Invictus: How a Righteous King Views His Destiny

William Ernest Henley was an English poet, writer, critic and editor who lived from 1849-1903. 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 travelled 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.

He 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.

It 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.

To 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.

It 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.

David 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.

But 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.

Why 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.

Contrary 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 (Shabbat 105a): 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.

Just 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 22:6): 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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