Rethinking Heroes - Rosh Hashanah 2015

I’m going to try to describe a comic I saw in the Globe this summer just after the release of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set A Watchman. A woman sits at a desk writing a letter. We see the words she has written: Dear Harper Lee, What the #!*&%!?

Never can I recall so much angst, so much consternation about a book a) that has been panned by a wide range of reviewers and b) that many of us will never read.

Why is there so much animosity directed at Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill A Mockingbird? Not for writing a mediocre novel, but for sullying our hero Atticus Finch.

The history is disputed, but some details are consistent in every telling: In 1957 the young Harper Lee submitted the manuscript of her first novel, a “race story” set in the 50’s in Maycomb, AL. The manuscript was rough and clunky in places, but the publisher saw something intriguing and sent Lee back to tease out the story that would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Set 20 years earlier than the first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the coming of age story of Scout Finch and her father Atticus, became a classic of all but incomparable impact. My sister decided to become a lawyer the first time she read the Courtroom scene words, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise; your father is passing.” (211). I suspect similar careers were launched by the portrait of Atticus, based on Harper Lee’s father. For Atticus Finch was a lawyer who was a model of justice in the face of all that would obscure justice. More than that, he was the father we all wish we had. He was the parent we aspire to be.

Hence the disappointment, even outrage that greeted the publication of Harper Lee’s newest, or oldest book, Go Set a Watchman this summer.

The first source of controversy is the very publication itself. Accusations abound that Lee, 89 years old, blind, mostly deaf has been manipulated into publishing a book that she herself knew to be substandard 55 years ago. Unscrupulous agents are accused of shepherding the book to publication even though Lee has said publically numerous times that she would never write or publish another novel. Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker describes the lengths to which a “publisher has gone about so coolly exploiting a much loved name….”

But the epicenter of the controversy has to do with Atticus himself. Go Set A Watchman reveals our hero to be a racist good ole’ boy, no better than the company he keeps in his meetings of the Citizens’ Council, “a kind of less covert KKK.” Harper Lee’s greatest misdeed is not following her brilliant first publication with a book widely deemed inferior. It is robbing us of a hero who influenced us for generations.

Heroes are a tricky business. Greeks heroes must by definition, be humbled in the end. Under this classic rubic, the hero must fail and the reason for his failure must be a fatal flaw he has had all along and that, in the end, must turn against him. A superhuman courage, perhaps, necessary to prevail in battle will express itself in hubris and compel him to overstep his bounds.

Just a few years ago I stood right here and shared with you my near infatuation with Oscar Pistorious, a glorious exemplar not of winning but of striving for his highest achievement no matter the odds and despite any obstacle. He inspired, he captured the hearts of millions in his bid to participate in Olympic track events on two prosthetic legs. He seemed, in every sense of the word, unstoppable. He was fueled by a passion and a self-confidence that seemed superhuman.(It did not hurt that he lovingly credited his mother with instilling in him the resolve to strap on what he thought of as simply a different kind of running shoes and train day after day with able-bodied athletes.)

That particular hero worship will never be recovered. The same passion and sense of his own righteousness that impelled Pistorious to glory led to tragedy when he shot to death his girlfriend. Pistorious’ inability to contain his rage, the cruelty with which he murdered, the cowardice with which he denied any wrongdoing irrevocably changed his status from hero to villain. And the world mourned not only the beautiful Reeva Steenkamp, but also the fall of yet another hero. The expectation that a man who is great in one arena will be great, or even decent, in other arenas will break our hearts every time.

You may think we’re better off without heroes, given how likely they are to disappoint us. But I would argue we still need heroes. Earnest Hemingway said, “As you get older it’s harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.” We need heroes not just to admire. We need heroes to teach us how we can reach our finest selves. We need to see it can be done.

And so, it is time to rethink our heroes, who they are, who they can be, what we can ask of them. We need to rethink what it means to be a hero because if we don’t we will continue to be disappointed and demoralized at the blemish that must inevitably show through. We risk a cynicism that would have us skeptical of every extraordinary accomplishment. We risk a despair that any of us are capable of greatness.

It’s time to relinquish our hopes for superhuman men and women who achieve greatness flawlessly and look instead to the regular folk around us: Those of us who might be a little pudgy or a little neurotic sometimes but display an extraordinary characteristic – courage or kindness or a dogged determination to fix some small corner of the world.

In truth, many of us have already begun this process without even knowing it. Sometime around the age of 10 or 11 we learned the fallibility of our parents. But many of us survived that realization without having to reject wholesale the wisdom and courage our parents modeled. Some of us took longer than others, but many of us have learned to admire and emulate grand, even heroic qualities in our all-too-human parents.

With this more generous consideration of what makes a hero, we may find we are able to rehabilitate some who have disappointed us by dint of their human flaws. Perhaps the first of these to consider today should be Avrahm Avinu, our father Avraham. We may have our favorite accounts: Avraham, the first to hear the voice of God. The Lonely Man of Faith who leaves the comfort of all he knows and follows that voice to a place where he will father a nation. The fearless warrior who defeats the armies of five kings so he may save his captive nephew, and then, because he did not battle for profit but to save human lives, refuses all spoils of war. And Avraham at his most noble, challenging God to uphold God’s own justice and not destroy the Sodomites despite their wickedness. In this role Avraham may call to mind Atticus Finch – a passionate advocate of justice for the stranger.

Just our luck, this is not what we read on Rosh Hashanah. Each Rosh Hashanah we read two narratives of our father Avraham in which his parenting will strike us as somewhere between inscrutable and appalling. Today we read of his willingness to send his firstborn son Ishmael into exile, likely death. And tomorrow we will read of his willingness to offer his beloved Yitzhak as a sacrifice. Perhaps these passages were chosen for these sacred days of gathering to teach lessons of faith and courage. But the discomfort they provoke is what we wind up talking about every year. How could this be our forefather? What can we admire and learn from this image?

Not a problem in the biblical world. No biblical expectations for our forebears and leaders to be perfect. David Weiss Halivini, one the greatest Talmudists of this century was known to say, “There’s not a character in all the Bible I’d want my kids to marry.” Our prophets and our Kings are presented with the nasty habits and character flaws apparent for all to see. And the Bible is not embarrassed by the human failings of our heroes. In fact it may be precisely these flaws that prompted the choice of these readings for Rosh Hashana . If Avraham were perfect, if his life was not marked by missed opportunities, questionable choices, competing demands on his loyalty, what could we learn about our own lives? Avraham who struggles as we do, has much more to teach us.

You may be surprised to know of the Carnegie Hero Fund, established in 1904, which recognizes civilian acts of heroism throughout the US and Canada. The panel reviews accounts of ordinary civilians and judges them against a set of criteria – the acts must be voluntary, the potential hero must leave a place of safety and put him or herself in danger to save or attempt to save another person. In other words, ordinary people who shine in one particular moment. Recipients of the award include Lora Shrake a 21 year-old college student who ran through an electric fence to rescue another woman who was being mauled by a 950 pound bull. {When asked, almost all of the heroes chosen by the Carnegie Fund were unable to articulate why they endangered themselves to save another. I don’t know what I was thinking, they almost always say. I couldn’t just stand there and not do anything.}

An exception is a hero you may have heard of a few years ago.

Wesley Autrey, a construction worker was waiting for a subway when he saw another passenger have a seizure and fall into the subway tracks. His actions are particularly surprising given that his 4 and 6 year old daughters were on the platform with him. Autrey jumped into the tracks to try to lift the unconscious man even as he saw the subway train approaching. In the last seconds, unable to move the victim, Autrey lay atop him, flattening his body as the subway passed over them. He heard his daughters scream as the first car grazed his hair. After the subway passed and the man regained consciousness he asked Autrey, “Did we die? Are we in heaven?” Autrey gave him a little pinch to reassure him that they were both very much alive, then returned to his daughters.

Even before this event, Autrey has not had an uneventful life. When he was much younger a gun that was pressed against his head failed to discharge and he survived without a mark. When he saw that man fall below the tracks, he heard a voice tell him “this was why you were spared. You can do this.”

So without assessing anything else about Wesley Autrey’s life or character, he’s a hero in my book. Not a navy seal or a trained rescue worker, just someone, a construction worker with a checkered past who believed that voice he heard telling him this is your moment. I’d like to think that if he could hear that voice when it spoke to him, I might be able to hear it if it speaks to me.

Most of us are not going to encounter someone risking his or her life to save a stranger. But if we look closely we will see, on a pretty regular basis, ordinary people who engage courageously in a struggle they might not win. These are my everyday heroes. Friends and neighbors who are brave and selfless not in the face of a burning building but in the face of everyday life and the obstacles some of us would deem insurmountable. These everyday heroes are all around us, if we will allow ourselves to be inspired by everyday folk. I’ll mention just three.

Like my friend Darren. Nice guy, regular guy. Except that he donated a kidney to a co-worker. He didn’t agonize about it. He understood what would be required of him: Long surgery and longer recovery. But he also understood that his decision could change someone’s life. Darren doesn’t much talk about it. He might not think of himself as courageous and selfless. But I do. His co-worker does, and his friend’s wife refers to Darren as the guy who saved her husband’s life.

I don’t know Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir. (I’m not even sure I’m saying her name right.) I heard about her after she posted an open letter on facebook to Iceland’s minister of social affairs and housing that she titled, “Syria’s Calling”. She wrote the letter after learning of Iceland’s pledge to accept 50 Syrian refugees. One of her friends shared her indignation and said he could easily house five refugees in his house. Bjorgvinsdottir committed to cover their airfare and said the government should make room for five more and let 55 refugees in. 17 thousand have signed on to her facebook event. Certainly not everyone who clicked on her event made a concrete offer, but the offers have come in: I have an extra room in a spacious apartment which I amhappy to share along…. We are a family willing to provide refugees with temporary housing and clothing, I am a teacher and can help children with their learning. The Syrian refugee crisis is insurmountable. We don’t even know where to start or who should take the lead. Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir might not know either. But, she writes, “I think people have had enough news stories of refugee camps and dying people and they want something done now.” For five refugees, or maybe 500, she is doing something now. Bjorgvinsdottir and her friends are brave and selfless to invite in these strangers from the other side of the world. And their courage and selflessness have inspired thousands.

Finally I am inspired by the everyday heroism of a woman I know courageously facing a grim medical diagnosis. Having seen her own mother die at a young age she expected the same for herself. “I’ve lived a lot of years,” she told her children and grandchildren. “I could not have expected a life this long or this sweet. I’m not afraid of what might come next.”

Her equanimity in the face of her illness does not mean she has given up on life. To the contrary. She has endured months of difficult treatment. She was willing to try anything her doctors recommended. Now that she is out of treatment options, she is not resigned. She is as she says, “a little down now that I know I will not get better.” But she fills her days with family and reading and dear friends. Her greatest concern is not “why me?” but “how can I prepare my family? How will my husband manage without me? Who will attend to him? How can I help him he manage his sorrow?” Her unblinking understanding of what lies ahead, her commitment to help her family transition to what comes next speak of a grace I have not seen before. And it is evidenced by a regular woman not a saint. Like other everyday heroes, her courage and selflessness inspire me. And so I might hope that I would also be able to care for my family and face the end of my own life with grace and courage: I have seen it done by someone not so unlike me – and not so unlike you.

Columnist Peggy Noonan, responding to the news that the fictional character Atticus Finch may have been tainted writes,

In any case it seems to me the South has produced some new heroes recently, and they’re not made-up but real ones. The relatives who forgave the killer in Charleston and who wept as they told the suspect they were praying for his soul, and who meant it – you don’t get any better and braver than that. And the people who, after witnessing that moment took the Confederate battle flag from public grounds…

Regular people, doing everyday acts of heroism.

I was astonished to learn that there is a fund that awards heroes in our day and age. It is even more astonishing that the fund recently had to up the requirements, had to make it harder to win “simply because of the vast number of heroic deeds that happen in day to day life” According to director Walter Rutkowski. “Regardless of what you might hear elsewhere, we are fortunate to live in a society where people do look out for others, even for strangers.”

These heroes are all around us. Some are easy to recognize because they instinctively jump into subway tracks. Most heroes are the everyday type – the imperfect, the strugglers who find a moment of courage or a glimmer of selflessness that can inspire us. These are the heroes with the most to teach us.

Donniel Hartman:

The Bible is teaching that being a hero doesn’t meant that one is devoid of imperfections; it means that one must do something about those imperfections. By elevating these people to be our ideal, it challenges us to emulate them. You are going to fail like Moshe or Avraham… there are going to be multiple dimensions of your life, whether it’s in your worship of God, with your spouse or with your children, where you’re not going to be who you ought to be. Welcome to the human story. Our religion has no fantasies about human beings. It has aspirations from human beings.

How blessed we are to be inspired by these beautiful, imperfect everyday heroes.

Rabbi Leslie Gordon