“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” the famous, and famously blunt, General George S. Patton declared in a 1944 speech. “When you were kids,” he explained, “you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers.”
A few years later, UCLA coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders effectively concurred with the general. “Winning isn’t everything,” the coach told his charges, pausing a moment for effect, “It’s the only thing.”
Fast-forward to today, when presidential candidates seem tireless in trumpeting victories and portraying themselves as winners.
It’s not just wishful thinking that impels coaches and politicians to promote their winning ways. They know there is practical value in that self-portrayal. Namely, the “bandwagon effect” — the fact that winners tend, by their very victories, to pick up fans.
And indeed, while correlation isn’t causation, Donald Trump’s popularity seems to have risen at about the rate at which he has labeled himself a winner, and other people losers (among them an 87-year-old woman who sued him over a real estate venture, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and Senator John McCain).
Politics, though, are just politics. And sports are only sports. There is, though, also these days a very different example of the allure exerted by “winning teams.” That pull, unfortunately, powers not only mundane enterprises but some of the darkest evils that humanity (using the word in its broadest sense) has to offer.
There’s no doubt that Islamist groups whose members exult in killing and maiming men, women and children who pose them no threat are manifestations of what is implied by pereh adam: utter barbarism. Terrorists revel in violence for violence’s sake.
But the mayhem that such groups spawn and celebrate also serves to garner them new recruits. It might seem confounding to civilized people that terrorists’ carnage advances their recruitment goals. Sadly, though, it does.
“My brothers,” enticed a French-language social media message sent to young people’s phones in the immediate wake of the recent terror attacks in Brussels, “why not join us in the fight against the Westerners, make good choices in your life?” Don’t you see, the message seems to be saying, how successful we’ve been?
To be sure, psychological frailty, vulnerability to radical politics or theologies and even boredom play parts in leading some young Westerners to join barbarous organizations. But those who study terrorism confirm another factor in those decisions: a perception of the sociopaths as “winners” in some malignant Monopoly game, in which the board pieces are human beings and the currency is destroyed lives.
Through would-be recruits’ loony lenses, the civilized world, by virtue of its inability to eradicate the evil players, would seem to be a “loser.” The crowded bandwagon these days is the wicked one.
There is no word for “winner” or “loser” in Tanach. To be sure, there are advances and retreats, as when Yisrael is “gavar” — gains the upper hand — and when, chalilah, Amalek does; and military gains and defeats. But the word we use in Hebrew for victory, “nitzachon,” seems to date only from later times.
In fact, the closest nitzachon-relative in Tanach, used repeatedly in Tehillim, is menatzeiach, as in “lamenatzeiach,” where it means “leader” or “conductor.” The implication of the word isn’t power or victory, but, rather, example-setting and facilitating.
Maybe that’s a lesson about how to understand true success. Yes, there are indeed enemies to be fought, like those who threaten innocents today. And even an irredeemably evil one, Amalek, to be utterly destroyed in the future. But, here and now, our success lies in our being the best specimens of a tzelem Elokim we can be: not “winners” in any temporal contest but examples of dedicated service to Hashem.
As to the “loser” called civilization, it in fact cannot effectively prevent people bent on murder from acting on their evil urges. But an eventual vanquishing of all evil does, nevertheless, await, ready to arrive with the Geulah shleimah, may it be soon.
There will then be a true nitzachon over evil, exemplified in what the Navi Yeshayahu (11:9) foresees and relates in Hashem’s name: “They will not harm nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters cover the sea.”
That victory may still lie in the future, but it will be an ultimate, permanent one. The root of nitzachon, after all, is netzach.