Governor Cuomo and Chanukah, the Battle Rages On

(Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

In Parashas Miketz, Yosef Hatzaddik is given an opportunity to free himself from captivity by using his unique ability to interpret dreams for Pharaoh himself. With so much on the line, one would assume that Yosef would preface his words with praises of the monarch or at least a sophisticated introduction to hedge his bets and give him a chance to win release even if his interpretation does not find favor in Pharaoh’s eyes.

Yet, all the Torah tells us of Yosef’s first words to Pharaoh are, “Only Hashem can put Pharaoh at ease,” not my wisdom, as the Targum Onkelos elucidates. With that curt introduction, Yosef raised the banner of Klal Yisrael, that whatever successes we have are not us, but the hashgachah and wisdom of the Ribbono shel Olam. That Yosef’s brave words were directed at Pharaoh, who passed himself off as a deity and represented the polar opposite of Yosef’s worldview, sharpen the contrast.

The sefer Megaleh Amukos makes the observation that Yosef Hatzaddik is the same numerical value as the words, melech Yavan. While each exile of Klal Yisrael carried a unique challenge, the theme of “ani Pharaoh,” man claiming control over all aspects of the world, was one that Yavan took to more nuanced heights with its worship of human logic and denial of the supernatural. In its worldview, one could argue that Man became an even greater false god than the king of Mitzrayim ever claimed to be. This is the lesson of the Megaleh Amukos’ observation — that Yosef represents the diametric opposite of such a philosophy.

Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, observed that the tefillah of Al HaNissim for Chanukah seems to lack the message of conclusive victory that the parallel one for Purim connotes. He explained that this hints at the fact that the Jewish People’s battle against the ideology of Yavan is one that follows us through our galus.
It is interesting to note that in the chronicle of the first three exiles of Klal Yisrael, only in galus Yavan did some Jews become so tied to the secular culture around them that they posed a challenge as formidable as the non-Jewish rulers themselves.

Consistent with Rav Shlomo Zalman’s words, it is a phenomenon with no shortage of illustrations since then. I remember sitting several years ago together with the Vizhnitzer Rebbe of Bnei Brak, Harav Yisrael Hager, shlita, during the struggle to protect the practice of metzitzah b’peh and noting the irony of how many Jews (at the head of them, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg) were on the side opposing our efforts.

Among the many lessons that the COVID pandemic has clarified to us is that the outlook of Pharaoh and the Yevanim is still alive and well in our present exile.
About six weeks after the initial outbreak, as infection numbers began to drop in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared: “The number is down because we brought the number down. G-d did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.”

One would have thought that it was sufficient to thank New Yorkers for the sacrifices they made to “stay home and save lives.” But, in the tradition of his Greek intellectual ancestors, the Governor did not want to let an opportunity go by to deny the Divine and assign credit to man alone.

At the beginning of the pandemic, as the novel coronavirus terrorized the world, few blamed our civic leaders for closing society. Yet, as time went on, we saw where their priorities lay. As shuls and houses of worship for all faiths were ordered to remain shut, a blank check was given to mass protests whose expressed purpose was to throw off the yoke of law and order.

The juxtaposition crystalized what we are about and what our galus is about.

At the root of all avodah zarah is not the false belief that defines its outward appearance. Rather, it is a system designed to allow man to cast off any moral obligation and follow his basest desires. In ancient times, the strategy was to invent a micro-god for each aspect of the world, so that one could live as he chooses and assuage his conscience by placating the deity that worked for him at the moment. Yavan simplified this by making human concepts of beauty and wisdom the pinnacle of creation.

As much as the nations desire to throw off any yoke, Klal Yisrael in its essence yearns for ways and places to accept the yoke of Heaven on themselves.
None of this is to say that common-sense measures to slow the spread of a dangerous virus are a contradiction to accepting Malchus Shamayim. In my own shul we have more mispallelim than ever, but minyanim are split up to avoid crowding. But, a wholesale decision by officials that places where people gather to worship G-d must close, while sanctioning destructive mobs, created a stark contrast to our resolve to find ways to keep our batei medrash alive and vibrantly clarified our respective missions.

The Yevanim of old made a curious decree. They ruled that Jews must write on the horn of an ox that they “have no share in the G-d of Yisrael.” It once occurred to me, that perhaps Yavan understood that a fundamental of Judaism is to see Hakadosh Baruch Hu in all things; and that even as a Jew plows his field, he connects his actions to avodas Hashem.

Nothing could be a greater anathema to Yavan. Even if they could tolerate relegating religion to a house of worship, the idea of allowing it to encroach on other aspects of life was intolerable. But against that decree, the Chashmona’im fought a war against unbelievable odds because what defines a Jew is that he never is and never wants to be “free” from Hashem’s sovereignty — and all it behooves.