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.