I was startled to realize that this is the 400th posting at Divest This. And while I’ve tried to stay focused an on topic for the last 399 entries, in honor of this self-defined and self-declared milestone, I wanted to talk about three people who have been inspirational in one way or another over the years.
Not all of them are Jewish, and one is not even real, but they all have an important thing in common: strength and power harnessed towards virtuous purpose.
I’ll start with the one Jew on the list, my most favoritist pro-wrestler of all time, the one and only Goldberg.
A valentine for Bill Goldberg (autographed by the man himself in the comments section) appeared on this site a couple of years back, so there’s no need to retell why this monument to Jewish strength was such an inspiration, except to reiterate that the world didn’t just appreciate but fell in love with a Jew who wore this strength with pride.
The fact that Goldberg’s post spear-and-jackhammer career involved splitting his time between big iron and animal welfare seems a fitting illustration of the compatibility of power and kindness.
The second person on my list is fictional, a character with whom I share a physical characteristic but who I would love to share more: Cyrano de Bergerac.
For anyone who has ever seen or read the famous Edmond Rostand play, it’s easy to look up to the main character, given that he gets the best lines, steals every scene, and wins all the fights (except one). But there is another reason why this play got a 75-minute standing ovation when it was first staged in France in 1897.
For Cyrano’s wit and sword were not harnessed towards selfish ends, but towards higher principle – notably beauty (which he was convinced he lacked, despite the abundance of it in his soul) and honor (about which he never compromised). This attitude left him with a retinue of enemies among the equivocators of the French court (schemers and twits who could only get at him via trickery and deceit), as well as a life of loneliness which he readily accepted, rather than break a promise made to a dying friend (and romantic rival).
In an age when swearing oaths has been replaced by just swearing, and terms such as “honor” and “hero” are thrown about like so much marketing collateral, it’s worth considering why a man (even a fictional one) would spend his dying moments swinging a sword at his age-old enemies of Lying, Compromises, Prejudice, Cowardice and Folly and consider how much or how little we have done to live up to his example.
You have to go back in time a bit (OK – fifteen centuries) to meet my final inspiration: Flavius Belisarius, General to the army of Emperor Justinian of Constantinople.
Belisarius was a better-known figure in decades past when classical history was a more studied school topic. Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, wrote a historical novel based on his life and even today you can find the occasional popular reference to him (my favorite being a series of science fiction novels starring the Byzantine warrior).
But the fame of the historical Belisarius derived from his brilliance as a military commander who again and again managed miraculous military victories, even with small armies, limited resources and questionable support of superiors. When I mentioned Byzantine armies besieging Italian cities in this piece on office vs. defense, this was a reference to Belisarius’ campaign to win back Italy a hundred years after the Fall of Western Roman Empire (a feat he came close to accomplishing, having already won North Africa back from the Vandals after defeating the Persians on the Empire’s Eastern front).
He accomplished these military feats though a mix of technical innovation, daring and creative tactics, with the General gaining a reputation for clever ruses that confounded his enemies and gave him an Odysseus-like reputation for cunning.
If all he taught was that small armies can easily large ones (so long as they are experienced, well trained and well led), that would be a valuable lesson (especially in an era when Israel has done just that for decades). But Belisarius makes this list for another reason: his steadfast loyalty to a superior who never reciprocated this devotion.
Legend emerged that Emperor Justinian, jealous of his general’s success and fearful of his ambition, had Belisarius blinded and left to end his life begging in the streets of Constantinople. This is likely a piece of anti-Justinian propaganda (which continues to this day), but it is certainly true that Justinian, fearing that Beliarius was after his throne, never provided him the troops, resources and support needed to successfully complete his Italian campaigns.
Yet despite this treachery, Beliarius never turned on his emperor, never turned down his requests, never became the traitor Justinian so feared. For his loyalty was not to a particular Emperor, but to his word, his oaths and his honor which he pledged to defend an Empire, regardless of the quality of the particular person who sat on the throne.
Today, he might be considered a sucker. But like Cyrano (who did his duty and went into battle – despite the fact that he and his troops were intentionally placed into harm’s way by a bitter rival), Belisarius dedicated his power to something greater than himself. And in so doing, he not only achieved immortality in the history books, he managed to do so without selling out his Emperor or, more importantly, his soul.