Masada is a fortress in the rocky cliffs of the Judean Desert with a legendary history. Following the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 69 of the Common Era, a band of Jews fortified themselves on Masada and successfully resisted Roman efforts to dislodge them. They held out for nearly three years, but towards the end, when they could hold no more, they elected mass suicide over defeat.

These were religious Jews. What drove them to commit suicide and defy the supreme Jewish commandment to cherish life? I was not on that mountain when it happened and cannot provide definitive answers. But I can propose a theory.

The Pitfalls of Zeal

The defenders of Masada were largely drawn from the poor masses of the lower city of Jerusalem. They were zealous men who adhered to the law. They disdained the wealthy priests from the upper city who had collaborated with Rome and curried Roman favor, power and largess.

The poor suffered while the wealthy prospered. The upper class saw Rome as the protector of Judea. The lower class saw Rome as the oppressor of ritual and tradition and they wanted independence and freedom from this oppression. Generations raised on a diet of poverty were taught to blame the evil occupiers for their desperate misfortune.

When the rabbis admonished them to lay down their arms in the futile revolt against Rome, they were not conditioned to accept. In their zeal, they accused their rabbis of capitulation. They preferred to raise arms and fight. Surrender was anathema, a weakness to be avoided at all costs.

It was not much of a leap for them to accuse the rabbis of collaboration with the wealthy upper class whom they perceived as traitors. In this frame of mind, they were not positively disposed towards rabbinical opinion. They saw themselves as the protectors of Judaism, more zealous than their rabbis, perhaps even above the law.

Atop Masada, when it was time to choose, they preferred self-inflicted death to possible slavery at the hands of the enemy. They would not chance a battle against Rome and risk survival and servitude. Convinced that their actions were sanctioned by G‑d, they sealed their ultimate pact and resigned themselves to death.

Dark Moments

The morality of their decision notwithstanding, Masada tells a tale of heroism in the darkest moments. Its romantic overtone appeals to a nation accustomed to dark moments. Masada thus became an instant attraction when it was rediscovered in the mid 1950's.

When I visited Masada, I came across a giant Chanukah menorah (a nine branched candelabra that Jews traditionally kindle to commemorate the miracle of Chanukah) on the summit. My tour guide explained that it was placed there as an answer of sorts to the ideological struggle with the events at Masada.

When Masada was rediscovered, the modern State of Israel was in infancy. The emphasis was on the rebirth of the Jewish homeland. Masada was ideologically attractive because it was the site of the last heroic stand. It represented the low point. Jews committed suicide in desperation, believing that all hope was lost, that all faith was gone, that the Jewish star had been totally eclipsed. It seemed that the Jewish people would fade from history. But that never happened. In fact, the population of Jews began to grow again. Masada was important because it told the world that the Jewish legacy could not be erased, that Jewish fortune, even at its lowest point, was destined to revive and grow again. That Jews are the people of eternity.

This was the spirit of the 1950's. This was the spirit of return.

Time passed and Jews established themselves in the land of Israel. Jews were no longer preoccupied with returning to the homeland but with maintaining their hold on it. Now the question was how to maintain that hold. What ideology must we adopt, what beliefs would best equip our children to maintain their homes and identities? Is Masada the appropriate message? Did the people of Masada do the right thing? Should we teach our children to despair and commit suicide when the future looks hopeless?

The Menorah on Masada

Thus the Chanukah menorah atop Masada. Chanukah tells a different tale of Jewish heroism. It tells of another Jewish struggle against a different evil occupier, this time from Greece. The charge was led by five heroic brothers, the Maccabees, who battled against seemingly impossible odds. Conventional wisdom predicted the failure of the Maccabeen rebellion, but it was miraculously successful.

The Chanukah story does not carry the romantic overtones of the Masada legend, but it is a quintessentially Jewish story: a story that glorifies not suicide but life, not defeat but victory, not despair but hope. It is a message for our youth — for the children of today, the adults of tomorrow.