Testing Your Metal
Journalist and BBC presenter, Lyce Doucet put it best when she said this morning: Every war is about metal and metal – the metal of armaments and the metal of people. She was commenting on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine.
There is the horror of the metal and the wonder of the metal.
The horror of war, lies of course, in the devastation of lives, the cost of human suffering and what First World War poet, Wilfred Owen called the remorseless and agonising “pity of war.” The sheer and awesome destruction caused by the machinations of metal; bullets and rockets, missiles and tanks.
The wonder of the metal lies in the human heart, the awesome power it holds in the face of horror and the breathtaking courage and resilience of human beings. In Ukraine, the formidable resoluteness and determination of its military and the breathtaking strength of its ordinary citizens, testify to a magnificent metal. In the evocative phrase of the current Torah reading, these are people utilising the full generous and giving capacity of their hearts. One man who has emerged as a master of metal is surely Vlodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Jewish President.
In the old days, alchemists tried to turn base metals, such as lead into precious metals such as gold. The alchemist turns something worthless into something priceless. Erica Fox of Harvard Law School suggests that in the face of an epic crisis, a transformational leader takes a cue from the alchemical arts, turning a dire situation into a desirable opportunity.
Vlodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as an alchemist or transformational leader. Fox says it may feel magical but it isn’t magic rather it’s something you can learn. He achieved this by refusing to accept the worlds initial impulse to write him off.
He never saw himself as small, but rather as a leader who could hold his own against the powerful Putin. What transfixes us about Zelenskyy is not just that he’s beating Goliath, but that he has become a Goliath in his own right.
There’s a lesson in this for all of us whether we are practising our leadership in a business context or government, at Jewish Care or the UN, in the classroom or a boardroom.
It’s a lesson of Jewish wisdom too. One of Judaism’s most transformational leaders was Moses. He is championed as the humblest human being yet he is one of the most electrifying change leaders of the Bible and of all time. He didn’t start his life as a charismatic personality but rather as a man of character. He was initially uncertain of his ability to lead others but he was never unsure of his principles. He was a man with a huge moral energy rather than an overweening ego. He was not overwhelmed by the fearsome Egyptian empire and its fearful leader. The Torah says ‘he grew’ because he could identify with the suffering of people, he became a giant of the human spirit because he stood up to tyranny.
Moses is also a model of leadership because he was willing to consult with and learn from others. He listened to the wise advice of his father-in-law, Jethro who counselled that just as it isn’t healthy to live alone or in isolation so it isn’t productive to lead alone. People need people, leaders need advisors and human beings need friends and connections.
Another of the Bible’s fabled leaders was Isaiah, a prophet who well understood metal and metal. He spoke truth to power and he knew that the real power is in the human heart. His words (Isaiah 2:4) adorn the United Nations Plaza:
"They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
The sculpture with these immemorial words was ironically gifted to the United Nations by the USSR on 4 December 1959.
These words give me hope that ultimately the metals of destruction shall be transformed into the tools of construction and that the former USSR will finally recognise that the heart is the strongest and finest metal.