Did you know that the name of Israel’s national airline, El Al, comes from the Bible? Like so much in Israel, its source is in our ancient texts. The prophet Hosea says, “They call them el al” or “to the One Above.” In Hebrew el means “to” and al means “above.” So El Al means “to the above,” definitely a great name for an airline.
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words ki tetzei lamilchama al oyvecha, “When you will go out to war against your enemies.” The usual word used for “against” would be neged, but here the Torah uses the word al. Commentary suggests there is a good reason for this: When it comes to warfare, attitude is everything. Al means both “above” and “on top.” If soldiers feel they are on top of things and have the upper hand, they will fight with confidence and assertiveness. If they feel that they are below and not a match for the enemy, they may well be defeated.
This is why in past times armies would march to the battlefield singing a marching song, almost like a victory song, celebrating their anticipated triumph. It built up their psychological strength and helped them go into battle with confidence and, hopefully, emerge as victors.
Even today, in the world’s sporting arenas there are many ways and rituals that competing teams use to psych themselves up to go out there and win. American football has cheerleaders. The New Zealand rugby team has its own haka, a war cry from the Māori culture. It invigorates them and, they hope, strikes fear into the hearts of their opponents. Indeed, it often does.
Particularly in sports, we see that very often the more talented player doesn’t necessarily win. His opponent may have more confidence, tenacity and composure or less anxiety—whatever it takes beyond raw, natural talent. Losers may have more talent, but winners have more confidence.
It’s the same in every area of life. Not only in war and sport but even in business, or for that matter, any negotiation. If we are positive, confident and think we will win, then our chances are much greater than if we go into the meeting pessimistic and resigned to losing.
I’m not a great fan of Henry Ford because he wasn’t a great fan of Jews, but he did say a few wise things, one of which was: “Whether you think you can, or you think you cannot, you are right.” Your attitude will always determine your altitude. It will be a significant factor in your success or failure. If you think you can, chances are you will. If you think you cannot, you probably won’t.
I remember watching a film about Morris Goodman, a successful insurance salesman who in 1981 bought his own plane but crashed on his first solo flight. He was left paralyzed and, initially, could not move any part of his body except his eyes. The doctors expected him to live a short and painful life and predicted he would never walk again. But Morris had other plans. He was determined to get better. He promised himself and the doctors that he would walk out of the hospital on his own two feet.
I don’t know how he did it, but slowly, he managed to regain the use of his limbs. Then, eight months after the crash, Morris walked out of the hospital on his own two feet. He didn’t run or sprint, but slowly and haltingly managed to fulfill his promise.
The film was called “The Miracle Man.” It wasn’t about a Marvel superhero but a real-life human being who willed himself, pushed himself and maintained the al attitude of keeping on top and remaining steadfastly confident that he would achieve his ambitions. And he did. It is an inspirational, true story that we can all learn much from.
I think this idea is particularly relevant now as we stand just three weeks from Rosh Hashanah. Some people will go to shul because they go to shul all year round. Others will attend on the High Holy Days out of a sense of tradition. Still others will attend out of guilt. Many are weary of the annual inner conflict between believing in what is right and actually doing it. So many New Year resolutions have come and gone without any tangible difference in my life, they reckon. Why delude myself that this year will be any different?
But if we can develop the al attitude, it may in fact make a difference in our Jewish lives. If we really believe that we can live more Jewishly next year, we may actually surprise ourselves.
It’s not too early to wish you a Shanah Tovah, physically as well as spiritually.