Journalist and BBC presenter, Lyce Doucet, put it best when she said: Every war is about metal and mettle – the metal of armaments and the mettle 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 mettle.
The horror of war, lies, of course, in the devastation of lives, the cost of human suffering and what the 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 mettle lies in the human heart, the awesome power it holds in the face of horror, 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 mettle. In the evocative phrase of the current Torah readings, these are people utilising the full, generous, and giving capacity of their hearts. And one man who has emerged as a master of metal and mettle is surely Vlodomyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish President.
In days of old, alchemists tried to turn base metals, such as lead, into precious metals like 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.
Vlodomyr Zelensky 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 world’s 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 Zelensky, says Fox, is not just that he’s beating Goliath, but that he has become a Goliath in his own right. I would add that’s notwithstanding that a more precise Jewish lens may prefer to see him becoming Davidic 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 most humble of human beings, yet he is one of the most electrifying change leaders of the Bible and for 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 mettle. 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 December 4th, 1959.
These words give me hope that ultimately the metals of destruction shall be transformed into the tools of construction, that the former USSR will finally recognise that the heart is the strongest and finest mettle.
Wishing you a good week.