In my career as a rabbi and day school principal, I often have been involved in fund-raising efforts. One, in particular, was memorable. I had been advised that a very wealthy man lived in a small Southern town and likely would make a sizable donation to my school. A friend of mine who owned a small plane volunteered to fly me there and so I made an appointment. When I knocked on the door and said I had an appointment, the maid told me that he was busy and I should return in an hour. I finally met him and left with a small $100 gift. The poor results of my visit, I chalked up to my inexperience and to the person’s innate stinginess. Boy, was I wrong! Years later, I discovered that this “stingy” man made a multi-million dollar gift to a local hospital and was considered a hero and the major benefactor of that institution. The whole incident reminded me that first impressions are not necessarily accurate impressions.
In life, first impressions last and we often don’t get a chance to make a second impression. This truth, basically, is the story of Bernie LaPlante, a petty criminal who anonymously rescues all the passengers who survive a plane crash in the film Hero, but whom no one believes is the hidden hero.
Bernie is the perpetual loser, perceived by his ex-wife as unreliable and by his boss at work as irresponsible. While rescuing the survivors, he loses a shoe; and when he meets John Bubber, a homeless Vietnam veteran, he gives him his remaining shoe. The shoe looms large when the media cry out for the anonymous hero to step forward. At that moment, John uses the shoe to establish his identity as the “angel’ who saved the lives of so many and claim credit for the good deed. While this happens, Bernie is in jail for credit card fraud and cannot refute John’s claim.
The reality is that nobody thinks that Bernie is the hero type. He is unattractive, coarse, and self-centered. Even when he claims that John is a fake, no one trusts him. It is much easier to accept John as the anonymous Good Samaritan because he is good-looking, modest, and very willing to help those in need. He is concerned about the welfare of the others while Bernie is only concerned about himself.
Bernie and John eventually meet under stressful circumstances and discuss what course of action would be best for everyone. Should John maintain the ruse and keep the media and public satisfied or should Bernie insist that the truth prevail and be personally recognized for the good he has done? The resolution of this dilemma is both comic and thoughtful.
Jewish classical literature is instructive in several ways. It tells us that a man should not pursue fame for it is illusive. The more we seek recognition and notoriety, the more it escapes us. A good deed done quietly, away from the public eye, is the best way we can do a good deed.
Moreover, we should recognize that every man has his moment of greatness. John Bubber in a meditative moment reminds us that “there’s a hero in all of us,” and “We’re all heroes if you catch us at the right moment.” Such is what happens to Bernie LaPlante. There is a moment when he is the real deal, a genuine hero; and that moment becomes a transformational moment in his life, making him more responsible, more caring, and more empathetic for the rest of his life.