Having a hero is part of natural human development. In childhood, these heroes are often movie stars and athletes. For evidence, just look at the posters on the bedrooms walls of today’s average teenager.
Many of us find our heroes among the people with whom we have daily contact. These include parents and grandparents, teachers, and religious leaders.
Sometimes, our heroes are historical figures, individuals about whom we have read in books. Not infrequently, our heroes are fictional, characters in novels and short stories.
In religious circles, Jewish or otherwise, heroes are chosen from sacred literature. Among Jewish people, heroes are chosen not only from Bible and Talmud, but from recent or even current gedolim, or religious “greats.” The corridors of many Jewish schools are decorated with pictures of rabbinic figures of the recent past. Perceptive visitors to such schools can often determine the school’s ideological orientation by the choice of heroes who bedeck the corridor walls.
What is the function of heroes in human development? We often hear the term “hero worship,” but “worship” is not the most appropriate use to which to put one’s hero, certainly not from a Jewish theological perspective. In my lectures on comparative religion, I often point out that the central hero of the Christian narrative is “worshipped,” but such “worship” is tantamount to idolatry for a believing Jew.
We too have heroes in our Biblical narrative, many heroes. But we do not “worship” them. Worshipping a human being is sacrilege in our faith. This is one of the basic distinctions between Christianity and Judaism. We do not “worship” Moses, for example. One of the reasons for the fact that the location of his grave remains unknown is to assure that visitors to his grave will not “worship” him.
Don’t get me wrong. Judaism is not against people having heroes. It is against people worshipping them. What, then, is the proper attitude to have towards heroes?
I would argue that our heroes are individuals after whom we can model ourselves. They can be emulated, but not worshipped. They must be individuals whom we so admire that we are motivated to learn from them and strive to adopt their beliefs and behaviors. They are not meant to be our idols. They are meant to be our ideals.
The Rabbis put it this way: “A person must always say, ‘When will my actions reach the level of the actions of my forefathers?’” Or, as some translate this teaching, “When will my actions even touch the level of the actions of my forefathers?”
This Shabbat, we read the third in this year’s cycle of Torah portions, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27). You may have had a reaction similar to mine when you read the parsha last week and the week before. Heroes were absent from those parshiyot! Adam and Eve were not heroic. They fell short of the Almighty’s expectations. Noah was a fine man, a pious man, but hardly a hero. His moral flaws included drunkenness, so that we can well comprehend the views of those Talmudic sages who insisted that he was “righteous” only when compared with his hopelessly wicked contemporaries.
In this week’s Torah portion, however, we encounter an individual worthy of emulation at last. We finally have our first Biblical hero, Abraham our Forefather.
I have often thought, and often sermonized, that in this week’s parsha, we not only are introduced to our hero Abraham, but we learn enough about him to develop a list of criteria for hero status. We can develop a checklist of ten qualities which typify a true hero. Here’s my list:
- A hero takes risks. He is not complacent. He relishes challenging assignments, even when their outcomes are uncertain. Abraham meets those criteria. He leaves his birthplace, home, and family to journey as a stranger to an unknown land.
- A hero is sensitive to the needs of the unfortunate. He steps in and does whatever is necessary, often at great personal cost, to meets those needs. Abraham’s brother Haran dies young and leaves an orphan, Lot. Abraham adopts Lot and becomes his foster father, taking him wherever he went, so that Lot eventually shares in Abraham’s success.
- A hero engages in outreach. He does not keep his spiritual achievements to himself. When Abraham sets out on his journey, he takes with him not only his wife and orphaned nephew, but also “the souls that he and Sarai made in Haran.” Note that he not only “made souls.” He invited them to join his family entourage.
- A hero builds “altars.” He helps people learn about the Almighty by changing the physical reality of their environment. In this parsha alone, we learn of three such altars in Elon Moreh, in Beth El, and in Hebron. Abraham left those altars standing for others to use even after he himself had departed from those places.
- A hero pays his debts. He is thankful to those who helped him, and he demonstrates his gratitude effectively. After Abraham descends to Egypt to escape famine, he is careful, upon his return to Canaan, to stop at all the stations he passed on his way down to Egypt. As Rashi teaches us, he stops at each station to show his gratitude and to repay the debts he incurred on his way.
- A hero strenuously avoids conflict and strife. When Abraham realizes that the competition between his shepherds and those of Lot will inevitably lead to conflict, he tells Lot, “Let there be no strife between us, let us go our separate ways.”
- A hero makes friends and alliances. He respects those who differ from him culturally and religiously. He seeks their counsel. Abraham has three such friends and allies: Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre. They are baalei berit Avram, they set up a covenant among themselves. The Rabbis tell us that Abraham seeks their advice concerning circumcision.
- A hero fights for his friends. Lot and his family are taken captive in a great war. When Abraham hears of the plight of his nephew, despite the fact that Lot has long abandoned him, he instantly assembles a small army and successfully frees the captives. Abraham wages war, courageously and competently.
- A hero is not in the game for personal gain. The King of Sodom, who lost the war until Abraham came upon the scene, offers Abraham all the booty. But Abraham will have none of it. He refuses to even take “a thread or a shoelace.”
- A hero takes care of his subordinates. Abraham declines reward for his military intervention on behalf of the King of Sodom but insists that all of his underlings are duly rewarded. “Hem yikchu chelkam, they must get what they deserve!”
We’ve developed quite a checklist. This list should help us all determine the criteria that make for suitable heroes.
This list omits several of Abraham’s heroic virtues from this week’s parsha, and includes none from next week’s parsha. I leave it to you, dear reader, to study both parshiyot carefully. I challenge you to come up with ten more criteria for our list.
Permit me a closing personal word in the interest of full disclosure. Abraham is certainly one of my heroes. So is my own father, of blessed memory, whose name was also Abraham. I pray that the three of my grandsons who are named Abraham after him, as well as several nephews and cousins, will lead heroic lives as well and bring honor to their namesake, and to Avraham Avinu—our Forefather Abraham.