A Very Symmetrical Name

Here’s how you spell Greece in Hebrew: יון

Pretty simple really. First, you just make a dot. That’s called a yud. Then you move left and make a line downward. That’s called a vav. Then you make a longer line, a line that goes below the line. That’s a nun.

Altogether, that's Yavan. Greece.

Now a yud-dot like that in Hebrew always represents wisdom. The ancient Greeks had a lot of wisdom. Amongst them were brilliant philosophers who rationally determined that there was one Prime Mover of all things (although they also judged it proper to give tribute to smaller gods).

But it seems there's a problem with that reasoning. The Jew knows G‑d exists because He made a covenant with us at Sinai. We exist because He decided to create us. The whole world exists because He decided it should. In the Greek mind, if G‑d exists, it’s because my reasoning says so.

If G‑d’s existence hangs on my reasoning, what does my reasoning hang on?

Nothing. And with nothing to hang on to, it falls down.

The Downfall of the Greek Jew

That’s what happened when Jews started thinking like Greeks. They said, “Look, a lot of Torah is amazing wisdom. Great philosophy. But there’s also stuff that doesn’t make any sense to us. So we’ll just take whatever makes sense to us, and drop the rest.”

They couldn’t accept that Torah was divine wisdom. They couldn’t accept the whole idea of prophecy, of G‑d communicating with man. They couldn’t accept that G‑d would desire anything at all from us, never mind ask a human being to do a mitzvah.

Because when human reason is the measure of all things, there’s no place for divine wisdom to enter. The G‑d that is a construct of the human mind ends up even more detached from reality than the philosopher himself.

That’s when their wisdom started falling, dragged down by their own desires and emotions. Until they fell so low they started doing things that really didn’t make any sense at all. They became involved in licentious rituals and made offerings to Greek idols. They turned against their own people and facilitated a war against their own religion.

That was the point when the Maccabees had to stand up and say, “We’ve had enough!”

The Problem With Mistaking Your Heart for Your Brain

This phenomena has occurred many times throughout history. Without realizing it, reasoning people begin to mistake emotions for reason. Their minds rationalize what their hearts want to do. And, indeed, in every society throughout history, from Athens to Berlin, and into our day, the most brilliant minds have found sophisticated reasoning to support every infatuation and perversion of their time and place.

Once the yud of wisdom descends down into the vav of emotions, from there it falls all the way down beneath the line of human morality.

From this we learn that the mind must know the limits of the mind, that there are things the mind can see but not touch. Things that are just absolutes. Foundations of truth. And they have to be treated that way.

Like: Murder is wrong. Incest and adultery are wrong. You must honor your father and mother. There is only one G‑d and He is good. And other fundamental laws that the Torah tells us.

Not that you shouldn’t think about these things—you should. But however you end up understanding them doesn’t change their absolute truth.

Because these are the foundations of our world. If you let your understanding of these things become the measure of their truth, the entire structure crumbles and falls.

That explains another halachah about the Chanukah lights: Like we say in the words immediately after lighting the menorah, “We are not permitted to make use of them.” We don’t use the Chanukah menorah to help us read, cook, or sew or for any other practical use. The light’s just there for looking at.

This is the light of G‑d’s wisdom. It’s not there for our use that we can manipulate it and modify it to fit our needs and desires. If we’re able to figure a little bit of it out, well, that’s pretty amazing. But if we can’t, that doesn’t change its truth one iota.

The Chanukah lights are whispering: Keep up the awe and wonder and you’ll never fall down.

See Reshimot 123 (Chanukah 5696, Paris). Derech Mitzvotecha, Ner Chanukah.