Each year, around July 4, I offer a teaching about a figure from America's founding. This year, made famous by Hamilton, is Hercules Mulligan, spy extraordinaire.
Looking Out for Others: A Herculean Task
It’s a yearly tradition of mine around the Fourth of July to connect the weekly Torah portion and the American Revolution. I’ve spoken on Founding Fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, and this year, as we’ll see, the parashah suggests an obvious choice: a man remembered mostly because of the musical Hamilton—and because of his outstanding name, a man who saved George Washington’s life not once but twice, a man named Hercules Mulligan.
Born in Ireland in 1740, Hercules Mulligan came with his family to the colony of New York when he was six years old. He made a living as a clothier, outfitting British soldiers with their uniforms during the Revolutionary War. He was an unapologetic patriot, favoring American independence, but his smooth personality and skillful tailoring continued to attract British customers throughout the war.
This gave Mulligan an excellent opportunity to practice espionage. Loosening the tongues of his customers with liquor, Mulligan paid careful attention to their language and, in particular, to their orders. This was how Mulligan learned of two separate assassination attempts against George Washington, attempts that he was able to foil. As well, in noticing when soldiers were requesting clothes for a different terrain or when many soldiers came in at once, Mulligan was able to discern certain military plans of the British, which he also relayed to the American forces. A member of the undercover society known as the Culper Ring, Mulligan was a key player in the War of Independence.
Had he lived three millennia earlier, Mulligan would have fit right in to this week’s Torah reading. In Parashat Sh’lah L’cha, God instructs Moses to send scouts to survey the land of Canaan, one man from each of the twelve tribes. Like Mulligan, the twelve spies reconnoiter not only the land itself, which is bounteous and beautiful, but also its inhabitants, fierce warriors whose towering forces dwarf the insecure Hebrews. Upon their return, ten of the spies bemoan their fate, cowed by the might of their enemies. Only Joshua and Caleb, sure in the rightness of their cause, urge the Israelites to persevere: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Num. 13:30). Outnumbered and out-manned, like the Americans facing the British, the People of Israel had only to keep faith in their guiding purpose to triumph in the face of panic and despair.
It’s striking, perhaps unexpected, that Joshua and Caleb would have teamed up so forcefully. They came from the tribes of Ephraim and Judah, representing what would come to be the two kingdoms of Israel that rarely, if ever, got along. But these two leaders shared an uncommon trait that bonded them for life: an unbiased regard for allies, regardless of their origin and background. Caleb, according to tradition, would later marry Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh who had saved Moses from the Nile (BT Megillah 13a). And Joshua would come to rely on yet another spy, an outcast prostitute named Rahab. Both Caleb and Joshua could see past the prejudices that might have blinded other men.
This, too, reflects the story of Hercules Mulligan. Himself an immigrant, Mulligan relied on partners that others may not have easily trusted. Chief among them was his slave, Cato, who bravely carried messages to places unsafe for Mulligan to travel himself. Another ally was Haym Salomon, a Sephardic Jew from Poland who used his role as an interpreter for Hessian mercenaries to also spy against the British. And, of course, there was Alexander Hamilton—famous for his rise to prominence despite his origins as a penniless foreigner—who was Mulligan’s close friend. Like his biblical forebears, Mulligan knew—as did George Washington and so many other revolutionaries of the day—that it’s the content of your heart and the strength of your character that matter most, not where you were born or who your parents were.
As America prepares to enter another year in its centuries-long experiment, let us take a page from the quill-written annals of our ancestors. To seek out new frontiers of freedom for every person in this land, we must rely on the common bonds that unite us, trusting in the spirit of righteousness to prevail even against incredible odds. The task may be herculean, but with passionate allies and faith in the power of justice, we can continue our nation’s march toward forming a more perfect and equitable union.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”