Show me your hero and I’ll show you who you are. We are defined by our heroes – they reflect our values and aspirations. Rabbi Soloveitchik wryly asserted that “hero worship is basically self-worship”.
Commenting on the hero of “classical man”, he notes this was a grandiose figure with unrealistic fantasies. The heroes of Greek drama and myth are more dramatic than real, theatrical rather than practical. For Soloveitchik, having heroes like this is bound to lead to disappointment and disillusionment. I would suggest that so many of our contemporary heroes on the sports field and moving screen are similar to these classical figures. They don’t live the real life but like the stage heroes “last for a while, vibrant and forceful, but soon man reverts to the non-heroic mood of everyday living.”
Our current zeitgeist reflects this negativity; with the advent of social media few can withstand the scrutiny of the spotlight. So many fallen heroes; not only on the sports field and Hollywood (the Me Too Movement has highlighted this) but in our religious, financial, political and intellectual life too. The various Royal Commissions have brought this to the fore in Australia, the latest being the sad proceedings of our banking sector. We can identify with the words of Soloveitchik that we are suffering as a society from a sense of frustration and disenchantment with heroes. And since hero worship is connected to self-idealisation, the loss of our exemplars often leads to a sense of deep frustration and anxiety.
We can look to the Torah’s Biblical heroes for a more helpful model for our times. They were more contemplative that charismatic, more down-to-earth than dramatic. They were capable of great courage; bold and adventurous as Abraham heading off into the unknown frontier; brave as Jacob tackling his anonymous assailant; resilient as Isaac acceding to his father’s outrageous request; formidable as Joseph resisting the sexual temptation of Mrs Potipher. They also had the capacity to challenge and exercise patience: so Eve confronts Adam, Sarah is a towering covenantal partner, Rebecca is visionary and resourceful, Rachel and Leah bear their suffering with exquisite forbearance.
The qualities of our ancestors are not extraordinary but quotidian. They are capable of withdrawing, of exercising humility and of living everyday life with dignity. They are flawed and fail and sometimes don’t seem to ‘get’ their partners or the needs of others. But they live with a fierce faith in God and a passion to do their best and be the best versions of themselves. That’s something we can all emulate and having heroes like this doesn’t set you up for failure, disillusionment and depression. In a bold interpretation our rabbis suggest that we can also learn from God who is the ultimate “גבור”, the essential hero filled with power:
“For the Lord your God is… the Almighty, the Powerful and Awesome” (Deut. 10:17; last week’s parasha)
But He is also the one “Who neither exercises favouritism, nor accepts bribes who performs justice for the orphaned widow, loves the stranger to give him bread and clothing” (Ibid. 18).
God’s very heroism lies not only in His strength but in the ability to be caring for those in need. This then is our challenge – to have the courage to be compassionate, the courage to be gentle. This is about a strength of heart and mind and a capacity to put yourself into the life and interior of another.
It’s an especially important challenge for raising children and perhaps even more so for boys. We want them to be tough and resilient but we also need them to be caring and thoughtful. They will find heroes on the screen and sports field but we should also help and encourage them to find their heroes outside of the spotlight in the NGO’s and helping professions, in the Torah and in their schools and community. Show them heroes of substance, strength and sensitivity and you will also be doing them the greatest favour of showing them who they are and what they are capable of becoming.