Invictus: How a Righteous King Views His Destiny

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Ernest Henley was an English poet, writer, critic and editor who lived from1849-1903.
At the age of 16, he had his left leg amputated due to complications arising from
tuberculosis of the bone. When he was in his 20s, he developed major problems
with his other leg and was told by the doctors that it too would need to be
amputated. Ignoring their advice and refusing to be beaten twice by the same
fate, he traveled to Scotland to seek out the help of a well very known and distinguished
physician and surgeon, Joseph Lister. Lister was able to save his leg but only
after numerous surgeries to Henley’s foot.

spent three years in hospital while Lister tried to save his leg, suffering
through multiple concurrent illnesses and complications from the surgeries.
While recovering from these multiple operations, Henley wrote his now famous
poem Invictus (Latin for ‘unconquered’) which has become a type of
anthem for courage, stoicism and self-discipline while suffering under the
vicissitudes of life.

is a short poem, only 16 lines, but it has made its mark upon the psyche of
many people who have endured great hardship. Autobiographical in nature, Henley
describes how ‘chance’ and ‘circumstance’ took hold of him, but in the face of
pain and suffering, he refused to bow or allow himself to be beaten. He was
grateful for his ‘unconquerable soul,’ as he called it, expressing how, even
though he shed many tears of anguish, he never gave way to fear. The poem ends
with the now legendary words, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of
my soul.” Very inspiring words that are well worth reading.

give the reader an appreciation for just how much Invictus took root in
Western society since it was penned, Winston Churchill used its rhetoric to
inspire the British during the difficult years of World War II, Nelson Mandela
often recited it to the other prisoners while they were incarcerated in South
Africa’s notorious Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, and it was told over
by many that during the Vietnam War, American POWs would encourage each other
with Henley’s famous words. Quotations from it have appeared in numerous films
and television shows going back to at least 1942 with Casablanca. The
name Invictus itself was used for the title of a movie directed by Clint
Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon that dealt with the events before
and after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. There are many more
examples, but hopefully, the point has been made illustrating just how much the
poem’s influence has spread throughout popular cultural.

may sound very inspiring to say that “I am the master of my fate / I am the
captain of my soul,” but is this the ideal we should aspire toward? It depends
on what we mean. If we mean that we are in charge of our lives to the point
that we determine or control what happens to us, then we are missing the mark
completely. However, if we mean that we will always choose to acknowledge that
what befalls us has meaning and that we will refuse to be defeated in spirit,
that we will always choose right from wrong even when the consequences of those
choices are difficult to endure, then we are aiming correctly. But let’s
explore further, because it goes much deeper than just that.

ha-Melech wrote (Tehillim 16:5): יְיָ
מְנָת־חֶלְקִי וְכוֹסִי אַתָּה תּוֹמִיךְ גּוֹרָלִי
(Hashem is the portion of my inheritance and my cup. You guide my fate.) Rav
Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in his Commentary to Tehillim explains that “inheritance”
refers to physical, material things while “cup” refers to spiritual matters,
i.e. joys and pleasures. David is not stating here that Hashem determined or
ordained his portion in life, rather he is explaining that whatever he was
apportioned in life, whether possessions or pleasures, the only reason they had
any significance was because Hashem was in them and gave them meaning to
David. Hashem was the relevant portion of everything, not the inheritance
or the cup, which were of no particular consequence in and of themselves.

it is the conclusion of the verse in Tehillim 16:5 which is most
relevant to us. According to David ha-Melech, who did he credit with
guiding his fate? Who did he want to guide his fate? Did David take
pride in saying, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul?”
No, he did not. He wanted no part in being the master of his own fate. Rather,
he wanted Hashem to be the Master of his fate, for Hashem to be the Captain of
his soul.

did David want Hashem to guide his destiny? Why didn’t he want to be in charge
himself? When a man knows that he was sent down here for a reason, to
accomplish certain objectives, i.e. the tikkun or rectification of his
soul, he does not want to be in charge of his life because he has no idea what
the purpose of his life is. He may think he knows what his purpose is and he
may be very confident about his understanding, but in reality, unless he gives
control of the ship to the Captain of the ship, at the end of the day, he may
end up at the wrong port of call, at the wrong destination. So David, as the
one who was destined to become Mashiach, who understood the importance of being
guided in life, who suffered untold miseries and difficulties in life, wanted,
desired, and yearned with all of his strength that Hashem guide him and control
his destiny.

to the way many of us have been conditioned, turning over control of one’s life
to Hashem is not an aspect of weakness. On the contrary, it requires tremendous
strength, courage and humility. To give us a small sampling of what David’s
persecutors thought about him, let’s focus just on what Shimi ben Gera said to
David when David was driven out of Yerushalayim during the rebellion of his son
Avshalom. Years later, at the end of his life, David told Shlomo, his chosen
successor, to deal with Shimi (Melachim I 2:8): וְהִנֵּה
עִמְּךָ שִׁמְעִי בֶן־גֵּרָא בֶן־הַיְמִינִי מִבַּחֻרִים וְהוּא קִלְלַנִי קְלָלָה
נִמְרֶצֶת (And behold, you must deal with Shimi
ben Gera, the Benyamini from Bachurim, because he cursed me with an explicit [nimretzet] curse.) What was the nature of this explicit curse? Rav Acha ben Yaakov said
that the word nimretzet is an acronym for five individual curses (Sanhedrin
): נוֹאֵף הוּא מוֹאָבִי הוּא רוֹצֵחַ הוּא צוֹרֵר הוּא
תּוֹעֵבָה הוּא. He called David an adulterer (no’ef),
a non-Jew (Moavi), a murderer (rotzeach), an enemy of the Jewish
people (tzorer) and a pervert (to’eivah). Can you imagine people
today actually saying these kinds of things about the Mashiach? It’s not so
strange. It happened before.

to have withstood this nimretzet curse from this one individual alone
was an act of unparalleled greatness. How many people can you think of who ever
withstood being accused of such terrible crimes without ever once attempting to
defend themselves, and not just that, but to remain silent about it for so many
years? And the only way David ha-Melech was able to remain silent in the
midst of such false accusations and humble himself toward Shimi ben Gera, was
to humble himself to the One who created not only him but Shimi ben Gera as
well, to the One who ordained that David should receive these false accusations
through his hate-filled mouth. To humble himself was to turn over his fate to
the One who controls all fate, to the One who controls all history. And without
having the courage and humility to let Hashem guide his fate, David would never
have become the Mashiach that we all admire and love to this day—the one who became
identified with malchut (kingship) and whose Sefer Tehillim is
recited and used in prayers by millions and millions of people throughout the
world, Jews and non-Jews alike.

As Rabbi Yochanan said (Megilla 31a): כׇּל מָקוֹם שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹצֵא גְּבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא,
אַתָּה מוֹצֵא עִנְוְותָנוּתוֹ (Every place [in the scriptures] that you find [mention
of] the greatness of the Holy One blessed be He, [in that very same place] you
find [a description of] His humility). If this is true of Hashem, how much more
is it true of David, or even of us? As David ha-Melech said (Tehillim
): וְאָנֹכִי תוֹלַעַת וְלֹא־אִישׁ חֶרְפַּת אָדָם
וּבְזוּי עָם (And
I am a worm and not a man; a disgrace of a man and a despised one of the
nation). Let us work at applying what David ha-Melech understood and
applied so well, that the road to greatness passes through the field of
humility, of submission to Hashem’s direction, of being willing to remain
silent in the face of disgrace, and of laying down one’s life to help others.
In short, by letting the Holy One of Yisrael guide our fate.

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