By MORLEY T. FEINSTEIN
Many of you know I’m a big reader of news, sports, essays, updates on Israel, politics in America, the works. I have iGoogle on my computer with a bundle of headlines, and my iPhone is filled with news apps which I read as often as I can. Yet on this holy day, as we begin our New Year, I must express my sincere disappointment that so much of the news we consume shows the terrible foibles of people we hold in high esteem. There are too many idols with feet of clay, and we are left wondering as Bonnie Tyler posed the question in her (1984) song I Need a Hero: “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?"
There are a number of sports fans in our family, and as I grew up I looked to the sports heroes as my role models. The name on a baseball I own that was autographed by Sandy Koufax and what happened on Oct. 6, 1965, is indelibly etched in my brain. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax decided not to play in the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. "By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience…He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar!" wrote author Jane Leavy in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy
. Are there heroes today who are our moral exemplars?
Today we are insulted with the results of doping scandals with Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and other baseball players, Lance Armstrong’s lying and denials about his cycling and cheating, the young Hollywood celebrities with problems of addiction, insider trading on Wall Street, adultery on both sides of the aisle in Congress. As a parent, I sometimes want to shut it all off and try to keep it from the kids. That’s just not possible in today’s world.
As a child, my heroes also came from the silver screen and television, but somehow the Lone Ranger seemed larger than life and more courageous than Hannah Montana; the bravery of Lassie was more enduring than that of the Transformers. Who are our heroes today? Are they the faces who frequent the covers of People magazine? Are the heroes of our time those who appear on the ubiquitous talk shows? Are the celebrity newsmakers people with whom we closely identify? Do they share our aspirations and dream our common dreams? What does it take to be a hero?
Judaism focuses on the great heroes of the ancient past, the psalmists and sages, prophets and poets, leaders and lawgivers, who performed feats of courage and acts of kindness. Our Biblical ancestors were not divine, perfect beings. The Torah includes these stories to show how human they were and how heroic they were. Perhaps they were depicted in primary grade stories as people who were perfectly amazing, but the Bible portrays real life people with their errors of judgment and mistakes in character. Our ancestors told stories about them complete with their faults and blemishes, yet still able to retain their humanity. Jacob rolled away the rock in front of the well to impress Rachel, but his favoritism towards Joseph seeded jealousy among the brothers. Joseph was quite arrogant, but after being sold into slavery, eventually forgave his brothers. Moses stopped the bullying taskmaster, brought the Jews to freedom, but left his wife and sons to lead the Israelites with a singular determination. David fought Goliath and defeated him. As King he fooled around with Bathsheba, arranged to have her husband killed in battle, but also united Jerusalem and wrote poetry we still cherish today. Solomon may have had a multitude of wives but was also heralded for his great wisdom. It’s hard for us to see our ancestors as people like us, flesh and blood: with great qualities alongside their mistakes and sins. Each was a very real hero for the generations to emulate, giants of family and faith. First among them was Abraham, who believed in one God in a world of paganism.
Abraham followed the command of God to hike with Isaac, a three day journey, and offer him up to God on a mountaintop. Genesis 22 is called the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, neither the slaughter nor the sacrifice of Isaac. Did Abraham act out of obedience to a God who he heard but couldn’t see? Was he being incredibly loyal to this new God of Israel? Did God test him to prove his faith? But we must ask ourselves, what kind of father abuses his son in such a way? Abraham said nothing to his wife, and the Midrash records that Sarah died upon hearing of this terrifying incident. On this day of holiness, as we begin the New Year, we have to echo my teacher David Hartman’s (z”l) penetrating question: what kind of God would demand such a sacrifice? And what kind of God would ask us to be his partners? This is not a heroic Abraham.
I prefer the Abraham of Genesis 18, the hero of Sodom and Gemorrah. God wants to destroy those cities because they are filled with people practicing outrageous and horrible behavior, and Abraham stands up to God. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Abraham and God battle it out, Abraham bargaining with God that for the lives of 50 God will not act in this way. He continues to hondel God, “What about 45?” and on it goes until Abraham and God settle on a deal: for the lives of 10 righteous people God will relent. This is the Abraham who speaks truth to power, an Abraham who knows what is right and what is wrong, an Abraham with a refined ethical conscience. This heroic Abraham had a humble and reverent religious personality, a strong sense of moral autonomy, who believed that the God we worship would never violate the fundamental moral intuitions of justice and of love. (David Hartman, ‘Judaism as an Interpretive Tradition’ in A Heart of Many Rooms, p. 13) How fascinating it is that in the new Mishkan HaNefesh, The Sanctuary of the Soul, which will become our High Holy Day prayer book when it is published in a few years, Genesis 18 will be one of the suggested Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah.
Today we have to lift up Aung San Suu Kyi, the dissident Burmese leader who has been her country’s conscience, winning the Nobel Peace Prize though locked behind the door of her imprisonment. Now free, her spirit strengthened her people. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban, has inspired others to learn and read. She proclaims, “Let us pick up our books and pens, our most powerful weapons.” When the Japanese tsunami hit, Dr. Takeshi Kanno moved all his patients to the highest floor, saving dozens of people between the time of the quake and the deadly wave. He stayed in the hospital for three days, only returning home to his wife hours before the birth of their second child, a boy named Rei, which in Japanese means the wisdom to overcome hardship. Pushpa Basnet started a unique daycare program for children in Nepal, so they could lead a more normal life. She wanted people to know “how fortunate we all are and we should give back to society.” NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo stopped to give a pair of boots to a homeless man whose feet were covered in blisters. Why did he help? “As a police officer you do things like this all the time.”
We honor the brave teachers in Newtown, Connecticut; Antoinette Tuff, the clerk in a Georgia school who persuaded an armed gunman to lay down his weapon; Carmesha Rogers who in the middle of a street fight braved bullets and was injured trying to save neighborhood children in Michigan; the first responders at the Boston Marathon, the firefighters in Yosemite, our American Troops around the world, Israeli doctors who have treated the wounded from Syria, all who leaned in to help, who did not turn away. Dr. Janice Cohen wrote, “All too often, kids believe heroes have to be glamorous, wealthy, and intelligent. We must teach them that they can become heroes by helping other human beings.”
Mario Capecchi was an Italian child whose mother was taken by the Gestapo to Dachau, leaving him a homeless street kid who ended up in a hospital in Reggio Emilia. Somehow he found his way to America, studied at Harvard, and set off to do research at the University of Utah. His molecular biology work to help model disease was originally turned down for funding, but he persevered. His research eventually brought him the Nobel Prize for medicine. Orphaned, refugee, street urchin, immigrant, poor student…who overcame fierce hardships to be considered one of the greatest scientific minds. He’s a hero.
Rabbi Sam Stahl wrote “One can be a hero without exhibiting stunning bravery on the battle field, or championing the cause of justice before millions, or capturing the hearts of admirers on the entertainment stage. Indeed, one doesn’t need battles or dangers or great causes or dazzling performances. The Greek writers understood what heroism was all about in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Homer showed that the essence of heroism comes from the inner development of the hero. The courage and valor they demonstrate are of little value unless they themselves grow in the process. Heroism is potentially within us, if only we would cultivate it. A philosopher taught: ‘one who gains a victory over others is strong. But one who gains a victory over oneself is all powerful.’”
I take comfort that there are plenty of heroes left as we face the years ahead. Parents who eke out a living, sacrifice for their children, and instill in them the values that propel them to continue their education are heroes. The cop on the beat who fights against druglords is a hero. Athletes who strive to overcome physical limitations, and motivate themselves toward success, like Diana Nyad, are heroes. Volunteers who comfort people with AIDS, or assist the elderly, who feed the homeless, are heroes. “Heroism is really the quest to live according to one’s internal standards of right and wrong, regardless of whether the world is watching.” (John F. Groom) Everyone who struggles with adversity and attempts to overcome it displays heroic features, for each fulfills the words of the Ethics of our Fathers, “Who is a hero?” One who conquers his own inner doubts.
We need to find people to love, admire, to be our role models, people who live by the Golden Rule, whose empathy oozes from them in their morality and ethics. Victor Hugo said it well: “Our greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment, and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes.” And the New Year which dawns today is our opportunity to triumph over our challenges. We will each face many circumstances and situations where we will come to a fork in the road of life, and we will have to choose between the paths ahead. We have to make those decisions by our Torah, by our standards of right and wrong, regardless of whether the world is watching.
We need heroes. We need to believe in them so that we can better believe in ourselves. We need them to bolster our potential to surmount hardship and pain, opposition and depression. We need to see the reflection of ourselves in our heroes so that we can find the courage to hope, to dream, to prevail against evil. Heroes remind us that our lives have a purpose, a sense of meaning. Heroes convince us that fear can be conquered, that the monsters of our subconscious can be driven out, that diseases can be overcome and that we – given our faith – can control our own destiny. (adapted from Rabbi Sidney Zimelman)
A seriously crippled medical student was obliged to walk with crutches. Her hesitating and painfully slow walk through the hall made her suffer greatly, yet she was friendly, optimistic, intelligent and quite cheerful. She was seen as a hero by her patients.
During all her years at school her friends, out of consideration and respect, refrained from questioning her as to the cause of her deformity. They did not want to bring up a subject that might be painful to her. But one day a close friend of hers asked the fateful question and found out that indeed it was infantile paralysis which caused her handicap.
“Then tell me”, said the admiring friend, “With such a misfortune, how can you face the world so confidently and without bitterness?”
A warm smile appeared on the young doctor’s face as she replied, “You see, the paralysis never touched my heart.” May we, throughout the year ahead, act like heroes, and may moral paralysis never enter our hearts and souls.
Morley T. Feinstein is Senior Rabbi of University Synagogue, Los Angeles, California, and a Hartman Institute Senior Rabbinic Fellow. This essay is adapted from his Rosh Hashana 5774 sermon