Culture Shock

by | Nov 20, 2015 | Torah Thought

The Medrash tells us about a man named Yosef Meshisa. The context of the Medrash makes it sound like he lived at the time of the Greeks. He was what we would call a traitor. He joined the Greeks, adopted their culture, and assisted them in military strategy. When the Greeks ascended Temple Mount and invaded the Temple, they sent him in first. They told him to choose one item that would be his to keep.

Yosef Meshisa entered the Temple and grabbed the Menorah. When he came out it was confiscated by the Greeks.

“This is too beautiful,” they said. “It’s too nice for you. A simple man like you cannot own something like this.”

The Greeks told Yosef Meshisa to go back into the Temple and choose something else. He refused. They offered to make him a tax collector for three years if he would go back in. He still refused. Finally, they threatened to kill him if he did not re-enter.

Yosef Meshisa remained defiant. He said, “I angered my G-d once. I will not do it again.” And he was put to death.

What happened to Yosef Meshisa? He couldn’t have been too holy if he was willing to go into the Temple and take the Menorah. What caused him to repent?

Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman of Ponevizh (1886-1969) explains that the very space of the Holy Temple on Temple Mount had the power to change a person. Yosef Meshisa was a different man because he spent time in the Temple. This is an awesome thought, but still does not totally answer the question. If he repented inside the Temple, why did he come out carrying the Menorah?

I believe that it was the protests of the Greeks that put Yosef Meshisa over the edge. Yosef went into the Temple and was, perhaps unexpectedly, overwhelmed by its holiness. He was drawn to the Menorah and all that it embodied and represented, the focal point of the entire Jewish nation in their service of Hashem. It was constantly lit and represented the light that Hashem asked us to share with the world. The Menorah was holy. Yosef Meshisa grabbed the Menorah because, deep inside, it meant something to him.

When he came outside to his friends, he encountered a culture shock. The Greeks said he couldn’t have the Menorah because it was too beautiful and he was too simple to appreciate it. They couldn’t see the spirituality in the Menorah or its holiness. They couldn’t see that it was meaningful to him.

It was at that point that Yosef realized that he had fallen in with the wrong crowd. The Jews weren’t against the beauty, the mathematics, or the art of the Greeks. They were against the attitude that everything in this world is tangible and that an invisible G-d and spirituality have no place.

Yosef Meshisa realized there was far more to the Menorah than what the Greeks were able to recognize. He realized that he had a soul and it was far more important to him than any honor or riches or culture that he had been willing to exchange for it.

One of the Greeks’ edicts was that every Ox horn must be engraved with the statement “we have nothing to do with G-d.” The Greeks knew what they were doing.

Imagine a Jew walking behind his ox plowing his field or bringing goods to the marketplace. He realizes that as hard as he is working, he is relying on G-d to make him successful. The Greeks wanted to put a stop to that. They wanted us to spend all day staring at anti-god bumper stickers.

The lesson of Chanukah and of Yosef Meshisa is that there is more to the world than what the Greeks were willing to see. There is a spiritual component and G-d is with us in everything that we do.

We need to use Chanukah to refocus and connect to the purity that powers our lives and has the ability to give meaning and depth to everything we do. Whether we are holding the Menorah, leading an ox, or sitting behind a desk, G-d is an integral part of our lives.

—Rabbi Sender Haber, B’nai Israel.