Last month amidst great fanfare, Mark Zuckerberg announced the next iteration of Facebook, which he called the metaverse. In the not-too-distant future, he envisioned a world in which we could assume an avatar, and through immersive virtual reality, enter that world. In this technological universe which will blur the lines between the real and the imagined, we will be able to freely connect with anyone around the world. We could experience connections we did not imagine possible, and travel to real and imagined places with new friends. We will also engage in building businesses, shopping, and playing with one another. I found this intriguing, and a wanderlust myself, exciting. However, I stopped and asked myself. “In this more immersive world, will we fight wars, cheat one another, and abuse each other in the same way we can in the real world?”
The holiday of Chanukah recounts the military victory of the Hasmonaeans over the Assyrian Greeks and their Jewish allies. However, what caused this victory in 164 BCE to become a national festival centuries later, when many other national festivals are now forgotten to history? While the revival of the ancient military victory in the modern context of the State of Israel makes sense, for most of Jewish history, the victory of Chanukkah was decidedly of a spiritual nature, a victory of the Israelite spirit over the Hellenic spirit. Ultimately, in much of rabbinic tradition, Chanukah is an eight-day reflection upon a clash between two competing value systems, represented by the legacies of Greece (Yavan) and Israel, the Biblical tradition. While it would be easy to divide the world into good and evil, pure and impure, or light and dark, this reductionistic way of thinking does not reflect life itself. Rather, the holiday of Chanukah asks us to consider the nature and extent of our interaction with ‘outside’ or ‘foreign’ elements.
Many thinkers have talked about the two legacies of Western civilization- the Greek and the Biblical. The legacy of Greece is one of the arts, philosophy, technology, politics, science, and aesthetics, while the legacy of Israel is ethics, morality, revelation, and the law. Of course, these two typologies are artificial, but nonetheless represent different aspects of the human spirit, different energies if you will. In my mind, these two impulses represent two areas of mastery for the human being, both critical.
The legacy of Greece represents the quest of humanity to master the world around and outside them, releasing the potential and beauty found in the physical. To master this is essentially a creative task, and just as God brings forth the actual from the potential in the creation story, we imitate God in this same way. We look at a formless and sometimes hostile world around us, and we bring forth life, creating culture and civilization, raising us above the creatures of the earth. In this very real way, to be human is to be Godlike, to envision what there is not and to make that vision a reality.
At the same time, there is an entire other universe in which we are given mastery, and that is in the inner world of the self. Our tradition teaches us that every human being is like a unique universe, and perhaps that also means we need to not only attend to others, but ourselves. This inner world can be turbulent, beset with doubt and fear. For these reasons, this inner self is the self that seeks transcendence, connection, and meaning with others and with the universe itself. Given that all of us are unique creatures with the knowledge that we will eventually die, each of us attempt in different ways to weave values which make for a life worth living and dying. For many this is what motivates the religious impulse, to ground our lives in eternal and transcendent values. In this way, our experience of life is one of vulnerability, realizing we are not creators but creatures, really dust of the earth.
Given this paradoxical nature of the human personality, in navigating life we must master both our external and internal worlds at the same time. It is interesting that the word for the warrior, gibbor, in Biblical texts is used as one who vanquished the enemies, but in rabbinic thought is one who brings order to the chaotic forces within. “Who is the gibor/ the warrior? One who conquers their inner nature.”
These concepts are given form in Biblical thought with the birth of two of the children of Noah, Shem and Yefet. (According to the Biblical legend, all the peoples of the earth are the progeny of Noah’s children.) These two brothers represent two spiritual entities! Yefet is the ancestor of Yavan, or Greece, while Shem is the progenitor of Abraham. Yefet comes from the Hebrew word meaning external beauty, while shem, literally ‘name’, indicates the idea that human beings seek sense of purpose and meaning to last beyond their mortal existence. (Interestingly, wherever Abraham goes he build altars, calling upon the shem/ name of God.) Yefet hopes to unleash the beauty of this world, using all his Divinely given faculties, while Shem looks up to the heavens asking about the meaning of all of it. One brother is focused outwardly and the other focused internally. One brother asks utilitarian questions about the universe and is focused on improvement, and the other asks existential questions. One asks “How?” and the other asks “Why?” In the world of Yefet the human being is Godlike, while in the worldview of Shem the human being seeks God.
In blessing his children, Noah says the following: May God enlarge (yapht, play on Yefet/beauty) Yefet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem (Gen. 9:27). Far from a negative statement, this statement bestows blessing upon them both! Interestingly, rabbinic thought gave a special status to Greek culture and language, and in many ways the Jewish interaction with the Greco-Hellenistic world was seen positively. The values of Greece as such were not seen as problematic, only when they were divorced from spiritual values. In the words of Noah, Yefet should prosper in the tents of Shem.
However, these spiritual energies should certainly not be understood in a binary and essential way. The struggle of Chanukah should not be seen as a battle of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, but rather two elements of each human personality. That reductionistic view of the world is challenged by another set of brothers in the book of Genesis, Joseph and Judah, who interestingly contain these same energies. While Jacob had twelve children, the text is very clear that leadership resides in these two brothers, and it is Judah of all the brothers who initiates the sale of Joseph.
Joseph is introduced to us as a child who is beautiful in form (yefat toar) and appearance, alluding to the spirit of Noah’s son, Yefet! We see him engaged in aesthetic pursuits, fixing himself up. His father decides to give him a multi-colored coat, which is seen by most commentaries as some mantel of leadership over the other brothers, one that he wears with pride. However, Joseph is not just a vain child, although he is clearly lacking maturity. He has visions for his life which attest to his unique capacities and abilities. Not only will his brothers bow down to him (your sheafs bowed down to mine), but ultimately, he will be like a God (the sun, moon and stars will bow down to me). Before we dismiss his visions as narcissistic, it is instructive to realize these dreams come true. As the vizier to Pharaoh, this Hebrew from the backwater of Canaan was to manage the treasury of the most powerful country in the ancient world, and he single-handedly saved much of the ancient world from starvation during a terrible famine. In this way, he is seen as Godlike by the Egyptian people. Whatever tragedies occur to Joseph, he never seems to be defeated by them, but uses his talents and insights- his vision- to overcome them. Most importantly, by applying his skills in technology, economic planning, and governance, he transforms Egypt into becoming the most powerful country in the ancient world precisely during a period of famine and economic devastation. On a family level, he will orchestrate not only the reunification of the family, but also will provide for them for the long-term future in the land of Goshen.
Then there is Judah. Despite Joseph’s coat of royalty, Judah is king among his brothers, universally respected. His name comes from the Hebrew root meaning to admit (modeh), to thank, or to recognize. All these terms point to interconnection, to mutual dependence and mutual responsibility. A person who thanks another recognizes indebtedness, and one who admits guilt is one who sees themselves in an interconnected web of relationships, responsible to another. For Judah relationships are critical, and he understands Joseph’s visions as a quest for dominance, placing himself outside the network of relationships with his brethren. (Whether his analysis of Joseph is true depends on how one understands the young Joseph.) No wonder Judah suggest to his brothers to sell their brother, as he sees Joseph as a challenge. While this plan probably saved the life of Joseph, it also was horrific, and the beginning of Judah’s struggle for moral redemption.
There is another critical difference between Judah and Joseph: Joseph has transcendent visions and pursues those visions single mindedly; he doesn’t seem to have moments of doubt, failure, or struggle. (He does have moments of deep sorrow however, as we hear his cries.) Judah is different, perhaps more human. Meaning for Judah is emergent through both his failures and successes.
It is not at all clear what makes Judah destined for kingship and leadership. Indeed, immediately after the sale of Joseph, we are told of Judah’s precipitous moral decline with the episode of his daughter-in-law Tamar. She is married to Judah’s firstborn Er, and then Onan, who both die. Given the ancient institution of levirate marriage, Judah agrees to marry Tamar to the youngest, but fearing he will die as well, he leaves Tamar in a limbo state, telling her to wait until he is grown. He then not only fails to give his youngest son Shelah to her as a wife as he promised but following the death of his own wife, he ends up sleeping with a prostitute, not knowing it is Tamar in disguise, as she tries to take her destiny in her own hands. Judah gives her his seal, cord, and staff as a security of payment, all symbols of kingship. In other words, he is willing to forgo the signs of his leadership for one night with her. When word gets out that Tamar is pregnant, he orders her executed for adultery, until she shows him the seal, cord, and staff. However, it is at this point that we see the true greatness of Judah. Far from denying his guilt, he openly admits, exclaiming ‘she is the righteous one’. In this admission, we see a person who admits, a person who sees that ultimately, he must take responsibility. And thus, later in the narrative, it is Judah that will take responsibility for Benjamin when they go back to Egypt, and it is Judah who refuses Joseph’s demand to leave Benjamin in Egypt. Judah finally takes responsibility, ‘admits’ to role he plays among his family and his father.
Thus, Judah is a dynamic figure, and like his descendent King David, Judah will struggle with his internal passions. If Joseph represents mastery over the world around him, Judah represents the mastery required within. In Jewish thought, the rabbis talk of not one, but two messiahs, Moshiach ben Yosef and Moshiach ben David. The former represents the spirit of Joseph in that he is a talented statesman, focused on the material needs of the people. In a sense, he paves the way for Moshiach ben David, a descendent of Judah, the leader representing the spiritual aspirations of the people. One builds the house, and the other builds a home. The home that is built focuses on the mutual responsibilities we have to one another, and to God. Like the dynamic figure of Judah, this project is ongoing.
Every year the Chanukah festival falls during the parshiyot of Yayeshev or Miketz, the portions recounting the sale of Joseph to Egypt and its aftermath. One Chasidic master points out that far from being a coincidence, there is a high level of correspondence between the themes associated with Chanukah and the battle between Joseph and his brothers. The two spiritual energies of Joseph and Judah persist throughout history. The goal is integrating the two energies. Joseph, who in rabbinic thought is called the tzaddik, the righteous one, was a rare individual who was able to master both his outer and inner life. Even as he was by far the most cosmopolitan of his brothers, he never forgot the values of his father, the values of his home. He consistently invoked the name of God, although God never speaks to him directly. Few of us are like Joseph. The struggle with Greece during Chanukah was ultimately not about the great achievements of the Hellenists, but really about the Jewish people forgetting their own values, aping their conquerers. Unlike Joseph, they became blinded by the beauty and power of Greece- the outer forms, and in so doing they forgot the reason for it all. To paraphrase Noah, they wanted to dwell in tents of Yefet (Greece) and do away with the tents of Shem. They were seduced by the outer world around them and failed to attend to their inner world. They failed to ask questions about meaning, value, and responsibility to one another.
We return to the metaverse. There is something very seductive and attractive about this world. A ‘brave new world’ in which we can connect and create in ways we could not imagine in a previous age. We have the outer mastery- the technological ‘know-how’ to achieve this. It is not even a question of ‘if’ we can do it, but ‘by when’. The ability to create such alternate universes is Godlike in some ways, reflecting the creative spirit in the human soul. Like Joseph who dreams, we dream and bring those dreams to fruition. However, Facebook currently is mired in questions about its own integrity. As a global corporation impacting billions of people, it at times seems to act like a small startup, pursuing its own financial interests at the expense of the numerous negative impacts upon its stakeholders. Facebook has indeed made the world smaller, but it some dark ways has not brought us together but has torn societies apart. Will the metaverse be some form of utopia, or will the same problems of mass disinformation, violence, and hatred impact this next generation? While Facebook aspires to conquer the next horizon of human creation, have they spent the time needed to question the direction and nature of this new horizon? What will be the values that inhabit the world they will create? As a corporation with billions of stakeholders, what is their moral responsibility to them? To the environment? To democratic values? To truth? Have they taken the time to do the hard work of looking inward or is the bottom line always determinant? Like Judah, have they done the hard work of moral introspection needed for leadership?
We opened with explaining the military victory of the Maccabees was often allegorized as well, to symbolize the struggle between Greece and Biblical Israel. Chanukah teaches that there is more than the spirit of Greece. There is also the Biblical call to morality, justice, care, and concern. In ancient Israel many forgot that, and it took a military victory and religious revolution to reassert these values. Our society speaks of unconstrained freedom to pursue our own goals, and our rights to do so. We speak little as a society as to what are the values our shared spaces should model, and what are our responsibilities to one another, our brethren. The holiday of Chanukah challenges us to consider what the role of the spiritual should be in our day and age, and the lights of Chanukah remind us of the supernal values which permeate a seemingly secular world. The Maccabees fought a war to preserve these higher sacred values, and in the public spaces in which we live, we also must fight these same battles.