Far from being a Genghis Khan or an Alexander the Great, when I set out to New York from Montreal over 25 years ago I was ready to conquer the world. Like a military general with a pushpin cork board, I too plotted who I wanted to meet, often via ambush, along with the implementation strategies to secure an interview with them. Today, with wiser eyes, ever enwisened by my continual Torah study and some abrasive life experiences, I question why I even cared at all.
What does it really mean to conquer? Historically speaking, both the conquered and the conquerors now lay in the dust, revived only by history teachers as their students doze off in classrooms across the globe. My cover stories of famous people, are now more ancient and irrelevant than a Roman war chariot, for in today’s speedy world yesterday’s news dies and decomposes while still in the telling. And yet so often, I look to the contents of my weekly Torah blogs from prior years for ideas and they spring eternal. Over 3000 years of enemies and the Torah can never be conquered for it is the Tree of Life and all who cling to it shall live.
And then I think about the conquering spirit that possesses most of us at some point in our life, whether one wants to be the richest, the best looking, the most fit, the most popular, or the most famous. And I have to ask the same question I have often asked my interviewees: Have you paid a price for your success? And the answer is invariably, “Yes.” As we aim to conquer the worlds we respectively find ourselves in, more often than not it is we who take the beating. There is always a price to pay. A war of attrition is launched against our values, our upbringing, our religion, our innocence, our idealism. With the skills of the best defense attorneys, we justify our dirty deeds and those “deeds” become our army--and then it kills us.
The conqueror is but a metaphor for our life’s journey. G-d sends us to this earth with our talents, our desires and our ambitions. He also sends us tests along the way which we can use to refine us or to redefine us. No moment is trivial. Life is like a fish with many bones, if you don’t pay attention, you will choke. If a person doesn’t conquer the moment by making the right choice, the moment conquers him spiritually. “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death,” Perkei Avot teaches.
Each moment also offers not only the opportunity to avert doing wrong but also to do good. Instead of throwing coins into a wishing well, give charity. Instead of putting all your extra money in stocks, give charity, the ultimate return is much greater. Instead of watching a marathon of Netflix episodes, watch a Torah video. Instead of gossiping and complaining endlessly, pray and bless. Instead of being hateful and fuming over what the world owes you, be loving and question when’s the last time you did something for someone other than yourself, not when it was easy to do, but when it was hard and an inconvenience. Conquer yourself. Be a light. Be a role model.
We have only to look at both the political situations in America and Israel now to recognize that attempts to “conquer” the opponent are uglier than we’ve ever seen. But is leadership not a manifestation of those they lead? Are we not looking at a mirror image of what type of world we’ve become? Two great countries representing the might and light among the nations are now reduced to a political extremism that has diseased both of them. Regardless which side one is on, it has become an ugly sham, a cannibalism festival in which we are feeding upon ourselves. Surely this is a diet that leads to extinction. We are watching the ruination of the civilized world with popcorn in hand as if it’s an Amazon Prime special. Just yesterday Israel’s president said the country has to do some soul searching, a very tragic sentence for the biblical Holy Land which should be leading by the soul, not looking for it.
I’ve often questioned whether life is about becoming what we are meant to be or guarding who we are. In this week’s Torah reading we read about the death of our matriarch, Sarah. It is written that she was as free from sin at the age of 100 as she was at 20. Although she was exposed to many challenges and problems in life, she never used them as excuses to spiral downward in life. She was very beautiful and was abducted by both a Pharaoh and a king. She escaped both situations unscathed. Sarah was the conqueror, strong and certain in her service of G-d. She lived a life purely dedicated to Hashem and He protected her. “...When the perceptions of the soul permeates the body and all its actions, one’s physical nature is not suppressed but transformed, and the whole being partakes of the timelessness of the spirit in its relations with G-d. The possibility of sin does not arise.” (Torah Studies, Discourses by the Lubavitcher Rebbe).
The life of Abraham too serves as a perfect paradigm of behavior. G-d instructed him to get up and go away from his place of birth. But the Hebrew words used translate as “go to yourself.” Indeed, upon the physical journey, there were challenges to conquer, but they were all whetting stones for the internal journey. How will you conduct yourself upon the road? What will you jettison to reach your destination: dignity, honesty, etc. How will you affect the people who come across your path? How will you make this place a better world because you were in it? In what way do you reflect an aspect of G-d? If you can count the mitzvot and good deeds you’ve done, then you are not doing enough.
Be like Abraham who passed all his tests. He rose to the occasion instead of letting them bring him down. “Be perfect.” We try and achieve perfection at gyms, salons, plastic surgeons and Photoshop while, like Dorian Gray, the inside is rotting. G-d instructed us how to be perfect. Conquer your evil inclination, your ego, your excuses, you jealousy, your hate, your passions, your laziness, your appetites and your toxic resistance to Torah and then and only then will you come into true possession of yourself. Leave not wreckage in your wake as you set out to conquer the world. Be like Sarah whose tent was always aglow with her greatness and moral perfection; be like Abraham who actively brought people to serve G-d and never compromised his beliefs regardless of the price. You want to be a conqueror?-- Start with yourself and you will find great riches within.