What is the limit of human capacity? Who determines what we can or can’t do? On Hanukkah, we commemorate that during the second century BCE, a priestly family of the tribe of Levi, the Maccabees, led a successful rebellion against the Seleucid Greek empire, as a response to Antiochus IV forbidding the Jews to practice their religion. 

How could an army of approximately 7,000 barely trained Jews beat an army of more than 60,000 highly trained Greek soldiers? Throughout Jewish history, we have repeatedly seen how individuals have surpassed all expectations of what is achievable.  The ancient teachings of Judaism and the modern field of psychology teach us that faith in God and in our own capacities can be the perfect combination to drive us through what others call impossible. 

In recent decades, faith has become an important area of study among scientists,  leading to important discoveries. One finding, for example, revealed that people who believe in God tend to be happier and healthier than non-believers. Other studies have found that believers tend to feel less depressed and have a more defined sense of the meaning of life. In other words, researchers have found that faith affects (usually positively) how an individual engages the world. 

Ultimately, having faith means accepting that not everything is in our control. On the other hand, our attitude toward adversity can be as important as the actual capacities we possess. As the sociologist Robert K. Merton taught, our expectations about ourselves influence our actions and can help bring about “self-fulfilling prophecies.” In other words, faith is a powerful tool to help overcome difficult situations, but self-belief also matters. 

The Maccabees were known to be men of faith, and science suggests that likely contributed to their victory. Of course, we cannot rely on faith alone. By taking advantage of the topography of the battlefield, the Maccabees were able to develop an effective military strategy. Through a mix of perseverance, knowledge and belief, their “self-fulfilling prophecy” of a victory became true.

There are many examples in Jewish history where if people hadn’t had faith and self-belief, history as we know it would have been dramatically different. What if the Maccabees had given up in the face of improbable odds, or if they had lost belief in God and themselves? The story of Hanukkah is an inspiring example of how we shouldn’t doubt our capacities no matter how difficult the situation seems. 

During these trying times, when so many of us feel powerless in the face of adversity, the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks can inspire us to keep pursuing what we love and to keep on believing. In the midst of Hanukkah, it is a good time to reflect upon what dreams we have abandoned because they appeared too difficult or improbable to achieve. Don’t let the odds dictate what we can or can’t do. Rather, let’s continue to have faith and believe in ourselves just as the Maccabees did, and, with a  little help from above, we can convert every “what if” into a success.

Moises Arbitman, a native of Mexico, is a graduate student at Brandeis University pursuing a dual master of arts in professional Jewish leadership and master of business administration degree.

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