Parshas MiKeitz and the story of Yosef always fall out around Chanukah. This is not coincidental; the commentators discuss Yosef’s connection to Chanukah at great length. An obvious connection between Yosef and the Greeks is their association with beauty. Yosef is the only male in the Torah who is referred to as “beautiful” (B’reishis 39:6), and the Greeks originate from Yefes, whose name literally means “beauty.” In a similar vein, the Gemara (Megillah 9b) states that despite the general prohibition of translating the Torah into other languages, it is permissible to translate the Torah into Greek, due to the beauty of the language. What is the meaning behind this connection of Yosef and the Greeks?
Additionally, in Parshas Noach, Noach blesses his two sons as follows: “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b’ohalei Sheim–Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell within the tents of Sheim” (B’reishis 9:27). Yefes is the ancestor of the Greeks, and Sheim is the ancestor of the Jews. This seemingly paints the Greeks as a positive force, as a beautiful nation, fitting to dwell within the framework and boundaries of Judaism. However, the Chanukah story (as well as other incidents throughout Jewish history) reveals a very negative and harmful relationship between the Jews and the Greeks. What then is the meaning behind the Torah’s positive portrayal of the Greeks, and what is the meaning behind their beauty?
In order to understand why both Yosef and the Greeks are referred to as beautiful, and to understand the powerful connection between them, we must understand the spiritual concept of beauty in all of its depth. To do so, let us trace the spiritual concept of beauty back to the creation of man, before Adam HaRishon’s sin.
Before Adam sinned, he looked nothing like you or I do today. When we look at one another, all we see is flesh and bone; but if you looked at Adam before he sinned, his appearance was angelic, transcendent, luminescent. The Midrash says that he wore kosnos or, skin of light. When you looked at Adam, you didn’t see his body; you saw Adam himself: his neshamah, his soul. When you look at a light bulb, all you see is radiant luminescence; only if you look very closely can you just make out the surface of the bulb. The same was true regarding Adam; only if you looked very closely could you just make out his physical body. His body was transparent, with the outside loyally and fully reflecting his inner self. This is true beauty, where the inner and outer melt into a oneness, where the physical perfectly reflects the inner spirituality, where the physical projects something much deeper than itself. Beauty is the harmony and synthesis of different components, resulting in something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
When Adam sinned, however, the world fell, and Adam’s body fell, as well. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual, but hid it. Now, when we look at each other, we don’t see our true selves; all we see is a physical body. What was once light is now darkness. People can’t see your inner world, your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, your soul; all they see is your external body. Now, in order to reveal yourself to other people, you must actively use the physical to reveal the spiritual; only through your words, actions, facial expressions, and body language can people gain a glimpse into who you truly are. The body used to be incandescent and revealing; now it only hides. It is up to us to reveal.
The Chanukah Battle
The conception of beauty was a fundamental point of contention in the battle between the Jewish People and the Greeks. The Greeks did not believe in using the physical to reflect anything higher; they viewed physical beauty as an end unto itself. Their focus was solely on the external; to them, beauty was physical perfection, detached from anything deeper. The Greeks introduced the Olympic Games: competition that idolizes the physical body. For the Greeks, true godliness was physical and intellectual perfection, albeit completely detached from each other. The physical and intellectual were completely independent; mind and soul did not permeate the physical, but remained distinct and separate. This is why the Greeks come from Yefes, which means “beauty,” and why their language is referred to as beautiful. Ideally, the Greeks could have reflected true beauty, a perfection harmony and oneness between physical and spiritual beauty.
This is the ideal that Noach hoped for when he said, “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b’ohalei Sheim–Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell within the tents of Sheim” (B’reishis 9:27). Ideally, the Greeks would have harmonized with the Jews, joining the physical with the spiritual. Instead, they chose to corrupt true beauty, disconnecting the spiritual from the physical and projecting the physical as an independent end in itself.
Yosef and Beauty
Yosef is connected to Chanukah because he represents the harmony between the physical and the spiritual; he successfully utilized the physical to reflect something higher. The Torah calls him “beautiful” because his physical body projected something infinitely deeper than itself. This is the profound meaning behind the name that Pharaoh gives Yosef, Tzafnas Pa’nei’ach, which means to “reveal the hidden” (B’reishis 41:43). A name reflects inner essence, and Yosef’s midah was true beauty, the ability to harmonize the physical with the spiritual, the hidden with the revealed. Yosef represents our victory over Greek ideology, the ability to hold on and stay true to a life of Torah, to see the physical as reflection of something infinitely deeper than itself.
Yosef, Tzion, and True Beauty
The Syrian-Greeks attacked Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), trying to disconnect us from the Beis HaMikdash, the place where Hashem connects most intimately and deeply with our physical world. The place of the Beis HaMikdash is referred to as Tzion, a unique, beautiful, and distinguished place. The pasuk in T’hilim (T’hilim 50:2) refers to Tzion as the place of ultimate beauty: “MiTzion michlal yofi–From Tzion comes the embodiment of beauty.” The Gemara explains that all of the world’s beauty was given to Tzion, and it gave a tenth of its portion (maaser) to the rest of the world (Kiddushin 49b).
Yavan represents external, surface beauty, while Tzion represents true beauty. Yavan is comprised of the letters yud, vav, and nun, while Tzion is comprised of those same three letters, along with a tzadi in front – the same root (shoresh) of the word tzadik. Yosef is referred to as Yosef HaTzadik because he places the tzadi in front of Yavan – turning surface beauty into Tzion, true beauty. (While the common pronunciation of the letter is tzadi, there is a very old tradition of referring to the letter as tzadik, as well (See Shabbos 104a. See also Magen David, letter tzadik). Yosef represents the ability to shine inner, higher beauty through a physical medium. It is no coincidence that the g’matria (numerical value) of Tzion is 156, the same g’matria as “Yosef.”
This is the hidden light of Chanukah, the light that illuminates the truth, helping us see that which lies beneath the surface. Beauty is much deeper than a description of how a person looks; it’s a way of life. A beautiful life is a life of oneness, where we synthesize all the aspects of who we are, where our thoughts, words, and actions all reflect a higher purpose, a higher source, a higher reality. This is the beauty of Yosef; this is the light of Chanukah.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.