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  • Andres Spokoiny

The Decline and Fall of Every Revolution (Hanukkah 5780)

22 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev found himself in a situation he never imagined he’d be in: broke.

This was the man who had led a world superpower, signed groundbreaking nuclear arms control agreements, and initiated a transformation of the Soviet Union that eventually transformed it into a free market economy before collapsing its domination of Eastern Europe into an outbreak of freedom.

In 1997, however, he was on the brink of bankruptcy. In what must have been an excruciating decision, and one which brought him ridicule, he agreed to film a commercial for Pizza Hut.

The revolution that Gorbachev started didn’t fare much better than his bank account. Russia reverted to an authoritarian rule which, despite not being as cruel as the Soviets, is a far cry from the democracy that Gorbachev dreamed. Yes, Eastern Europe remains democratic and free, but Russian landgrabs in Ukraine and Georgia give chills to folks in Lithuania and Slovakia.

Most revolutions start with high ideals and lofty aspirations. But in many cases reality sets in and the dream comes down crashing. In some cases, people abandon the ideals that guided the revolution; they become intoxicated with power or they become guilty of the same evils they revolted against. In some cases, the abandonment of the ideals is not cynical or preplanned, it just happens naturally when the revolution needs to confront the constraints and limitations of realpolitik.

Fidel Castro was a beacon of hope for millions in Latin America when he dethroned a cruel dictator, but the ideals of justice and equality that had guided the revolution soon faded as Cuba became a dictatorship far worse than Batista’s. The American Revolution fared better, in the sense that many of the ideals of the Revolution still animate the Republic 250 years later, but it’s impossible not to note the contradiction between the ideal of “all men are created equal”, and the reality of upholding slavery for 100 years, or the conflict between the notion of “inalienable rights” and the dispossession and massacre of American Indians. Realpolitik – and mere greed – took priority over ideals.

Something similar happened in the story of Hanukkah and its aftermath. The Maccabean revolt had the loftiest of aspirations: for Jews to live freely in our land, to worship our God as we please, and to build a just and fair society based on the values of the prophets of Israel.

Jews made enormous sacrifices for that ideal. Few of us know that, in fact, after the liberation of the Jerusalem Temple, the fight continued for 30 years. The Maccabees themselves paid the ultimate price: of Mattathias and his five sons, only Simon survived the long and grueling fight. It was a fight that serves as an inspiration to Jews, and all freedom lovers, to this day.

However, when the war was finally over, the ideals started to fade. Simon became the first ruler of the Hasmonean dynasty and tried, as much as possible, to stay true to the spirit of the Maccabean revolt: he didn’t abuse power, he empowered an independent legislative and judicial power, and he ruled wisely and fairly. Most notably, he didn’t impose on other peoples the same iniquities that the Jews had to suffer under the Seleucids.

But seeds of dissolution sprouted during the reigns of his son and grandson. Both of them muzzled the opposition (in the case of King Alexander Jannaeus, quite permanently, by killing them); both became obsessed with power; both conquered neighboring peoples and subjected them to religious and political oppression. In some cases, these attitude was due to realpolitik and the need to protect the fledging state; in others, it was plain lust for power and dominion. In a reversal of roles, the children became guilty of what the parents revolted against.

It happens to countries and peoples, but it happens to individuals too. Especially to funders and communal leaders. In most cases, we start our journey imbued with a deep sense of mission, full of lofty ideals and noble aspirations. And yet, when we look at our actual leadership work, most is spent in petty political infighting, ego battles, useless minutiae, and turf wars. In the daily grind, the ideals that brought us here in the first place get slowly forgotten; in the best of cases, they are slowly left to rust away and in the worst, they are manipulated to justify abuses and struggles that are anything but idealistic. Here and there we may look at our sense of mission with a bittersweet nostalgia, lamenting that, paraphrasing Clausewitz, no ideal survives a clash with the enemy.

In an oblique way, a Talmudic debate (Tractate Shabbat 21b) about the Hanukkiah deals with this exact issue. Rabbis, characteristically, couldn’t agree on a fine point of law: how should we light our Hanukkiah? The School of Shammai says: On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease, and the School of Hillel says: On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase.

If you think about it, Shammai’s opinion is more logical. The candles commemorate the miracle of the oil that was supposed to last for one day and lasted for eight; the supply of oil, although it miraculously lasted more than it should have, dwindled every day; it didn’t increase. His view is certainly more in line with what actually happened. It also reflects accurately the story of the Maccabees: the holiness and idealism that guided them not only didn’t increase, but disappeared over time. In a way, it acknowledges a deeper truth about reality: entropy is a powerful force in the universe, energy dissipates, matter decays, enthusiasm wanes, idealism vanishes, lights fade.

The School of Hillel’s interpretation, however, is less concerned with how things are but with how things should be. His logic is an aspirational one: we add candles, because “we need to increase in holiness, not decrease”. Hillel challenges us to resist the natural course of things and the stultifying effects of time to keep our idealism alive and even keep fueling it. The more the miracle recedes in the past, the more candles we have to add to so as to keep the miracle alive. The less oil there is, the more of our own idealism needs to be ignited. Hillel issues a call to combat the stupefying forces of habit and routine; to keep the flame alive, to always live according to our principles and values. The inspirational nature of the Hanukkiah is cemented by another law—the one that says that the Hanukkiah can’t serve any practical purpose. It’s there only to be seen, to inspire, to motivate. It supposed to be the opposite of useful. It’s a call to pure, unaltered idealism.

Judaism is a realistic culture. At every turn, we are asked to consider the realities in which we operate. The Torah is full of necessary compromises with the constraints of reality, with the needs of others and with our human feebleness. Yet, the waning of our idealism is not a fatality; we can and we must add inspiration—remember the ideals that launched us into our struggle and subject ourselves to ever-rising standards instead of surrendering to an irrevocable loss of idealism.

In this time of cynicism and nihilism, ideals are sacrificed on the altar of expedience and values become a willing offering to the insatiable gods of power and greed. So this is the time to defy the entropy of the soul, keep lighting candles of hope, and hold our shining Hanukkiah for all – and especially for ourselves – to see. A Hanukkiah that serves no practical purpose except reminding us of our beliefs and of the aspirations we once had. It’s precisely now that Hillel’s message of expanding holiness needs to be heard around the world.

And it starts at home: as funders and leaders, we need to remember the higher calling that started us on our journeys, the beliefs that once guided us, the vocation of service that animated us. The alternative is not pretty: ending up like sad caricatures of ourselves, consumed by the trivial, used-up by selfishness, flattened by cynicism. We need to use this holiday to practice generosity and gratitude, to remember who we once were and welcome that stranger back into our lives, to bask in the light of our values, and to keep our revolutions alive, moving from one noble aspiration to the next, growing from strength to strength and from light to light.

Either that, or instead of sufganiyot, we go for a slice with Gorbachev.


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