Perhaps We Should All Read Our Own Obituaries

December 11, 2009
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 11th December 2009

Yesterday President Barack Obama was in Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize for peace. And behind that story lies a fascinating one about the man himself, not Barack Obama but Alfred Nobel, the man who created the world’s biggest prize for peace

It happened in 1888. Nobel, the man who invented dynamite, was reading his morning papers when, with a shock, he found himself reading his own obituary. It turned out that a journalist had made a simple mistake. It was Nobel’s brother who had died, and the paper just got it wrong. What horrified Nobel was what he read. It spoke about the dynamite king who’d made a fortune from explosives. Nobel suddenly realised that if he didn’t change his life that was all he’d be remembered for. That was when he decided to dedicate his fortune to creating five annual prizes for those who’d made outstanding contributions in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Nobel chose to be remembered for peace.

Which brings me to Chanukah, the eight day Jewish festival of lights that begins tonight. It recalls the moment when, two centuries before the birth of Christianity, the Jews of Israel fought for their religious freedom. Antiochus IV, the ruler of the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire, had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting a statue of Zeus and offering pagan sacrifices on the altar. A group of Jews known as the Maccabees rebelled and won, reconquering Jerusalem, rededicating the Temple, and lighting the menorah, the candelabrum that stood near the altar. It was one of the most remarkable military victories in Jewish history. And ever since, we too light a menorah in our homes.

But there’s a beautiful law in Judaism, and it applies to a day like today, Friday. On the Friday of Chanukah we light two kinds of lights, for the festival and for the Sabbath, both of which begin at nightfall. What if we only have one candle? What do we light it as: a Chanukah light or a Sabbath light? It can’t be both.

The answer is: we light it as a Sabbath light, because the Sabbath light symbolises peace in the home. And in Judaism, even the smallest fragment of peace takes precedence over even the greatest victory in war. Like Alfred Nobel, Jews preferred to be remembered for peace.

Perhaps we should all read our own obituaries. It might just persuade us to spend less on weapons of war, and more on teaching the world’s children the art of peace.