Category Archives: war

Darkest Hour (2017), directed by Joe Wright

breakfast clubWhen I first started out in 1970 as an assistant rabbi in a large Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, I also had the title of educational director. This reflected the fact that I was in charge of the afternoon Hebrew school which catered to kids who were not enrolled in the local Jewish day school. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I would be a perfect professional and not make any mistakes. I soon realized that I was, indeed, fallible.

After disciplining a student for bad behavior, her father made an appointment with me. He told me that my educational vision was small and that I did not recognize the emotional complexity of students. His comments stung and I thought about them for some time. I went to the senior rabbi to get his take on the situation, and he smiled at me. He thought my desire for professional perfection was nice, but unrealistic.

In life, we all make mistakes, and the big question is how to respond to our failures, how do we continue to grow in spite of errors we make along the way. The key is to “fail forward” as motivational guru John Maxwell has said. Let failure be a lesson and teacher for us, not a death sentence. Darkest Hour, the inspirational story of Winston Churchill’s leadership of England during World War II, is an example of a leader who does not allow others to define either him or his cause. He is a leader who triumphs over the darkest of times.

In May 1940, German troops were at the Belgian Border intending to conquer the rest of Europe. In England, Parliament had lost faith in the current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who appeased Hitler. Britain quickly needed a replacement who could form a coalition government at this dangerous moment in history.

The only man who could do that was Winston Churchill, a very unpopular man with many members of Parliament. In his first speech to them, he tells them of his plans to aggressively fight the enemy and to win the war no matter what the cost. His address unsettles those who want to negotiate a peace and save the lives of British soldiers.

Compounding the problem for Churchill is the fact that at that very moment, 300,000 British troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, with little possibility of rescue. He weighs carefully whether to tell this bitter truth to the English people in his next radio address. Ultimately, he decides not to reveal this information, which would put more fear into the hearts of his countrymen. Instead, he sends a fleet of civilian vessels to rescue the soldiers. Amazingly, the miraculous occurs and the vast majority of them is saved.

Churchill derives his mandate to lead both from the people and from his own intuitive comprehension of the challenge facing his country. In spite of the perilous situation, the people support him. That support lifts his spirits, enabling him to effectively lead the nation even when his approach is questioned by negative opinion makers in government.

Five years later, Britain declared victory in the war, thus vindicating his leadership. A seminal Churchill quotation flashes at the end of the film: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Churchill’s political history before he became Prime Minister is one of mixed success. He failed many times before he succeeded as Prime Minister. The pattern of experiencing many failures before succeeding is often found in Jewish history. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, for example, examines the life of Moses, and a review of Moses’ successes and failures can give us insight into why Churchill was successful.

Cardozo observes that Moses had many failures before he reached the acme of his influence when he reached the age of 80. For instance, his first meeting with Pharaoh was a disaster. He asked Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart, forcing Moses’ brethren to labor even harder.

In the desert, his own people continue to complain and some even rebel against his leadership. The incident of the golden calf was the nadir of his career. After shepherding his people out of Egypt, they worship an idol and lose sight of their commitment to serve one incorporeal God. When Moses sends out spies on a reconnaissance mission to scout the Promised Land, they return with a negative report that, in effect, delays their entrance into Israel for 39 years.

Korach, his opponent, threatens to take the reigns of leadership away from Moses. Furthermore, at a critical juncture in the wilderness, Moses fails to follow God’s instructions and hits the rock instead of speaking to it to cause water to flow in the desert. Finally, he learns that he will not enter Israel, the land to which he has labored for over 40 years.

Ordinary mortals would give up under such adversity, but Moses does not. He understands that failure is part of life, and that failure can be a stepping stone to success. Until his last breath, he works towards the goal of settling his people in the Promised Land.

Rabbi Cardozo quotes a Yiddish proverb: “one that lies upon the ground cannot fall.” Cardozo explains: “Many people who are the most critical of those who failed do not realize that they themselves have never left the ground. Those who never fail, never accomplish, since defeat is the necessary step to success.” Moses comprehended that the path to success involves failure, but failure does not have to be terminal. Winston Churchill understood that same message, and was able to inspire a nation in its darkest hour.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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Seven Years in Tibet (1997), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

seven years in tibetI know people who are very busy in their professional careers, but who always find time for family, and especially their children. One rabbi friend of mine who works for a number of companies in the pension fund industry in order to make a living for his large family always finds time to study Torah with his children. It is a weekly commitment that he rarely misses, and I admire him greatly. That kind of devotion to family is absent in the life of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, a picturesque drama that chronicles his life before, during, and after World War II.

Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in British India to gain glory for his country and for himself. So driven is he to accomplish this goal that he leaves his wife, Ingrid, who is expecting their first child. Harrer is self-centered and cannot recognize the stresses under which his wife functions with a husband who is away for long stretches of time and is emotionally distant from her even when he is at home.

During their climb, World War II breaks out and Harrer and his fellow climbers are arrested and sent to a P.O.W. camp where they languish for several years, during which Harrer’s son, Rolf, is born. Harrer finally escapes and finds refuge in Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan monks. There he befriends the very young Dalai Lama, whose curiosity about the world is satiated by Harrer’s worldly knowledge.

Although young is years, the Dalai Lama is old in wisdom, and Harrer learns from him as much if not more than what he teaches him. A wise Tibetan points out to Harrer the difference between his life’s philosophy and the Tibetan way of life: “You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who abandons his ego.” Harrer’s ego is large and it takes much time for him to understand the importance of humility in shaping one’s character.

During Harrer’s long hiatus away from family, Ingrid sends him divorce papers, informing him of her desire to re-marry. The finality of the letter and his own increasing desire to see his son begin a process of repentance for Harrer. He becomes less self-centered and begins to think of how his actions are perceived by others. He is also troubled by the insensitivity he showed towards the suffering of his wife, who he essentially abandoned at a critical moment in her life.

The Tibetan experience teaches Harrer about the significance of family, which in Judaism is a primary value. Rabbi David Rosen connects the importance of family to the value of sanctity, a central theme in Judaism. Rosen writes: “It is thus not without significance that the Hebrew word for Jewish marriage (Kiddushin) means “holiness or sanctification”. Not only is the relationship of marital commitment itself seen as holy – indeed it is seen as the ideal state of adult life – but the family as the central institution and focus of Jewish life, is the key to the realization of the people’s raison d’etre, to be a holy nation.”

Rosen also notes that a hallmark of the family is the mutual dependency of husband and wife. If one partner is arrogant, that partner deludes himself into thinking he is self-sufficient, not needing anyone else. This describes the relationship between Harrer and his long-suffering wife Ingrid.

The Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah, perhaps says it best. The language of the document indicates that the husband is responsible for his wife’s happiness. The Sages of the Talmud tell us that a man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself. Moreover, the Talmud states: “there is no blessing in one’s home without the wife’s honor.”

Heinrich Harrer comes to this realization too late to salvage his own marriage, but his Tibetan experience makes him a wiser man now ready to devote time to family. His encounter with the Dalai Lama has forever changed him. He is now obsessed with being a good father and does his utmost to share his son’s journey into manhood.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

War Machine (2017), directed by David Michod

war machineAfter serving in Jewish education for many years in America and teaching in two schools in Israel, I am no longer active in the field of education. However, I continue to read articles about the latest trends in Jewish education, particularly at the high school level where I spent most of my career.

What I find interesting is that while outwardly things change, especially due to technology, many things still remain the same. One example: Year in and year out, the subject of how to make prayer meaningful is discussed in Jewish schools.

Dr. Beth Hait, former assistant dean of students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, in 2016 discusses three issues pertaining to prayer in Jewish day schools: attendance, decorum, and participation. These issues are the same ones I dealt with in the 1970s when I began my tenure as a high school principal. Hait insightfully writes: “If part of the goal of Jewish education is not only to impart knowledge but to build the foundation for a lifelong relationship with God, then understanding prayer should be a priority, and God should be an integral part of classroom conversation.”

Indeed, there are no easy answers to perennial questions. Nonetheless, we try our best to solve the problem. This essentially is what four-star General Glen McMahon does when he is called in 2009 to deal with the war in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on for many years without a successful resolution. No previous general has been able to deal effectively with the diplomatic quagmire in Afghanistan, and so McMahan is brought in; but the same problems that plagued his predecessor plague him. The realities on the ground have not changed.

McMahan wants President Obama to authorize a troop surge of 40,000 soldiers to end the war, but he runs into political opposition. Things get worse when Sean Cullen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, pens an article critical of the general and his staff.

Cullen provides the voiceover narration for the film. He views McMahan with skeptical eyes, appreciating his energy and patriotism but questioning his judgment in matters where the general’s ego is involved. Cullen observes: “You could argue that the main reason certain generals like war so much is because only in war do they feel truly relevant. It’s only in war that they feel close to the center of power. Only in war do they feel the warm glow of other people’s attention.”

The problem depicted in War Machine is that America is involved in a war it cannot win. The locals don’t trust the Americans who may not be there to help them in the long run. At a press conference with McMahan, a German politician articulates the dilemma: “Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me that there is no monolithic Taliban. You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village, and that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.”

Jewish law considers the reasons why a nation has to go to war. Obviously, it can go to war to defend itself. Beyond that, things get complicated. Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University, in an article on warfare and its restrictions in Judaism, tells us that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court in ancient times, is the body that can authorize a discretionary war. Kimelman quotes Rabbi David Bleich: “Before granting authorization to wage war, the Sanhedrin must weigh the probable losses, consider the chances of success, and assess the will of the people. The Sanhedrin is charged with assessing the military, political and economic reality and determining whether a proposed war is indeed necessary and whether it will be successful in achieving its objectives.”

The Sanhedrin was composed of wise men, not politically motivated but concerned about the long term wellbeing of the people. The egos of generals were not part of their consideration. War Machine reminds us of the complexity of military decisions that affect not only soldiers, but also the locals who are affected by what nations do on the battlefield.

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