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Churchill, Moses and the Secret of Greatness

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik delivers the annual Rabbi Allan Mirvis Memorial Lecture.

On March 19, 2023, Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik delivered the annual Rabbi Allan Mirvis Memorial Lecture at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Center in New York. This year's lecture, delivered to a packed auditorium, was entitled "Winston's Moses: The Incredible True Story of Churchill's Only Essay on a Biblical Leader."

The evening was introduced by Ted Mirvis, who offered a moving reflection on his father, Rabbi Allan Mirvis, a congregational rabbi who served with distinction as spiritual leader of B'nai Israel Synagogue in Hampton, Virginia, from 1942- 1974. In his weekly sermons, Rabbi Mirvis often cited Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the British prime minister who led the United Kingdom to victory in World War II. Churchill was a prolific writer whose countless essays and speeches continue to inspire millions to this day. 

Rabbi Soloveichik opened his lecture by observing that among all of his writings, Churchill only ever wrote one essay about a figure from the Hebrew Bible. This essay, titled Moses: The Leader of a People, was first published in the Sunday Chronicle on November 8, 1931, under the headline "Great Bible Stories Retold by the World's Best Writers."

Churchill wrote this article at the beginning of the worst decade of his political career, his so-called "Wilderness Years." In 1929, Churchill was pushed out of office and shortly thereafter lost thousands of pounds in the Wall Street Crash that autumn. He spent the next ten years in political opposition, and his future prospects were grim. It was during this bleak period that Churchill turned to the biblical figure of Moses, a figure whom Rabbi Soloveichik noted was like Churchill in that he "grew up in his youth seemingly destined for great things, and then seemed suddenly finished."

In his essay, Churchill recounts the moment that Moses, a prince of Pharoah's household, is forced to flee into the wilderness after slaying an Egyptian. Throughout his desert wanderings, Moses is far removed from the political and social scene in Egypt. However, it is ultimately in the wilderness that Moses stumbles across the burning bush and learns of his destiny to liberate the Israelites from bondage. 

Churchill goes on to derive an important principle of leadership from this episode in Moses' career, namely that every successful leader must, from time to time, metaphorically "go into the wilderness" by removing themselves from civilization. It is in these "periods of isolation and meditation," Churchill argues, that "psychic dynamite is made."

Rabbi Soloveichik explained that our inner voice of divine inspiration is all too often drowned out by the hustle and bustle of daily life. This is especially true of our current Internet age, when our senses are constantly bombarded by a torrent of emails and phone calls. "Only when we move aside the distractions of daily life," Rabbi Soloveichik argued, "can we can somehow see and hear more clearly… it is only in the wilderness that psychic dynamite is made."

Rabbi Soloveichik went on to illustrate the significance of the fact Churchill penned this essay on Moses during his own period of "isolation" from the civil administration of the United Kingdom. However, Rabbi Soloveichik noted that, despite the hopelessness of his situation, Winston Churchill never lost faith that he was destined for greatness like Moses before him. In 1931, he survived a horrific car accident on Fifth Avenue, concluding that fate must have preserved him for a reason. At the onset of the Second World War, Churchill's almost mystical faith in his great destiny never wavered: not even once did he consider opening peace negotiations with Nazi Germany. 

Rabbi Soloveichik concluded by noting Churchill's unshakeable faith in Jewry's eventual return to the Land of Israel. Throughout his career, Churchill frequently expressed his certainty that the Jewish People would restore their ancient homeland. Decrying Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin's refusal to recognize the State of Israel in 1949, Churchill stood up in Parliament and declared: "Whether the Right Honorable Gentlemen likes it or not…the coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed…in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand, or even three thousand years." 

Shortly thereafter, Churchill's faith in the Jewry's destiny was realized, as the British Government was forced to acknowledge the State of Israel in 1950.

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