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Ukraine vs. Russia: A modern-day David vs. Goliath story

A modern-day David vs. Goliath
A modern-day David vs. Goliath 04:18

A vast invading army under the command of an autocrat … a much smaller country under siege, its leader refusing to flee. The world is focused on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is leading a defiant nation in this David vs. Goliath battle against Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Correspondent Mo Rocca asked Steve Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, "When it was clear that Zelensky was staying, what did you think?"

"I thought he's a leader," he replied. "He's a David, and Putin is a coward.

"We have elderly Ukrainian women making Molotov cocktails in their basement. If that's not a David & Goliath story, I don't know what is."

David Victorious Over Goliath 19th-Century Print
An illustration of the tale of David and Goliath, from a mid-19th century copy of "Grand Catechisme des Familles (Christian Doctrine for Families)." Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, the Israelites are outmatched by the Philistines and the giant Goliath. Only a shepherd boy named David, armed with a sling and five smooth stones, is willing to challenge Goliath.

With a single shot he fells the giant, and the Philistines flee.

Leder said, "Every one of us at one point or another has faced frightening odds. There are many stories like this where a powerful narcissist – a bully, frankly – ends up being crushed under the weight of his own demagoguery and his own narcissism."

Fighting increasingly grim odds is Zelensky, who became famous playing a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine – and whose words as the actual president have galvanized people well beyond his country. "Even if you destroy all our cathedrals and churches, you will not destroy our sincere faith in God, in Ukraine," he said.

Leder said, "You know, he was raised in the Soviet Union as a Jew. He understands what it means to be an outsider."

"Soviet Jews had their passports stamped, right, with a particular mark?" asked Rocca.

"Yes, correct. A black mark on your passport that said, you're a pariah. And so, he understands a bully, and of having to do the best you can with what you have. That's in his DNA – as is the DNA of Goliath in Putin, that might makes right, that the leader is not accountable for the suffering of his own people."

For the moment, as Russia continues its merciless advance, Zelensky – a 44-year-old husband and father – remains resolute: "We have nothing to lose but our own freedom and dignity. For us, this is the greatest treasure."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the crowd.  CBS News

Rocca said, "I can't be the only one asking himself, what would I do? Could I be that person?"

"There's an old Yiddish expression that I think of often, which is, 'When you must, you can,'" Leder said. "If you had asked Zelensky five years ago, 'Do you think you could be the man who five years from now stands up to Vladimir Putin and the Russian Army?' he might have said no." 

But Rabbi Leder says a challenge this great also requires a certain kind of faith: "In order to be a David, you have to be in denial of the full powers of the Goliath, right? It takes some denial. The truth of the story is, you may not always win with courage, but you've got a hell of a lot better chance."

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Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: David Bhagat. 

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