When “That Moment” Arrives
The fire in a small warehouse had been burning for hours. The little community had no means of fighting it and other buildings were being threatened. Suddenly, down the hill roared an old truck. Right through the flames the truck sped, bringing to the epicenter of the blaze a crew of farm workers who had been riding in the truck’s rear. Jumping from the vehicle, the workers beat at the flames with their coats until the fire was completely extinguished. The grateful citizens thanked them profusely and immediately scheduled an evening to honor them. The town raised a thousand dollars and presented it to the driver of the truck. They asked him what he was going to do with the money and, without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “Fix the brakes on my truck!”
Bravery is much admired across the world. Individuals who are willing to step up in a moment of crisis, to do what is important but what others fear, is an attribute I imagine we all aspire to possess. But for many, if not most of us, we’re probably more like that truck driver whose vehicle was simply out of control and had no choice but to plunge into the fire (or perhaps moreso, we’re like the unsuspecting passengers in the back of that truck, who could only go where the driver took them).
But there are some amazing people who have stepped up and done fantastically courageous deeds. Malala Yousafzai, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize for her relentless devotion to educating young women in Pakistan, and doing so in the face of thugs who would see her dead. Andre Trocme, and the citizens of Les Chambons, France, about whom we read earlier this evening, an entire town that rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust when so many others did nothing. Those who headed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, while others were running out, and gave their lives to try and save the endangered. Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 bravely faced down narrow-minded bigots as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
What is it that makes an ordinary person into a hero?
At the beginning of the Book of Joshua, which comes right after the end of Deuteronomy and the Torah, Moses has died and Joshua has been appointed his successor. Way back in Exodus, Joshua had already proved himself a tremendous warrior and leader, guiding the Israelite troops to victory against Amalek, perhaps their most reviled enemy. And when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, only Joshua accompanied him up that mountain, only Joshua was trusted by both Moses and God to stand on that holy ground. And yet, when he was appointed Moses’ successor, one could not help but wonder what went through his own mind: “Will I meet God’s expectations? Will I prove able to continue Moses’ work? Will I be able to lead this people? Will the people obey me? Will I succeed in bringing them to the Promised Land?” God may have sensed the new leader’s hesitation when, only six verses into Joshua’s story, says to him, “Hazak ve’ematz … be strong and courageous.”
Even people who seem to define courage and bravery may themselves wonder why we would think of them as such a person.
In this week’s parasha, Bereshit, we return to the Garden of Eden and once again witness Adam and Eve’s banishment from paradise. After they have eaten of the forbidden fruit, God comes looking for them. Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide among the Garden’s trees. Here, the Torah teaches its very first lesson in bravery: own up to your actions, take responsibility for your mistakes. Once God gets them talking, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. God decides they have some growing up to do and orders them to leave the Garden and to make their way through the world.
The word “hero” may begin not with saving lives but with living life with integrity, with caring enough to just be honest.
Truth is, while there are amazing people who have done some extraordinarily brave things, one could argue that just showing up to life – to work, to school, to the dinner table – is courageous enough. Because we don’t live in the Garden of Eden, life is quite complicated, and courage is often required of us in ordinary moments of our day – to make a presentation to our boss, answer a teacher’s question in front of the class, enter a room where there’s no one we know, stand in line as captains choose their teams, and on and on. Ordinary stuff … that can scare us stiff.
About a year ago, a woman walking with her child in Central Park saw another child fall into a pond and struggle to keep afloat. Reaching out to him, her arms weren’t long enough and so she went in to get him. Having helped the boy out of the water, she discovered she couldn’t save herself and would have to be rescued by others. She’d never intended to be a hero and then, having volunteered to do so, just as quickly needed a hero herself.
I wonder. What is required for any of us to step into the fray and to do what we can when it’s more than we’ve done before? I think of the reading we’ve heard so many times during services in this room …
The question engaged me: Would I have been on Noah’s Ark, to see the rains cover the earth? Would I have been righteous in my generation, and lived to witness the golden tones of the rainbow? Would Abraham have taken me with him to survey the destruction of Sodom? Would I have been among the fifty righteous? Would I have been the pillar of salt? Would I have been righteous in my generation?
I know we humans can surprise ourselves. I know that some of the most unadmired, untrustworthy people in the world have stepped up when true crisis called for brave and selfless response. But, for the most part, I think that courage begins with a simple upbringing of goodness and honesty. Building up a couple of decades of consistent human decency probably sets the stage for one to be able, in a pinch, to do the extraordinary.
On a sunny afternoon in Oklahoma City, a father had taken his two kids to play miniature golf. Walking up to the ticket counter, he asked, “How much for a game?” The young man sitting behind the counter answered, “Eight dollars for you and eight dollars for any kid over six. Six and under get in free.” The man said, “Well, the lawyer’s seven and the doctor is nine, so I guess I owe you twenty-four bucks.”
“Hey, mister,” the young man replied, “did you just win the lottery or something? You could have saved yourself eight bucks if you’d told me the younger one was six. I wouldn’t have known the difference.” The dad looked at his son and daughter and then said, “That may be true, but my kids would have known.”
Courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous. Hero: a person who is admired for courageous action. Where do such people come from? If I had to try and anticipate who might one day become a hero, I’d look to that dad and his two kids. It probably has to start somewhere, don’t you think?