Yael Leibowitz
Yael Leibowitz
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Underdogs

What does it take for those 'least likely to succeed' to achieve greatness? Maybe it's divine intervention; maybe it's something more
Bulldozers clear the rubble of houses nearest to the Western Wall, June 11, 1967. (From the collection of Dan Hadani, National Library of Israel/Times of Israel).
Bulldozers clear the rubble of houses nearest to the Western Wall, June 11, 1967. (From the collection of Dan Hadani, National Library of Israel/Times of Israel).

Two brothers sit at their father’s feet. One is hairy, wild, and feral. He can hold his own in this harsh world. He can sustain his young, fend off enemies, and protect his land. The other brother is simple. Timid. Unassertive. He spends his days with domesticated animals, never venturing too far from his mother’s tent. Their father assumes the first brother will inherit. God chooses the second.

There is a man with a speech impediment. His words aren’t crisp, so he hesitates, and fumbles to say what he wants. He isn’t confident in his ability to communicate messages or generate change through dialogue. But at a burning bush in the desert, God appoints him to be the most important orator in history. To be the only human to ever speak with God “mouth-to-mouth,” and to bring down the Divine Word from the heavens to humanity.

There are seven young men. Six of them are sturdy and robust. Trained for war. The youngest, the redhead, has never seen a day of combat in his life. His slim frame is too feeble to sport heavy armor, and he doesn’t know the first thing about wielding a sword. God tells his prophet to anoint that scrawny redhead as King of Israel.

The Bible is filled with underdog tales. Stories of people who seemed, by society’s measures, to be the least likely to succeed, who went on to accomplish feats of literally, epic proportions. Barren women who birth heroes. Left-handed fighters who slay enemy kings. On their surface, the stories highlight God’s choice. The successes of the underdogs point to those ways in which divine favor compensates for apparent imperfections and imbues God’s chosen with unparalleled capabilities.

But they do more than that.

David, the scrawny redhead who became the illustrious King of Israel also made a choice. He made a choice to face Israel’s most dreaded enemy when everyone else was too scared. He went out in his shepherd’s cloth, and he slung rocks at Goliath because he knew it was what the People of Israel needed him to do.

And when Moses walked away from the burning bush, he was terrified, but he was also resolute. Because his people had suffered enough and someone had to stand up to Egypt’s reign of terror.

The smooth-skinned, timid Yaakov knew his father preferred Esav, and he was hesitant to go along with the ruse. But he chose to listen to his mother because he knew that her past ventures had always landed her on the right side of history. So, when she encouraged him to secure the birthright, he chose to push past his ambivalence, and live with the consequences.

God chose Abraham, from all the men on earth, and no explanation is provided as to why. But what if others were told to “go,” they just chose not to heed the call. So, the story preserved, our story, begins with the one that did? What if human initiative is as critical to the way our story plays out as Divine intervention?

* * *

Two women stand at a crossroad. Their names are Ruth and Orpah. Both have suffered loss, and each harbor hopes of rebuilding. Their native land of Moab could provide them with solace. With a future. But their mother-in-law wants to travel back to her homeland, and they know that the journey, and the life that awaits her, are perilous. So, Ruth makes a choice. She chooses kindness over rationale. Self-sacrifice over self-determination. Like Abraham, she chooses to be the consummate outsider, in a land that is not her own. And like David, she chooses to be brave, because she knows that someone else’s survival depends on it.

Boaz, the wealthy landowner who has the potential to transform her fate, blesses Ruth. “May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge.” But Ruth is not assuaged. And so, on a threshing floor in the dark of night, with everything to lose, Ruth whispers “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your wings (robe) over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman.” Ruth knows that God can perform miracles. She knows that He can provide food for the hungry, and progeny to the childless. He is the God, after all, to whom she has sworn her allegiance. But Ruth intuits what students of the Bible understand from its stories. She knows that sometimes, God puts humans in the right place, at the right time, and allows us the opportunity to effect His miracles.

* * *

It’s 1948. Imagine a young woman too slight to be toting a gun, as she looks out at the valley below. The sleeve of her khaki shirt is rolled just above the number she can’t erase. She is scared of what lays beyond. Terrified, in fact. But she is more scared of what will happen to the new family she has made on her kibbutz if she doesn’t protect them. So, she makes a choice.

Nineteen years later, imagine that woman’s son, winding his way through the Old City of Jerusalem. The fighting has been intense. He hasn’t even had time to cry for the ones they lost. He hears the bursts of the shofar and brings his muddy fingertips to the wall, his shoulders squeezed against his exhausted, exhilarated brothers-in-arms. They were the underdogs, by all estimates. They knew it. The entire world knew it. But they made a choice.

Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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