I would like to start with what I started out last year: with the feeling that here, at this time and in this place, we are in a sort of an island, isolated from the rest of the world. All around us the world is storming, boiling, full of trouble, while here we are in a kind of a bubble. On the one hand, it is quite pleasant to be in such a bubble; but on the other hand it is not only impossible, but also forbidden for people – and especially for us, as Jews – to reside, even temporarily, in such a world of calm and quiet. Even when one is in high and lofty worlds, one must remember that although the great Ladder reaches the heaven, it is firmly grounded in the earth. And the earth is not always a comfortable place; for throughout the world the earth is now shaking, quivering, and wet with blood.
This is why I chose to speak, this time, about a less abstract topic: Heroism; to try and understand what heroism is.
The simple definition of heroism is the one we can find, for instance, in the story of Samson: heroism is to take apart the gates of the city of Gaza and carry them away; it is to grab a lion and tear it in two; to make a building topple and thus kill three thousand people at once.
But there is also a different definition to heroism. In Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers,” Chapter 4 Mishnah 1) it says, “Ben Zoma says … who is a hero? He who controls his desire (subdues his evil nature), as it is written (Proverbs 16:32): ‘He who rules his spirit is greater than he who conquers a city.’”
Ben Zoma was considered the greatest expounder of homilies, so much so that the Mishnah (Berachot Chapter 9 Mishnah 5) attests that “When Ben Zoma died, there were no more expounders.” The question is, what is the novelty in Ben Zoma’s words? It seems that what he is saying is stated explicitly in a Scriptural verse! Is there need for the greatest of expounders just to rephrase a Biblical verse?
But what at first glance seems self-evident is, in fact, not that simple at all. For the verse is actually not telling us anything about the essence of the hero. It also does not say that he who is slow to anger, or he who rules his spirit, is a hero; it only says that one who is slow to anger and rules his spirit is a better person, in moral and human terms, than one who can “rend a lion as one would rend a kid” (Judges 14:6).
Ben Zoma’s homily is based, then, on a more inner, fundamental understanding. In presenting the person who is slow to anger and the hero, the one who rules his spirit and the conqueror of cities, as analogous to each other, the verse is actually saying that they belong in the same category. For it is impossible to compare two things that have nothing in common; it is impossible to say, for instance, that an elephant is bigger, or smaller, than a mathematical equation, because they are not things of the same kind. Every comparison is based on the assumption that the things compared belong to the same set, that they are on one and the same scale, and that therefore they can be juxtaposed with each other, and one can try to determine what is greater than what.
Ben Zoma’s innovation, then, is that he reads the verse and draws a conclusion from it. He sees the verse as telling us that there are different kinds of heroism: there is the heroism of he who rules his spirit and subdues his evil nature (controls his desires), and the heroism of the hero who can “devour the arm and the crown of the head” (Deuteronomy 32:20). And from the comparison of the two it emerges that one is preferable to the other.
Here, in Israel, we have become acquainted mainly with heroism of the first kind; we have here many lists of warriors who endangered their lives and displayed heroism, bravery and resourcefulness in actual wars. But it is the second kind of heroism that I would like to speak about: a more private and personal heroism, the heroism of the victories within one’s own soul. It is a different kind of heroism not only because it is mostly spiritual, but also because it reveals a different aspect of what it means to be a hero.
We can learn something about this kind of heroism from the second verse of the Shema which is, perhaps, the second most significant verse in the entire Torah. This verse (Deuteronomy 6:5) says: “And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The classic commentary of our Sages to this verse is found in the Mishnah (Berachot Chapter 9, mishnah 5): “With all your heart – with both your impulses (= the good inclination and the evil inclination); with all your soul – even if He takes away your soul; and with all your might – with all your wealth.” According to this interpretation, what seems at first glance to be an ascending order is not an ascending order at all: heart, soul, and … money! Although our Sages state elsewhere (Tractate Hullin 91a) that “the righteous ones are fond of their wealth more than of their own bodies,” in most cases, when people are faced with the choice of “your life or your money,” they (even the most righteous among them) tend to give their money.
And even if we interpret “with all your might” differently, as meaning “more and more and more,” giving beyond measure, the question still remains: in what way does “with all your might” create an ascending order within that verse?
I am struggling with this question not as a commentator, but as one who recites the Shema; and here is the solution I have found: “with all your might” does not mean that a person is commanded, “give your money now!” To negate wealth not as a one-time act, but as an ongoing, constant way of being, means that a person is sentenced – be it by himself or by others – to a life of hardships. In this sense, “with all your might” is not to take a person’s life, but to take a person’s soul out, so to speak – little by little, day by day, year by year, through poverty, affliction, and suffering.
The heroism that expresses itself in outbursts of occasional heroic deeds, such as that of the person who jumps into the fire, is momentary, while the heroism of “with all your might” is a kind of heroism that continues day after day, year after year, in distress, poverty and need, in a state of hopelessness. Incidentally, throughout Jewish history, this heroism of “with all your might” played a much more significant role than that of dying on the sanctification of G-d’s Name, of giving one’s soul in the literal, immediate sense. Whoever defined himself as a Jew, only seldom had to pay for it with his life. However, the practical significance of defining oneself as a Jew was that a person sentenced himself to live in the fringes of society, to a life in which he must be at least twice as good as the other guy so that he to have a slight chance to reach a similar status; a life in which one had to work so much harder and got so much less; and in general – a life of poverty and need.
The devotion and self-sacrifice of “with all your might,” then, is a continuous kind of devotion, day by day, year by year, without seeing an end to it and without expecting a better and brighter tomorrow.
This world-view involves a heavy price, not only economically but also in terms of how one conceives of life and experiences it. My wife once said to me that in any part where there are Israelis and others, she can immediately tell who the Americans and Europeans are: they laugh. Indeed, in a party in which Israelis participate, it is very rare to find people just standing around and laughing together. It is not because people here are always sad, but because life here is always enveloped in a feeling of dread, pressure, fear, and heaviness. Within all this one can, and must, live, and there may even be moments of merriment; but the overall picture is one of “bearing the yoke and keeping silent” (see Lamentations 3:27-28).
It seems, however, that this is going to change; for not only in Israel, but also throughout the world, people are now learning about the need for this other kind of heroism. The world, that has seen and sometimes even admired the heroism of violence, must now learn the kind of heroism that has nothing to do with swords, cannons and bombs. It is the heroism of the person who lives in an extended state of terror, knowing that wherever he may go it may be his last journey, and that danger lurks everywhere – and still does not break down, and rules his spirit, and is slow with anger, and keeps going. This heroism is the ability to be in a state of distress and under pressure, and still live and build, and continue fighting this war in which there are no immediate prospects of victory, and live a life of quiet heroism, of ongoing self-sacrifice. This kind of heroism lacks the grandeur that is the share of the conqueror of cities; for conquerors of cities are honored with triumphal processions; but nobody makes such celebrations in honor of a person who rules his spirit, especially since tomorrow, and the day after, he will have to do this again and again.
The contemporary hero, then, is not the one described in Pirkei Avot (5:20) as “heroic as a lion.” In fact, the lion is a very lazy animal that does absolutely nothing most of the time; but it has the ability to reach a very high speed within less then a second, and harness all of its tremendous force in order to do something spectacular. The “heroic as a lion” kind of hero has great powers that are neither constant nor stable, but that are revealed all at once, in one extreme outburst. But it is the contemporary hero, the one whose heroism is not discernible, who is the greater hero. It may be the man who wakes up in the morning and opens his grocery store, even though there was a terrorist attack there the day before; it is the person who does not flee into the realm of oblivion, or to a different place, but rather continues doing all the things that must be done. It is that person who walks with his backpack on his shoulder, and continues walking even when he gets hit; the person whose buildings are destroyed, yet he rebuilds them; whose plants are uprooted, yet he re-plants them; whose descendants are killed, yet he gives birth to new ones.
Thus, we have the level of loving G-d “with all your heart”; beyond that, we have “with all your soul,” which is the one-time sacrifice; and above and beyond that is “with all your might,” which is the determination to continue indefinitely, although the future is unclear and there is no promise as to when all of this is going to end. This heroism is not fit for movies or theater shows; but it is a kind of heroism that is suitable not only for great, prominent people, but also for the simple and the small. It is the heroism of “when I fall, I shall arise” (Micah 7:8), of “a just man falls seven times, and rises up again” (Proverbs 24:16).
The just man falls seven times because he is no angel: he is just a just man. Angels fall only once, if ever; a just man falls and falls and falls again, and there is no guarantee that after the seventh fall there will come an end to the trials and the tribulations and the obstacles. He may even fall seventy-seven times, but always “rise up again,” “rise up again.” And this is precisely the kind of heroism we need now: the heroism to continue in a situation where no promises are made, in which I know nothing about what is going to happen. It is the heroism of falling and rising up again, and again, and again; the heroism of “in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). I hope that we shall have the strength for this kind of heroism as well, so that we can be “as the sun when he goes forth it its might” (Judges 5:31) – able to keep waking with unceasing perseverance, while constantly emitting light and warmth.