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.


  1. Dear Sir or Madam:

    I wuld wish to reply to the post "Are You a Hero"? I concur that the demonstration of heroism does not require the performance of prodigious feats of physical strength and courage. A hero, as Chazal state, is the man or woman who overrides his or her inclination. Rousing oneself to visit a hospitalized friend when it is more enjoyable to repose on the couch to view a good ball game on television. Relinquishing the fur coat or vacation or installation of an inground pool and remitting the earmarked funds to tzedaka. forgiving an insuklt and coming to the aid of someone in distress. All of these acts I would characterize as heroic.

    However, I think that sometimes frum people overlook that acts such as those performed by Corporal Meyer are indeed heroic not primarily for the physical component. self-preservation is perhaps the strongest of inclinations. It is antithetical to human nature to place onself in harm's way if one does not anticipate some reward or benefit. Even the person who engages in seemingly illogical dangerous behavior does so for some perceived benefit. For example, the teenage motorist who speeds and blows stop signs does so for the psychological thrill of driving dangerously or to impress his buddies. Corporal Meyer anticipated no benefit for his heroism. He overcome his inclination of self-perservation to help his comrades. This is the ikar of Corporal Meyer's heroism and it for his mesiras nefesh that he justly desereves honor and emulation.

    Yours faithfully,
    Bill McCaulley
    Lommer deleben Moshiach.

  2. You bring up a great point, Bill.

    Technically, anyone who overcomes their inclination to do something wrong is a hero. However, those who overcome their inclination of self-preservation in order to save others are in a heroic league of their own. Both types of people had to battle strong inclinations, but the latter completely cast aside ego and benefit. That's why I mentioned that Corporal Meyer is in a category of his own. Not only did he meet Chazal's criteria, he exceeded it.