On Moral Courage


Dear Friends:

"As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o'clock in the morning kind. I mean unprepared courage that is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision."  The author of his maxim which places such a high premium on moral courage is none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably, until Waterloo, one of history's top generals. While certainly aware of the need for physical courage, the courage to march forward toward the sound of guns, another maxim of Napoleon's, he realized that the greater courage that a leader needs is to be willing to exert moral courage.

Moral courage is the courage necessary to make difficult decisions, even if unpopular, to commit to an action or to take a stand, even if it be personally or politically unpopular.  For Napoleon, the lonely hours in the middle of the night, a time he describes as "two o'clock in the morning", is emblematic of these conditions. Does a general or a president or a leader of an organization, awakened in the middle of the night with the news of an urgent crisis, have the presence of mind and the courage to evaluate the situation and decide on a course of action or a statement of conscience.?

In the middle of the night, one wonders, like Hamlet, "on the one hand" and "on the other hand". At two o'clock in the morning, one needs the courage of their convictions. Or as another famous general, Douglas MacArthur once said, "Moral courage is needed when you have the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other."

The deeply disturbing incidents that occurred in  Israel yesterday, the death of an innocent toddler who was murdered by Jewish terrorists (yes, I purposely use that word) by firebombing his house and the six people stabbed while marching in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, were immediately and roundly condemned.  These are incendiary actions which require immediate reproof and arrest of the perpetrators. Justice is required.

At the beginning of this week's parasha, V'etchanan, God instructs Moses to tell Joshua "to be strong and of good courage", as he prepares to assume the mantle of leadership into the land of Canaan.

One commentator explains that the encouragement Moshe gave Joshua referred to the long-range chances of his success. Joshua must surely have harbored some doubt as to whether he might actually succeed in leading the Children of Israel in both the conquest and apportionment of the Promised Land. After all, his great mentor, Moshe, did not merit to enter the land and complete his mission. Moshe's encouragement was therefore intended to dispel these lingering doubts and assure Joshua that he would fulfill his assignment.

Other commentators,however,claim that the two words of encouragement were not intended to build Joshua's confidence. Rather, Moshe was conveying through these words a critical leadership lesson, namely, that a leader must be, as the words  imply - strong and courageous. At the beginning of the Book of Joshua, God uses the same words to encourage Joshua at the commencement of his administration. The Vilna Gaon defines chazak, be strong, as referring to the necessity of maintaining a strong and healthy body, while v'ematz, be courageous, refers to the importance of being brave of heart. Perhaps you might consider with me that to be strong refers, then, to physical courage and the "ematz" is references the "two o'clock in the morning" anxieties of moral courage. Joshua evidences the calm and resilience for crisis leadership when he suffers the initial defeat at the hands of the soldiers of Ai.

As many of you who receive emails from me are aware, I am sometimes up at 2:00 a.m., wondering, worrying, wrestling with issues in our community and with situations for Jews around the world. The poet A.R. Ammons once wrote "One can't have it both ways and both ways is the only way I want it to be. But sometimes, in the dead of night we know that we must speak out, we must speak up, that moral courage requires it. At such moments, I contemplate three parts of this week's Torah portion: The Shema, the Ten Commandments, and "Do the right and the good". I find some solace that if I try to do the right and the good, and if I fail, I can always try again tomorrow. As Teddy Roosevelt, himself a model of courage, once said:"in any moment of decision, the best you can do is the right thing."

While the message is important, it especially resonates on this Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat after Tisha b'Av, when we are consoled by the prophet, "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people."  After the events of this week, it is a small consolation to say that the horrendous murder of an 18 month old infant, killed by extremists, and the six people who were stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man at a gay pride parade, were roundly condemned by the President of Israel, the Prime Minister and the Chief Rabbis.  I believe strongly that there is something wrong in a culture which can harbor sentiments where such travesties take place - here in South Carolina, in Syria, in Israel and in many places in the world.  We must have the moral courage to deplore such behaviors and to correct the societal environment that allows such hate to persist. 

Let us all be courageous at all times of day to be strong and of good courage.

Shabbat Shalom,

Sydney