Next week, President Joe Biden will present Medals of Freedom to 17 Americans from the worlds of Hollywood, sports, politics, the military, academia, civil rights, and social justice advocacy. The White House said: “The honor is reserved for people who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal public or private endeavors.”
In a quick review of the 17 individuals being honored, their accomplishments are significant. They are all deserving of the recognition they will receive. As we celebrate them as a nation, I thought about the nature of heroism. I offer here a few thoughts:
“Who is strong? The one[s] who subdue [their] passions [evil inclination].” (Mishnah Avot 4:1)
Comment: The heroic has little to do with physical strength. Rather, strong people do not succumb to negative emotional and psychological forces, destructive passions and urges. Jewish tradition does not emphasize the primacy of physical strength as a virtue. Rather, Judaism emphasizes willful self-control over one’s passions. The ethical literature cites three types of dominion: “Rulership over one’s country, one’s household, and oneself.” (Tosafot – medieval commentaries on the Talmud) All three require justice, punishment of evil doers, and the strengthening and support of those who strive to do good. In pursuit of these three kinds of dominion, passions that distract us from behaving ethically and with kindness, such as anger, greed, selfishness, vengeance, and lust, must be controlled. Judaism, however, does not condemn outright the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) when it is channeled into building a home, creating art or an ethical community, and forming organizational structures devoted to the common good.
“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency. It consists in doing my job… heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency.” –The Plague, Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Comment: Camus wrote his signature 1947 novel The Plague only two years following the close of the Second World War and the Holocaust. His redemptive, affirmative, and hopeful novel, written in the wake of such overwhelming suffering and despair, is well worth reading now. According to Camus, every deed of loving-kindness and common decency constitutes a heroic act.
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say: “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” –Fred Rogers (1928-2003)
Comment: Fred Rogers was such a hero himself. His “Neighborhood” included everyone and his teaching of generations of America’s children the simple principles of behaving fairly, with kindness, and love towards all established a model of heroic decency that is so easily corrupted by bad actors and bad leaders. The demonization of the “other” was utterly foreign in Mr. Rogers’ “Neighborhood.” His kind affect was a model for generations of adults and children living in a diverse and pluralistic society and world.
“In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous. In this life of illusion and quasi-illusion, the person of solid virtues who can be admired for something more substantial than his well-knownness often proves to be the unsung hero: the teacher, the nurse, the mother, the honest cop, the hard worker at lonely, underpaid, un-glamorous, un-publicized jobs.” –Daniel J Boorstin (1914-2004)
Comment: Boorstin critiqued the culture of celebrity and fame as false heroics. In my four decades of service as a congregational rabbi and teacher, I used to ask my 10th grade students (15 and 16 years-old) who were their personal heroes. Most often, they mentioned their parents and grandparents, teachers and coaches, extended family and family friends who inspired them – people they knew personally who lived their lives according to higher moral and spiritual values, who cared for them and others. At times these young people also cited social justice leaders and other courageous people who made a difference in the quality of life of others in their communities, amongst their people, and across the nation, quietly and without fanfare, based upon their vision of a better, more just, fair, and compassionate world. At their young age, they were already wise.