click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Jews and War
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Jews and War

The Maccabees realized that there is a time to fight.


The miracle of Hanukkah wasn’t performed by God alone. The Maccabees played a crucial role in defeating the Syrian Greeks on the battlefields. It was a partnership of human courage and Divine guidance. Matisyahu and his sons prevailed because they were wise enough to recognize that although Jews revere peace, we acknowledge that there may be a time that demands we go to war.

And that was not an easy thing for our people to admit – neither then, nor today.

Psychologists tell us there are basically two ways in which we can cope with the world: fight or flight. Encountering any difficulty, one can either attempt to cope, grapple and wrestle with an issue and overcome it, or one can flee and give up at the outset.

Some may rationalize flight as the correct religious response. Let me not do anything, and if God really desires a certain outcome, let Him handle it to His satisfaction.

As I heard Rabbi Soleveichik once explain it, this was the way of Jacob, even from the time he was in the womb. Jacob had actually been conceived first. He should’ve been the one to be born before his brother. Technically, he was the eldest, with all the attendant privileges of primogeniture. His brother Esau, however, pushed himself forward and forced himself over Jacob. “And after that came forth his brother and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel and his name was called Jacob” [Genesis 25:26] . The very name Jacob comes from the Hebrew word related to heel. Jacob was holding on to his brother’s heel; he begins his life being trampled upon, unfairly deprived by force of his rights.

Jacob’s life continued to unfold, guided by the unspoken philosophy that “nice Jewish boys don’t fight.” His twin brother Esau fooled father Isaac into thinking that he was the more pious and deserving son - and were it not for the intervention of his mother, Jacob would not have said a word in the face of this injustice.

When Jacob fell in love with Rachel only to have his father-in-law switch brides and trick him into a marriage with Leah, his response was to quietly accept the obligation to work for yet another seven years in order to earn the hand of the woman that was already rightly his.

Passivity in the face of evil and the silent acceptance of ill treatment defined Jacob’s theology. Jacob eventually realized his error in the dramatic story that so altered his perception that it was responsible for a change of name, a change that acknowledged that his newfound insight literally turned him into a new person.

Left totally alone and attacked by a mysterious assailant the commentators identify as the evil representative of Esau, Jacob realizes he has no alternative but to fight. At the end of a long night of battle, Jacob is left limping but nonetheless receives a blessing. He is now no longer the stepped-upon Jacob, but from this time forward is Israel – “because you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” [Genesis 32:29].

Jacob may have suffered a blow, but he won the greater battle – the battle over his unwillingness previously to engage in combat. Jacob won the greatest victory of all – he finally managed to conquer himself.

And, explain the commentators, if he was left limping, what of it? That would simply mean he would never again be able to run away from anyone or any place, not even from himself.

The name change of Jacob to Israel differs from that of Abram to Abraham. Once Abram became Abraham he would never again be called by his original name. Abraham identified his new mission as “the father of many nations,” the first one to bring monotheism to the consciousness of the world. That name change was exclusive.

Peace is the ultimate goal. But until the messianic era, war remains an unfortunate necessity.

However even after Jacob became Israel, when the pacifist became the fighter, we still find him at times referred to by his earlier name. The reason is obvious. It is what was stated so beautifully by Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for peace and there is a time for war.” Both names are to be used, both modalities are to be employed.

Peace is the ultimate goal. But until the messianic era, war remains an unfortunate necessity.

We wish we would only have to imitate the way of Jacob who sat peacefully in his tent dedicating his life to study. But as long as there remain those like Esau who threaten our existence we know we must assume the identity of Israel and do battle with our enemies.

The Maccabees understood this. While they surely would have preferred to lead the peaceful life of priests, they recognized the responsibility placed upon them by the threat of a Greek-Syrian army bent on their destruction.

Of course nice Jewish boys don’t want to fight. That is not our way. But the world needs to know that we are the nation of Israel, defending the land of Israel. And like our forefather Israel, we will fight for survival. Like the Maccabees, Israel will go to war when it’s necessary. That’s because we love peace so much that we are ready to fight for it.

And that is one of the contemporary messages of Hanukkah.

December 4, 2012

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 13

(12) S.Levy, September 23, 2013 10:39 PM


THERE IS NO POSSIBLE PEACE WITH ARABS. They don´t want it, and to illude ourselves is a repetition of Munich 1938, or as Churchill said to Chamberlain (and Daladier) "...between dishonor and war you have chosen dishonor, and now you shall have war..." ISRAEL MUST NOT bend over to the EU, UN, or other World organization demands! The hell with the rest of the world, Israel is sovereign and ALL JEWS IN THE WORLD COUNT AND DEPEND ON IT. Better WWIII than give in.

(11) adakwo yakubu, December 15, 2012 1:56 PM

let be peace in the world

rabi splendo to your concerned over the peace keep welming

(10) Naomi, December 12, 2012 2:12 PM

Misread psychology

Rabbi Blech states that humans have only 2 possible reactions to challenges: fight or flight. These are the only 2 reactions possible for animals stuck on the evolutionary ladder at survival.Humans, at least evolved, conscious humans, also have reflection, mindfulness and reason. When faced with challenge, we can pause, step back, look at the big picture and make choices that will have the best outcomes down the road. In the face of the radical Arab desire to annihilate Israel, it is incumbent upon Jews are Israel to take a more enlightened stance in order to intercept the cycle of attack and retaliation. War never begets peace for very long.

(9) maduka jonas, December 11, 2012 9:40 PM

His name is peace

we most live as jews,and reclaimed all our promise land God gave us.amen

(8) Alex, December 10, 2012 3:35 AM

...such wisdom.

Thank you Rabbi, for your insight. Stay well.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment