Napoleon’s Wisdom

According to legend, Napoleon was riding through the streets of Paris one evening when he ordered his carriage driver to stop.  Passing by a synagogue and glancing in the window, he had witnessed an entire congregation of Jews sitting on the floor by candlelight and raising their voices in cries of sorrow.

Napoleon sent his aide to investigate, and was informed that it was the ninth day of the month of Av, when the Jews were mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“How long ago was it destroyed?”  asked the Emperor.

“Over 1700 years ago,” he was told.

“1700 years and they’re still mourning!”  exclaimed Napoleon.  “Such a nation will endure forever and will rise to power again.”

This past Sunday, on the 9th of Av, Jews around the world fasted and sat on the floor again to mourn our Temple, 1945 years after its destruction.

From a purely secular point of view, to mourn an event thousands of years in the past seems symptomatic of mental illness.  But Napoleon understood that a people who remain connected to their past will ultimately define their own future.

The history of the Jewish people recounts a litany of oppressors and enemies determined to wipe the Jews out of existence rather than allow the Jewish philosophy of moral responsibility to challenge their world view of amoral self-indulgence.  And upon discovering that the Jews stubbornly refused to disappear, the nations have denounced the Jews as villains by fabricating the vilest accusations against them.

Little has changed. America’s Utopian-in-Chief boldly sues for peace with Iran, thereby repeating the blunders of the 1994 nuclear nonproliferation treaty with North Korea and the 1938 Munich Agreement with Adolph Hitler — and is poised to lead the world in condemning Israel as a pariah-state if it dares defy the deal.  The European Community pushes for sanctions against Israel while giving tacit or overt sanction to humanitarian offenses in Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Tibet, Eritrea, and around the globe. The mainstream media blames Israel for the plight of Gaza instead of condemning Gazan leaders for squandering billions in international aid on schemes to attack Israel.

Napoleon also understood that something more was going on than crying out to God to save us from our enemies.  Rather, mourning is the first stage of an internal process whereby the mourner adapts to a new reality and prepares himself to carry on despite the pain and loss and apparent injustice that are all part of the human condition.

Paradoxically, Tisha B’Av is described as both a day of mourning and a season of joy.  We find consolation and hope in our ability to continue to mourn:  as long as we can still mourn, we still remember who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.

Because if we forget who we are and ignore the lessons of the past, the future will sweep us away into oblivion.

We can’t change the world.  But we can change ourselves.  Or, at the very least, we can keep the world from changing us.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonason Goldson's new book is Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, a collection of practical insights from the Book of Proverbs and the Mona Lisa, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Louis where he teaches, writes, and lectures.
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