Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are You a Hero?

Last week, Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor. He is the first living Marine to be given the distinction for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. He saved 36 lives when he disregarded orders and put his life on the line to save others. Despite suffering a shrapnel wound in his arm, he repeatedly ran through heavy enemy fire to rescue both American and Afghan troops. Meyer's death-defying heroism puts him in a category of his own. However, according to Jewish wisdom, the definition of a hero is not limited to such incredible bravery.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma goes through a famous set of simple questions and answers. Among them is, "Who is a hero? He who subdues his personal inclination, as it is written (Proverbs 16:32), 'He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city'" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). The Hebrew term he uses, gibor, can be translated as either "strong" or "hero." What truly separates the strong from the weak has nothing to do with physical power or professional prowess; it's all about strength of character.

In reality, a heroic act takes place whenever someone overcomes their inclination to do something wrong. This is especially the case with regard to interpersonal conduct. After all, ritual sins only require forgiveness from God, whereas interpersonal sins first require forgiveness from the person who was wronged. While it's always a good idea to try to control our yetzer hara (evil inclination) and treat other people well, it's particularly important to do so during this month of Elul as we get closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The world is upside down. People often look for heroes via politics and popular culture, but they will generally come up empty-handed. As Dennis Prager puts it, "the famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous." Yet, heroic individuals are all around; people just don't know where to look. It doesn't always have to entail some life-saving, out-of-this-world act, such as that of Dakota Meyer. And it certainly has nothing to do with fame.

Most of us lead quiet, unassuming lives. As a result, it's easy to think that our personal successes and failures have no ultimate meaning. But this could not be further from the truth. We learn from the story of Ruth - a woman who struggled to merely find her next meal - that an act as simple as modestly gathering food can have lasting purpose. In Ruth's case, the whole Davidic dynasty descended from her because of her righteous ways. God takes note of all our actions and recognizes the good we do in spite of many difficulties. Never think that your struggles go unrecognized.

When you succeed in subduing bad behavior, the next time you're searching for a hero, simply look in the mirror.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Red Bandana

It's hard to believe that ten years have already passed since the horrific events of September 11, 2001. That date is correctly remembered as a day in which unspeakable evil was committed. However, that date should also be remembered as a day in which extraordinary goodness was carried out. Perhaps this dichotomy can best be understood through something as simple as a red bandana.

Cell phone calls made by passengers on at least one of the hijacked planes revealed that terrorists donned red bandanas before taking over the flight. In radical Islamic circles, red bandanas had become a signature of some terrorists in their attacks against Westerners. The clothing represented pure evil.

Contrast those red bandanas with the one worn by a young man named Welles Crowther. His piece of clothing represented pure goodness. If you aren't familiar with his story, this video is well worth watching:

On a day in which terrorists used red bandanas as a symbol of the evil they were about to commit, there was a young man who used a red bandana as a symbol of the goodness he was about to carry out. These polar opposite reasons for wearing the same type of clothing demonstrate that what matters most isn't what we wear, but rather how we act. Although there are times when the clothing makes the man, it's usually the man who gives meaning to the clothing.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Beware of Bad Leaders

People have come to believe that a leader is simply someone who is charismatic and good-looking. While neither of these qualities disqualify a person from being a leader, they are not as important as they are made out to be. Most external elements - especially physical vanities - are not necessities for leadership. So what exactly do good leaders possess that distinguish them from bad leaders? Well, there are many characteristics, but here's a brief synopsis of the most important.

For one, true leaders don't let their egos get in the way. The less a person cares about their own self-interest and the more they care about God and service to others, the greater they will be. Another characteristic found among true leaders is little to no arrogance. They do something because it is right, and not because it will make them more popular or powerful. True leaders also tend to be people who are fully dedicated to a cause that is greater than themselves.

There is yet another characteristic that is often overlooked: true leaders don't try to turn people into automatons. Rather, they guide others in a way that helps each individual fulfill their unique role in the world. When someone starts to pit white against black, religious against secular, or rich against poor, a red flag should be raised. Such people are doing what is in their own best interest, and the only leading they do is lead people against one another. They fail to understand that everyone has been placed on earth by God for a reason.

As Pirkei Avot states: "Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:3). This concept generally refers to politicians, but it can extend to anyone who takes advantage of other people for the sake of attaining power. These "leaders" are fickle and unreliable at best, and emulate the ways of some of the worst people who have ever lived.

Despite the fact that most leaders are anything but noble, we should not resign ourselves to the cynical belief that there are no good ones. While healthy skepticism of anyone in a position of authority is imperative, there are still a lot of good leaders out there. We just have to find them. Otherwise, try to be one yourself. As another Pirkei Avot passage states: "In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be the leader" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6). Nevertheless, keep in mind that the greatest leaders throughout history were those who came to power reluctantly. From Moses to George Washington, the best are those who are humble and do not seek control over others.

It's both sad and upsetting to see people hurt by bad leaders. Perhaps they falsely believed in the person because they had a particular title before their name. Or perhaps they thought that the person was wise because they attended some prestigious school. Or maybe they just got too caught up in their own religious denomination or political affiliation to see what kind of person they were actually following. Whatever the reason, enough is enough. For leaders, like for everyone else, character matters most.