Rosh Hashanah and the Fall of Winston Churchill

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Monument of Winston Churchill and Big Ben, London, England, United Kingdom

On July 5, 1945, the world witnessed one of the greatest “betrayals” in the annals of human existence. Two months after the Allied victory over the Nazis, in one of the most crushing political upsets in history, Winston Churchill was defeated in English Parliamentary elections. Shockingly, one of history’s greatest leaders, who led a weakened England in the darkest of times against the Nazis, was told by the English people that they no longer wished for him to be their Prime Minister. How did the man, who in 1950 was voted by Time Magazine as the “Man of the Half-Century,” lose an election? How could intelligent Englishmen reject a man, who in the words of Charles Krauthammer “single-handedly saved Western civilization from Nazi barbarism”?

Many different reasons are given for Churchill’s defeat. A very important reason, if not the reason for Churchill’s defeat, was that in the campaign, Churchill simply coasted on his achievements as a wartime leader. Although Churchill was running for the highest elected office in England, he did not adequately address the future by putting forth a post-war recovery plan.

Given Churchill’s accomplishments during the previous five years, it was normal and natural for him to feel a little complacent. Whatever the challenges England faced in 1945, they paled in gravity and significance to the ones that Churchill managed to navigate during the war. If there was anyone who had the right to coast, it was the “Man of the Half-Century.”

Yet the fact that Churchill lost an election, where six weeks prior to the vote he had an approval rating of 78%, teaches that we cannot coast on past accomplishments. Or as media executive Shari Redstone once said, “Complacency is the kiss of death.”

When we fall in love with our spiritual accomplishments and professional achievements, we run the risk of forfeiting the very success that we worked so hard to achieve.

However, if the lesson of Churchill’s defeat in 1945 is that we can never let up, then it begs the question, “Why should we bother accomplishing anything in the first place?”

Why go through all the heartache and aggravation? True, we need a certain amount of accomplishment to live and pay bills, but then, why push beyond mere subsistence? Why work so hard to learn and grow if it is all fleeting? If Churchill could not rest on his laurels after saving England and was “thanked” by being trounced in a post-war election, then what’s the point?

There are three fundamental lessons that emerge from Churchill’s defeat. The first lesson is understanding that achievement is vitally important. Achievement brings satisfaction and joy. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence like accomplishment.” Or as Irving Bunim wrote, “There is a profound satisfaction in loving labor for a job well done.” Bunim adds that when man is creative and achieves, he is able “to express his distinctive humanity and indeed to imitate divinity.”

It is necessary to dream, plan and execute. Churchill’s victory over Hitler illustrates that with the help of the Divine, a moral compass and perseverance, any foe can be overcome and achievement is within reach.

The second lesson is that after we have worked hard and attained success, we need to pause, thank G-d, and rejoice. When things go right, we need to take time to allow our emotions, not just our intellect, to experience the triumph. We must:

Additionally, celebrating allows us to appropriately “close a chapter of success” before engaging in additional challenges.

The third, and perhaps the most important lesson, is that a particular success is not meant to be an end unto itself; it must be a springboard for future accomplishment. If G-d helped us accomplish and succeed, then we can and must do more. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “I am not satisfied to continue, it must be to increase (because) every living thing must grow.”

The concept of using success as a springboard for further achievements is reflected in the blessing that our Sephardic brothers give each other, after an Aliyah and an accomplishment; Chazak Ubaruch (you should be strengthened and blessed).

Perhaps the blessing of Chazak Ubaruch is not a blessing for physical strength, as per the prophet Zechariah, “lo bechayil velo bekoach kee eem beruchee amar Hashem tzvakot,” “not by might or (physical) strength but rather with my spirit says Hashem.” Rather, the “chazak” relates to spiritual strength:

Understanding that achievement is meant to be an impetus for further accomplishment is a fundamental component of Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, sometimes the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) says, “I am good enough. I have accomplished more than many others. I have earned the right to coast.” But Maimonides in the third chapter of the laws of repentance demands that we look at ourselves as half-good and half-bad. The necessity to view ourselves as half-good is a message that we cannot coast into Rosh Hashanah. If we are half-good, then we have achieved, but certainly there is a lot more to accomplish.

Coasting is fine if we are riding a bicycle and we have just crested a hill. Coasting make sense when driving a car while approaching a long red light. But coasting spirituality results in a loss of momentum that should spur us on to greater victories and success.

When we hear the Shofar, we should be reminded and inspired by Churchill’s 1940 determination during England’s darkest days. Each distinct blast should prompt us to act as Churchill did in 1940 and not as he did in 1945:

Tekiah – we will fight complacency on the beaches.

Shevarim – we will fight being smug on the landing grounds.

Teruah – we will fight the desire to coast in the fields and in the streets.

Tekiah Gedolah – we will never surrender to mediocrity, and we will become the great men and women that G-d wants us to become.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.