Friday, August 28, 2009

Heroism vs Resolve

In a town where I used to live each year the local newspaper awarded a Person of the Year Award . Nominees were sought from the community and a blue ribbon panel would select the winner. Typically awardees were people who performed an act of outstanding valour. Perhaps s/he saved a person from the attack of a mugger at great personal risk. Or perhaps s/he made a great financial sacrifice on behalf of a stranger in dire circumstances.

I thought if that newspaper existed in the larger Jewish community perhaps this year it would extend the Person of the Year Award to the Lubavitcher Hassid who decided to donate his kidney to a Satmar Hassid who was dying and in need of a new kidney. If it was not enough that the man surrendered a vital organ as an act of great beneficence, he did it for the benefit of one who is a member of a hassidic sect in a long-standing feud with his own...indeed an inspiring act.

But the question is does performing inspiring acts make one a Person of the Year ?

In this weeks Parsha, that of Ke teizeih we are given more than 10% of the mitzvot of the Torah.
The reading is full of commandments both positive ones, meaning acts we are charged to do, and negative ones, things we are told we must not do. Nearly every verse contains another mitzvah.
If there is one common feature to the commandments it is that none call for extra-ordinary sacrifice and devotion. They do not call for heroism.
On the contrary the reading is contextualized by the fact that it acknowledges human frailty. The portion's beginning validates the soldier's lust in wartime and gives rise to the laws of the Yefat To'ar, woman taken captive who is permitted him within certain guidelines. The laws of divorce are found in the reading. Unlike the Catholics, the Torah allows that humans may be incompatible and cannot be required to live together where hatred persists. And the soldier who recently married is told to go home from battle, rather than asked to be heroic and die a new groom.

No, rather than heroism, the mitzvot call for commitment. Build a parapet around your roof so no one will be injured on your account. Pay your workers on time. Make sure to put tzizit on your four cornered clothes. Don't take advantage of another's misfortune by lending him money at interest. Don't hate the Egyptian or Edomite even though you might have reason. Don't return a slave to his non-Jewish owners.

The sequence of mitzvot for the most part will not change the world, even if you keep them. They are not a call to courage or sacrifice. But they will change you! They require a quiet resoluteness that when evidenced turns the rough and callous human into a mensch, good to G-d and good to people. And in the end that is what our time in this world is about. We are here to transform ourselves from the selfish and shallow to the loving and profound.

Most of the ten tests of Avraham our father were not calls for the heroic. They were tests of his resolve. They challenged his commitment to his calling, his character and faith. In the end with all that Avraham did little in his world actually changed. The bad guys remained bad guys. Idol worship prevailed. While his children followed his example, he did not lead a great revolution of faith. What did change was that Avram became Avraham. And that was change enough. The rest would follow in time.

Truth is many a not good person does a heroic deed. The individual awarded by the newspaper the Person of the Year Award may have saved someones life, but that in-itself does not make him/her a good person. The act of courage did indeed make a significant difference and should be commended. But Person of the Year ? I think not.
That award belongs to someone who is loving to the stranger and is kind and gentle with his/her spouse, to someone who give 10% of his/her income to tzedaka, and will run to do a favor even when his/her life is busy. Person of the Year belongs to someone who learns every day and is committed to growth, who looks at others with a generous eye without envy or resentment. Person of the Year belongs to someone who is honest even when it hurts to be, humble, and accepting of others different than him/herself. Person of the Year belongs to someone who keeps the mitzvot even when no one is watching, who is scrupulous with the little things that distinguish devotion, one who harbors no grudge and forgives insult.

Yes, without doubt, the Lubavitcher Hassid whose heroics we mentioned earlier is to be praised for his great gift. It was a beautiful and inspiring act of hesed. But as great an act of hesed as it was, in the end it remains a singular act. Person of the Year does not belong to the hero. We are not called upon to be heroes. Rather it belongs to the one resolute, who lives his/her life with a relentless faithfulness to a love of Hashem and a love of Klal Yisrael.

The Parsha this weeks sets the parameters by which we can measure our work and our lives. Yes, we are all challenged to the excellence of the Person of the Year. But we earn it in every exchange of words with another, in every day's service to Hashem. Rather than look for the great heroic gesture, lets seize the moment for the gift it offers for our becoming. The ordinary moments are the gateways to eternity!

Shabbat Shalom

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