It is often challenging to do the right thing. We know in our moral coding when we should do the right thing, but actively pursuing this route is often times tough. It is sometimes uncomfortable or unsafe. Throughout history, there are countless examples of those who stood up for what they perceived as just, usually in the face of great opposition. Heroes such as Rosa Parks, Thich Quang Duc, Chiune Sugihara, and Ghandi certainly come to mind.
Recently, a somewhat forgotten American hero has come back into the public spotlight. His name is Edward Snowden, and he became known around the world in 2013 when he released information that the United States government was covertly pushing a system of mass surveillance onto all of its citizens. Snowden released his newest book titled “Permanent Record,” which details his upbringing, his work in the intelligence community, and what ultimately led him to pursue his whistleblowing allegations. Snowden was exiled to Russia in 2013 and has been living there ever since. Recently, he did an interview with the famous podcaster, Joe Rogan, in which he detailed what his life is like in Russia. Snowden explains that lately he has been able to be more public; participating in interviews, completing his book, and generally attempting to live an ordinary life.
Edward Snowden displayed tremendous amounts of courage and bravery for releasing the sensitive information about the U.S government’s unconstitutional mass surveillance system. He knew full well the negative results that would transpire due to his whistleblowing, and he did it anyways. This is at the heart of what it means to be a hero. Having the ability to risk everything you know and love for the good of the people.
A mere glance at the record of history will illustrate similar examples of heroism, throughout all different periods of time and place. The Jewish people, despite not being the most populous or the strongest of nations, have also produced heroes akin to Snowden. I believe as Jews, it is not only crucial to remember their stories, but also to celebrate them. The sooner we forget about the sacrifices these people have made, the sooner the very injustices they fought against have room to breath.
Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch Jew, spoke out against traditional Jewish teachings that he found to be misguided, notably the notion of “God” as a transcendent force independent of the universe. To entertain this discussion may seem like a given today, during Spinoza’s time, this was heretical. Nonetheless, he spoke out, he wrote books and theses, and he was ultimately exiled from his Amsterdam synagogue. While some people reading this might be excited to be told they never are to return to their synagogue, in the 17th century, this was a social disaster.
Another Jewish hero that comes to mind in this context is Esther. We have all heard the story during Purim, but her showcase of bravery is creepily similar to Edward Snowden’s. Esther was the queen of Persia but her husband did not know she was a Jew. Via her uncle Mordechai, Esther learns that the king has delegated the fate of the Persian Jews to his top advisor Haman, who had plans to kill them all. Esther then decided to speak out, risking her life and reputation, and tell her husband that she indeed was Jewish. She pleaded with the king to spare the Jews. Esther did not know how the king would react, but felt as if she must make an attempt to save her people from their impending doom. Her courage paid off, and the king decided to have Haman killed instead of the Persian Jews.
Similar to Esther and Spinoza, Edward Snowden spoke out against a bigger and more powerful entity without knowing what would happen to him. Spinoza, Esther, and Snowden risked everything by standing up for what they perceived as just and true. We must never forget these heroes. In each generation, across all continents, there are opportunities for people to speak out, stand up, and do something heroic. By studying history we are able to relate to the similar obstacles that generations before us faced; this realization should act as a powerful motivating force. And while not all of us are destined to be heroic, the least we can do is remember and pass down these stories for generations to come.