Chanukah is one of the most well-observed Jewish festivals. Everyone enjoys lighting pretty menorahs and eating lots of doughnuts! But underlying the memorable victory of how the Hasmoneans defeated the powerful Greek army lies a fundamental ideological battle, one that still rages today. These two ideologies represent opposing attitudes regarding the purpose of life. There is a medrash about a Roman leader who asks Rabbi Akiva whose creation is greater, that of Hashem or that of man. Rabbi Akiva surprisingly answers that man’s creation is greater. Why? Because Hashem creates inedible produce, such as a kernel of wheat which serves no benefit, whereas man takes this kernel and, through much toil, makes it into bread. The medrash tells us that Rabbi Akiva anticipated that the Roman expected him to say that Hashem’s creation was greater. He also knew what the Roman’s next question would be: if Hashem’s creation is greater, then why is it that after Hashem creates a human being, man proceeds to perform bris mila, cutting away part of the human body, thus implying that man is improving upon Hashem’s creation. Rabbi Akiva forestalled the question by stating that man’s creation is indeed greater. How can we understand this ma’amar Chazal? Surely Hashem’s creation is infinitely greater than that of man!
There was a deeper disagreement underlying this discussion. The Roman represented the Greco-Roman philosophy that emphasized the perfection of man. The Greeks idolized the human body and intellect. In their eyes, man was naturally perfect, and the Romans essentially represented a continuation of that ideology. Consequently, the Jewish practice of bris mila was particularly abhorrent to them; it represented taking something that was perfect and damaging it. Rabbi Akiva represented the Torah belief that Hashem deliberately created the world in an imperfect fashion so that man could perfect it himself. Of course Hashem is infinitely greater than mankind. He creates a coarse kernel of wheat so that man will go through the process of turning it into something greater. This, too, is the symbolism of bris mila: the idea that man is not born perfect. Man has much work to do, in particular to harness and control all his powerful drives and use them for growth or improvement.
Given all this, it should be of little surprise that one of the three mitzvos that the Greeks forbade the Jews from observing was bris mila. They sought to uproot the idea that man is not made perfect, that life is about improving oneself, striving to remove his negative traits and develop his positive attributes. However, the Jews fought this prohibition with all their might and eventually overcame the Greeks. So, too, we have outlived the Romans and all the philosophies that espouse the natural perfection of mankind. However, the battle continues. Today, we are surrounded by a secular society that places little or no emphasis on the concept of self-improvement. Instead, it focuses far more on self-gratification. We, however, know that the true satisfaction can only be derived from growing, from becoming a kinder, more spiritual person, a more thoughtful spouse, a more attentive parent, and, most importantly, a better eved Hashem.