“I need a hero...
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night. He's gotta be tough and he's gotta be strong, and he's gotta be larger than life”
The lyrics are paraphrased and not my own, but the sentiment is mine. While reading the parshiyot of Bereishit (portions of the Book of Genesis), we are reminded of the words of Nachmanides in his introduction to Genesis, "Ma'aseh avot siman la'banim- The actions of our ancestors are a guide for us today.” There are many heroes in the book of Bereishit – Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and, of course, we are now reading about Yaakov and his wives, Rachel and Leah. The message of Bereishit is one of looking to heroes and following in their footsteps.
What is a hero? The dictionary gives several definitions. There's the hero of mythology - a sort of divine character favored by the gods. Then there is the person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose who are often found risking their lives like soldiers. There are also heroes in a particular field, noted for their achievements whether in medicine, academia or sport. There are all sorts of heroes.
A little over a year ago, Israel lost a hero. I was surfing the web reading Israeli news online and came across the death of Rafael Eitan, who drowned while supervising a port construction project in Ashdod. Now I was not a supporter of the General or follower of his policies, but his bio caught my eye. Rafael Eitan, known as Raful, was born in Palestine in 1929. He first put on a uniform for the Palmach in 1945 and didn't leave the army until 1983. He fought in all of Israel's wars, was wounded five times - once in the head and was once thought to have been killed in action. He was acknowledged by all as fearless and unequaled in bravery. He finished his career as Chief of Staff. Soon after, he entered politics with a variety of parties and served as Member of the Knesset and in various ministerial capacities until leaving public office in 1999. He was a soldier and public servant for over half a century, and he even established a framework to keep at-risk youth from dropping out and provide them a way to serve in the IDF. There were thousands of "Raful's Boys" over the years.
As with any Israeli politician, there were controversies. His policies would be considered "far- right" and he got into his fair share of trouble. But I mention his death and brief biography because it made me think of heroes.
Not the Superman or Spiderman variety, but real heroes. People who have made contributions that stand out. After all, a 60 year career to the Jewish people, 6 wars, 5 wounds, and a son lost to the military are more than the ordinary citizen generally has to give up.
In Parshat Vayishlach, we see Yaakov preparing for the encounter with his estranged brother Eisav. Yaakov, along with all of the patriarchs and matriarchs and Biblical personalities, may be viewed as a hero. But it's not necessarily because of his wrestling match with the angel. The verse describes Yaakov as, "Vayivateir Yaakvov levado - and Yaakov remained alone." Our Sages in the Midrash comment, "V'nisgav Hashem levado - and God, alone, is alone." Yaakov is compared to God. Yaakov, at this very moment - having spent 20 years in exile, struggling to prepare for what may be the final battle, is a one-of-a-kind hero. He is a superhuman figure who is mentioned in the same breath as the Almighty. Rabbi Ovadya Seforno (a classic Italian Torah commentator who lived from 1470-1550)says that Yaakov's greatness at this moment was his connection to the Divine.
Yaakov - described as levado - was completely attached to God - also described as levado. Avraham was the first monotheist, the traditions matured under Yitzchak, but it could be that Yaakov was the first larger-than-life Jewish super-hero.
We have always placed a premium on the spiritual accomplishments in our religion. It's nice that every Jewish mother may want her son to be a doctor, but on some level, there is an acknowledgment that after 120 years, it's the soul that matters. This heroism of the soul became clear to me the other day when I saw just how much a pack of 7 Rebbe (Grand Rabbi) cards cost. That's right, Rebbe cards. They sell them in packs of 7. Collect them all! Trade for the ones you don't have. They even sell special carrying cases and collector binders to keep them in mint condition or to carry them around. As a former baseball card enthusiast, I can appreciate card collecting. Rebbe- card collecting further highlights the premium that can be placed on our spiritual heroes.
The lives embodied on these cards are worth infinitely more than even a 1951 Mickey Mantle rookie card.
But what about the ordinary person who won't be appearing on any trading cards? We are inspired by the heroics of Raful Eitan (whether we agree with him or not) and are impressed by the levado- ness and spiritual heroics of Yaakov and other Biblical figures, but where is the hero for the everyman?
Most of the time, an inspirational story does what its name suggests - it inspires. But once the inspiration wears off, which it inevitably does, what is left? The baalei Mussar - proponents of the Mussar school of self-improvement - used to find inspiration in the casual spoken word. Once, a Mussar proponent was walking on the street and passed by a shoemaker's shop. He smiled at the shoemaker and said, "Good morning." The shoemaker smiled back and said, "Is there anything of yours that needs to be fixed?"
The gentleman stopped and considered the full implication of this casual question. "I'm afraid there is", he said at last. "Many things need to be fixed. Many things." And then he continued on his way, his brow furrowed in thought.
Sometimes a word is just a word, and the question is merely an innocent question. But the heroic is just as likely to be found in the ordinary as the extraordinary. As the dictionary defines, there are heroes who are noted for their feats of courage and nobility of purpose. There are the soldiers of Israel and America whom we pray for their safety and success, and individuals like Rafael Eitan - a Jewish hero because of what he did for his people. There are also heroes of achievement - whether they are professional or spiritual achievements. There are the patriarchs, matriarchs, Einsteins, and the Rabbis on the Rebbe cards. Achievements may be heroic and inspiring.
There is, however, one more definition of hero in the dictionary. A hero is the principal character in a novel or poem. If that is the case, we are all heroes of our stories. In a day, where heroes are often on the movie screens and classical heroes are quite fleeting inspiring only temporarily, it may be a good idea to look around - at a casual encounter, an innocent exchange, at the world immediately around us or even in the mirror - to find the fuel for the heroes of today.
Rabbi Elie Weinstock
Assistant Rabbi, Director of Education and Outreach Congregation