by the very form of the Hebrew word Yavan, ( יון ) whose three letters are three lines, each descending an increment lower than its predecessor. Unlike water, in which one might sink swiftly to the bottom but can also, equally swiftly, pull himself out, the mud of Yavan works slowly, drawing the person down bit by bit, step by step. At first, it only demands a slight, barely discernible departure from ones convictions and morals. But its downward pull is steady and all but irreversible--indeed, all efforts to extract oneself by the means of ones conventional faculties are doomed to failure--except by the extremely potent power of faith, as explained in the text.

Holy Mud

Mud can be made with the putrid water of sophism. But even water from the most pristine well turns to mud when mixed with soil.

Thus, our sages have said: If the student of Torah is meritorious, the Torah becomes an elixir of life for him; if he does not merit, it becomes a death-potion for him (Talmud, Yoma 72b). The Hebrew word zechut (merit) also means refinement; so the above statement can also be read, If the student of Torah refines himself, the Torah becomes an elixir of life for him; if he does not refine himself, it becomes a death-potion for him. If a person does not refine his soul, cleansing his character from the soil of its baser instincts, the pure waters of Torah become for him a mudpit of depravity: instead of buoying and nourishing his soul, his wisdom and knowledge only feed his ego, justify his iniquities, and aid his manipulation and distortion of the truth.

This is the eternal lesson of Chanukah: intellect might be mans highest faculty, but it can also be the instrument of his degradation to the lowest depths. Chanukah celebrates the cleansing of the Holy Temple from Hellenic corruption, the triumph of the pristine essence of the Jewish soul--represented by the small, pure cruse of oil that burned in the menorah for eight days--over the mud of Greece.

We each possess such a small, pure cruse of oil in the pith of our souls--a reserve of supra-rational commitment to our Creator, with the power to illuminate our lives with a pure, inviolable light. A light that ensures that our search for water does not leave us mired in mud.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Discussion (3)
December 10, 2012
the words are m'tit h'yavein see the third verse .psalm 40:3
marvin s
March 10, 2012
question on psalm 40
looking up psalm 40 in various English translations I did not see any mention of the word "yavanite" why is that? What is the right translation? Does the original Hebrew text of the psalm mention the Greeks "yavan"?
Anonymous
New York, NY
December 22, 2008
nicely put
big fan of yanki!!
Shimon Friedman
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