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:
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.