How the Story of Chanukah Advises Us to “Protect the Core”

You may have heard this cute saying among Jewish people describing the observance of many holidays: “They tried to kill us. We prevailed. Let’s eat.” There’s some truth to it. And it certainly describes the Chanukah story most of us learned growing up: In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Syrian Greeks who tried to force the Jews to forget their core values and belief in one God, and accept Greek culture. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the service of God.

That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. And, in my mind, it’s not the most important truth. Here’s what most of us weren’t taught:

The cosmopolitan nature of Greek culture intrigued many Jews. It was modern, sophisticated, intellectual. But it also focused on physical pleasures and crass entertainment – hedonistic parties, naked wrestling matches and the like – which were in direct conflict with core Jewish values. As some Jews started to enjoy the Greek ways, Jewish leaders pushed back, worried about assimilation and the loss of the fundamental teachings of the Torah. (“Torah” literally means “instruction” or “guidance,” and contains the body of wisdom and law in Jewish scripture.)

The more Jews who assimilated, the greater the danger of permanent harm to the spirit and existence of the Jewish people. The Maccabees sided with those who wanted to maintain Jewish values. Violence broke out and the Maccabees took power. Sadly, they became corrupt and created lasting political divisions. It was a very bad time for the Jews.

At Chanukah, we celebrate the Maccabees’ remarkable feats against a huge military, as we
should. But I believe the civil war of ideas among Jews that led to violence back then is what’s relevant, and troubling, to us today. Israelis have never been more divided over social and political issues than they are now. And there’s a growing distance between most American Jews and an Israel that doesn’t look like what its founders envisioned.

Our people’s greatest threat isn’t external; it’s within. This is a critical lesson for anyone aspiring to leadership. We need to remind ourselves of our powerful shared values, which are far more significant than our many differences.

A Jewish New Year Message That’s Relevant to Everyone

The Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), offer a guide for introspection. We’re told to pause, take stock, confess our sins and repent: What have we contributed, to our family, our community, ourselves? Where did we go astray, do something harmful to someone else or to ourselves?

The Hebrew word “chet” is frequently used during the holiday services. Chet is usually translated as “sin.” But it comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to miss the mark,” which conveys a very different meaning. As author Debra Darvick has written, “At a most basic level we Jews view sin not as a permanent birth stain upon our humanity, but as a regrettable action whose effect can be remedied.” Consider a dart board: if you throw a dart and it misses the board entirely, the dart isn’t defective, nor should we assume its user is a bad person. The user had poor aim. And that mistake can be corrected.

Another word we read throughout the High Holidays is “teshuvah.” It’s usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “return,” as in turning back to something you’ve strayed from. So let’s put these two words together. The High Holidays call on us to acknowledge where we’ve missed the mark (chet), and then to repent (teshuva) by returning to something we’ve lost. Repentance also involves making amends with those we may have hurt.

Fine and good, but what are we to return to? The rabbis over the centuries have interpreted teshuvah as a return to: oneself, our core values, the essence or root of our soul, to God. To put it another way, we must return to our core, however we might define that.

The Jewish High Holidays call on us to:
• Identify where we’ve missed the mark
• Repent
• Return to what’s at our core

Some of our finest public and private organizations are successful, in large part, because they are fiercely dedicated to what they consider to be their core. For some organizations the core involves certain key disciplines. At the 3M Company, for example, that includes continual innovation and collaboration. For some, the core is about fundamental values. The U.S. Marines have long embraced the values of honor, courage and commitment. These aren’t just parts of a slogan, they’re baked into their training, evaluation, promotion and other key Marine processes.

And for others, the core is made up of their employees. FedEx, one of our most trusted companies, is committed to their P-C-P philosophy: create a positive work environment for the People (their employees) and they’ll provide world-class service to the Customers. The result: increased Profits, driven by delighted customers who keep using FedEx.

Leadership expert Stephen Covey used to preach, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” My initial reaction to this idea was negative; it seemed a bit cutesy. But I’ve come to see its wisdom. It challenges us to first figure out what our “main thing” is, and that’s not always clear. The Jewish High Holidays call on us to think deeply about what our main thing – our core – is.

If we’re to do that, as teshuvah suggests, we first must determine what that core is. And that is a search worthy of our greatest efforts.

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]