In the first century of the Common Era, Rome was the world’s unquestioned leading imperial superpower. The Roman Empire reigned all over Europe and the Mediterranean basin, from Britain to Egypt, including, of course, Judea–the land of Israel. Yet despite Roman dominance on the world stage, the Jews of the first and second centuries CE launched no fewer than three major revolts against Rome, including the famous “Great Revolt” which resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE).
In his excellent new book on the history of the Great Revolt, “For the Freedom of Zion: The Great Revolt of Jews against Romans, 66–74 C.E.” (Yale University Press, 2022), classicist and scholar of ancient history Guy MacLean Rogers tries to figure out precisely what compelled the Jews of the first century to rebel against the Roman Empire. They had neither the military strength nor the financial resources to defeat their Roman oppressors. Yet despite their seemingly weak position, the Great Revolt lasted not for a month, nor two months, nor even a year. It lasted for eight years! The rebellion began in 66 CE, and although the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the fighting actually continued for another four years. The siege of Masada began in 73 CE, three years after the destruction of the Temple. How can it possibly be that our ancestors stood up–so successfully and for so long– to the greatest imperial power in human history?
They were able to do it because what they lacked in physical strength they made up for, in spades, in spiritual strength.
The great ancient Jewish historian Josephus records that in the year 70, as Titus was breaching the walls of Jerusalem, he used a battering ram to hammer away against the strongest tower on the northern wall of the city. Atop that tower stood five Jews, who yelled down to Titus, the general and future emperor of Rome, that they would rather die as free Jews than live out the rest of their days as slaves to the Roman Empire. They were the living embodiment of the famous words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, and not by power, but through spirit alone.” (Zechariah 4:6)
Rome thought that they would march into Judea and quash the Jewish rebellion very quickly. But they were in for a rude awakening. Because of their passion, their fervor, and the tenacity of their spirit, our ancestors were able to stave off defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire for nearly a decade. A truly remarkable achievement not only in Jewish history, but in the annals of world history.
There has been so much written over the past several weeks about why Russia has not yet successfully subdued, defeated and conquered Ukraine. After invading Ukraine, Russia’s military expected to sweep through the country within just two days. They thought that they would quickly seize the capital of Kyiv, install a pro-Moscow government and declare victory in under a week. But of course, that is not how things played out. We are now in the third week of the war, and the fighting continues to intensify as the conflict goes on.
So what happened? How did things go so off the rails for the Russians? Well, it seems to me that Putin did not anticipate finding the spirits of Eleazar ben Yair, Rabbi Akiva, Shimon Bar Kochba, and the rest of the heroes of the Great Revolt alive and well in the people of Ukraine. Russia completely underestimated and misjudged not only the strength of the Ukrainian military, but the strength of the Ukrainian people. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms and have vowed not to allow their country to be occupied, nor to lose their autonomy or their freedom.
Since the conflict began three weeks ago, many images and videos of Ukrainian civilians fighting back and revolting against their Russian oppressors have surfaced on the internet. One viral video captures a man in northern Ukraine trying to stop a Russian tank with his body weight. First he jumps on top of the tank, then he hops down and attempts to literally push the tank back with his arms, and when that fails, he simply kneels down in front of the tank. The scene is eerily reminiscent of that iconic photograph of a Chinese man standing before a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the video hearkens back to the zealots who stood defiantly in the face of Titus’ battering ram as the walls of Jerusalem were breached.
The spirit of the Jewish people thrives in Ukraine. The same spirit that inspired David to take on Goliath, the Israelites to challenge Pharaoh in Egypt, and the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto to rise up against their Nazi oppressors courses through the blood of the Ukrainian people. That is why victory continues to elude the Russians.
Last week, Jews across the globe concluded reading the book of Exodus and recited the words “hazak, hazak v’nithazek.” “Strength, strength and let us strengthen one another.” What a perfect sentiment to capture this moment. Let us strengthen our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, through donations, financial support and words of prayer. But let them strengthen us, as well. Through their passion, their audacity, and their spirit. And let their strength serve as an ongoing reminder of the eternal message of the prophet Zechariah. “Not by might and not by power, but through spirit alone.”