Hannah Pollak

ACT Therapy, Chanukah and the wars of Israel 

Chanukah in the Lodz Ghetto, Yad Vashem Archives

A few months ago, someone I met taught me about ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This psychotherapy technique encourages the patient to accept their internal and external realities and to respond according to their beliefs and values. One particular characteristic of this system is that it invites the individual to make positive changes in their lives based on values and not goals. In order to understand this idea, let’s use a simple example. Let’s say you really want to go on a hiking trip with your family. The problem is that your unhealthy lifestyle makes the trip physically impossible. If you only focus on goals, you’ll commit to working on your physical endurance in order to be fit enough to go on the trip. However, in the realm of values, your self-talk would be fundamentally different: becoming healthy is not about a hiking trip or any other extrinsic motive. You want to be healthy because you believe that health is an inherent value, in the sense that God gave you a body to take care of, and that being healthy and strong allows you to be more productive and functional. At the same time, you want to be able to travel with your family, because you think quality time with family, and relationships in general, are important values. In a nutshell, the way I understand it, ACT implies that while in life we need to have specific goals to accomplish, our goals should be rooted in strong underlying values.  

The ACT principles suggest a fundamental shift from goal-driven lives to value-driven lives. And not surprisingly, this has been the prevalent and constant message from our leaders throughout this “time of distress for Yaakov,” the current difficult national situation that we find ourselves in.

A common feeling, especially among Jews living in the Diaspora, is confusion and conflicted emotions over the need/desire to feel the pain of the Jewish People and, at the same time, trying to live a normal life and keeping bound to everyday responsibilities and chores that seem so mundane and out of synch with the cosmic events taking place right now. Naturally, everyday life distracts us from the horrors that happened and are continuing to happen in Eretz Yisrael. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be productive or appropriate at all to stop living our lives or neglect our duties. In response to this conundrum, Rav Mayer Twersky has advised, “stick to routine, but not routinely.” I can’t say for sure what Rav Twersky means by that, but perhaps we can interpret it through the ACT principle I mentioned above. Our routine correlates to our goals. I follow my routine to accomplish both short term and long term goals. I need to get up, get dressed, make my bed, eat breakfast, go to class, study for exams, call my parents, hang out with friends, study a bit more, buy groceries, shower, and go to sleep. However, perhaps having a “routine that’s not routinely” implies shifting my perspective from goals to values, and infusing everything I do with meaning. Some of my values are contributing to the world from my own personal strengths and living a life of kindness and connection to myself, to others and to Hashem. In order to live such a life, I must engage in a certain routine that entails getting through my days, weeks and months in an efficient (but purposeful) manner. 

On a broader and more fundamental note, we can argue that this war, as any other Milchemes Mitzvah (halachically mandatory war), can also be approached from a value-driven ACT perspective. If we look at it through the lens of its “goals”, we will conclude that this war is about ensuring the safety of the Land of Israel. We would say that it’s about protecting the country, its soldiers, civilians and bringing back the hostages. However, clearly, this war transcends all these very important goals, and means so much more than any nationalistic feeling or our right to self-defense. This is a war of values. As many Jewish and non-Jewish leaders have stated, this is a war between good and evil. This is a war between justice and corruption, between compassion and barbaric cruelty. We’re fighting for the sanctity of the Land of Israel, for the ancestral right of the Jews to it, and for the sanctity of human life. We’re witnessing how, over this war, the world is dividing between those courageous enough to recognize and try to abide by an absolute divine moral code, and the privileged pseudo-intellectual cowards who are spinning lies, condoning the worst atrocities, and feeding it all to the ignorant, zombie-like masses. From a goal-perspective, yes, this is a regular geopolitical conflict. But let’s open our eyes and see the situation for what it really is: we are going through an epic battle for the sake of morality and truth. And who could have stated it more poignantly than the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 7:15)? 

Once a soldier enters the throes of battle, he should rely on the Hope of Israel and their Savior in times of need. He should realize that he is fighting for the sake of the oneness of God’s Name. Therefore, he should place his soul in His hand and not show fright or fear.

In the Iggeres Teiman, again the Rambam echoes this idea. First, he addresses the fundamental issues of Jewish chosenness, Revelation at Sinai and how that implies that we are bound to keep the Torah and its laws. Then he explains that, essentially, all forms of Antisemitism stem from an unconscious feeling of envy that the nations have when they consider that God chose us and gave us His perfect and beautiful Torah. This triggers animosity towards us and the desire to fight against us, while fundamentally they are fighting against the Torah and against God himself. The flipside of this idea is that one who fights a war for the Jewish People is defending the Torah and Hashem himself, who are “under attack”, so to speak. Once again, we could understand this double-layered confrontation from a goals v. values perspective. On the one hand, a Milchemes Mitzvah is a “regular” war, whose goal is to protect the safety of a people and a land. However, what actually fuels this battle is a deep conviction in and commitment to the sacred values of Divine oneness, justice and goodness. 

Having these ideas in mind made me think about a potential way to understand the dual nature of the miracles of Chanukah. On the one hand, in our liturgy, we thank God for the miracles He performed for us during the war against the Greeks. How He allowed the Macabbes, who were few and weak Torah scholars, to prevail over the large and mighty Greek army. However, the Gemarah (Shabbos 21b) and the Rambam (see Hilchos Megillah veChanukah 2:1-3) do not seem to focus so much on the military victory, but rather on the miracle of having found that one unadulterated jug of olive oil that lasted for eight days. We can suggest that the military victory refers to the pragmatic goals the Chasmonaim had to re-establish stability and freedom in the Land. However, the jug of oil symbolizes the values driving this war. The values of purity, of connection, of the light of Torah and the soul of the Jew. Yes, the military victory was vital in the sense that the Chashmonaim wouldn’t have been able otherwise to recover the Mikdash besieged by the Greeks. But the military victory was ultimately a means to reinstate our values that had been compromised by the profanation of the Temple, the desecration of the Torah and the Hellenization of the Jew. 


About the Author
Hannah Pollak is a college student pursuing a career in Jewish education. She was born and raised in Chile, South America. Today, she lives in New York, where she is learning Torah and getting a degree at Stern College for Women.
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