There is a renewal of interest of late in the career and the influence of Sir Winston Churchill through films, such as The King’s Speech, Dunkirk, and The Finest Hour and through the popular streaming series The Crown. Churchill is indeed a compelling historical character. His sharp wit, keen insights, and statecraft have earned him special standing in the field or world politics. He is often touted as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – statesmen of the twentieth century despite the fact that he was largely reviled by members of his own party.
Perhaps more than anything else was Churchill’s unparalleled oratory. Churchill not only captured British resolve in the face of an imminent German onslaught, he actually strengthened that resolve. Churchill proved that national power is measured by more than what the Rand Corporation calls “the effectiveness of…coercive arms” and “the capabilities to defend [militarily]…against all adversaries.” Power is also a function of national will and confidence. The Battle of Britain was not won because of superior firepower or tactics but because of the unbreakable spirit of the defenders of that little isle.
The sense that national strength is measured in ways belied by arms or fortifications is anticipated in the Torah as understood by the Midrash and cited by RaShI (Numbers 13:18). Moses instructs the scouts about to be sent on a reconnaissance mission into the Promised Land to bring back a report that would include information on the relative strength of the inhabitants. The Midrash adds that Moses gave them a means by which to measure: if the inhabitants lived in open camps, they must be quite powerful since they rely on their skills and courage to defend against attack but if they lived in fortified cities, the inhabitants must be quite weak. Knowledge about the kind of encampments of the defenders would reveal the relative difficulty of the task ahead.
At first glance this “test” seems counterintuitive. One would think that fortified cities are much more formidable an obstacle to overcome than conquering those who live in open camps. However, the Midrash emphasizes that it is the attitude of the inhabitants that matters most. Those who feel confident need not hide behind fortifications and those who live behind fortifications do so out of fear. A confident foe is more powerful than a fearful one. The confident foe would present a daunting challenge. The fearful foes would be defeated more easily.
Like almost any insight of the Torah, it applies well beyond its context. To borrow the template from Pirke Avot: Who is strong? The person to face who faces life’s challenges with confidence.