It’s hard to watch the news from Ukraine without being struck by the courage of their vastly overmatched fighters willing to sacrifice everything for their country. That sense of honor to do what they’re called upon is inspiring, and one would hope, even contagious.
I spend a lot of time thinking about courage and inner strength.
Why are some willing to risk everything while so many others are only about themselves? I’m in awe of these brave under-supplied, outnumbered Ukrainians. Their actions are in such stark contrast to the “me, me, me” behavior we too often see in our bifurcated and politically charged world.
I gave little thought to much of this before a life-changing catastrophic accident. While bicycling with a group of friends a decade ago, a drowsy driver veered into me head-on and left me paralyzed with a crushed spine. Perhaps because I was literally brought back from death several times in the operating room, death doesn’t scare me much, but dying without purpose or standing for anything, does.
When I did find the will to carry on, many people said they found my positive spirit inspiring. Though at first surprising to me, over time, I began to embrace it.
It also compelled me to look to others who inspired me. I’m moved by those people who are willing to risk their lives for the sake of honor and ideals. All around the world we do have stories of people willing to die for a cause by hunger striking, rioting, or defying authoritarian regimes.
Like other religions, Judaism sanctifies life above all else, but there are also countless historical examples of Jewish figures who gave their lives, and in doing so, brought honor to God, or Kiddush Hashem. Jewish children typically learn at a young age about the 960 zealots on Masada who died by their own hands rather than submit to become enslaved, or worse, by the Roman conquerors. They’re exalted for that courage of conviction.
Likewise, we learn of Rabbi Akiva who continues teaching Torah at the pain of death. As he is literally flayed alive, he recites the Shema. But surely these are just stories from 2000 years ago, no?
We marvel today at how a Jewish Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has the courage (and might I also include chutzpah) to galvanize the Western world – both Jewish and non-Jewish – as a bulwark against the evil Russian Tsar. He’s NATO’s metaphorical warrior who rallies support by invoking Winston Churchill.
Shakespeare said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”
Zelensky had it thrust upon him for sure, but what he’s done since is truly monumental. He’s taunting Russian President Vladimir Putin, and daring death like that Chinese “Tank Man” staring down the convoy of tanks at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 33 years ago.
I find it ironic that Zelensky, a product of the Eastern Orthodox world, emboldens the West.
Born in the Soviet Union, reared in the early days of a former Soviet State, and with roots in the Pale of Settlement from the Russian Empire, now both he and his nation are striving to stand tall while beckoning to the world like Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ New Colossus yearning to breathe free.
At a time when the Yeshiva University Maccabees have captured the attention of D3 College basketball in the United States, we have in Zelensky a true Maccabee with no rival – not a stereotypical cowering Jew from Anatevka, but one who boldly and passionately lectures the West for not seizing the moment. It is remarkably reminiscent of Judah Maccabee’s “Whoever is for God, come with me.”
If Zelensky represents the leader of our latest battle against terror, I see him bookended with another Jewish hero from the early days of America’s War on Terrorism. But rather than growing up in old-world Eastern Europe, he grew up in California, the heart of the American dream. I’m talking about Daniel Pearl.
Pearl found his way and worked at a bastion of Western capitalism, The Wall Street Journal. While on assignment in the East, in Pakistan, he also had his moment of courage – also not by choice. He was chasing a lead on the 9/11 attack and was kidnapped and killed for it, 20 years ago last month.
His final words before Al-Qaeda terrorists beheaded him were, “My father’s Jewish. My mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.” Those words have always haunted me. He was just like any of us in the 21st century, yet died as Rabbi Akiva did in the 2nd century. How can that be?
When I look at the way Pearl died and the way Zelensky is defying death while leading the resistance against a brutal, almost messianic, dictator, so little has changed. Might makes right and it always has.
Yet still, I remain optimistic or at least hopeful. Despite Dara Horn’s apt conclusion about how the world views dead Jews, the world – and particularly Ukraine – has been taken by this live one. And we’re hoping and praying he stays that way.