What makes a hero?

In this week’s Parshah, the Torah discusses the laws of war and some of the moral imperatives that apply even under fire. Specifically, we read of the exemptions that entitled a soldier to leave the battlefront. One of these was “the man who is fearful and fainthearted.” The Torah rules that “he should go and return to his home” and join the civil service, lest his cowardice “melt the hearts” of his comrades in arms and demoralize them (Deuteronomy 20:8).

Interestingly, Maimonides rules that this exemption applied only to wars which were optional for political or territorial reasons (milchemet ha-reshut), but not to obligatory wars where the Torah itself mandates that we go to battle (milchemet mitzvah), such as a war of self-defense or the wars to conquer the Promised Land.

But what is the logic here? Why the distinction? If the problem is that the coward’s fear will have a negative effect on his fellow combatants, then that is a psychological fact of life. What difference does it make if the war is mandated by G‑d or by the Jewish leadership of the day? Surely a coward is a coward, whatever the war!

But Maimonides is sharing with us a striking analysis of human nature. Fear and anxiety are magnified when there is more than one option open to us. When we have the choice of fighting or not, when war is not strictly commanded by G‑d and it’s a government decision, then I may very well choose to retreat. But when there is no choice, when it is a non-negotiable mitzvah from G‑d that this war be fought, then even cowards become heroes.

I am fond of quoting that famous American philosopher John Wayne, who once said, “True courage is not the absence of fear. True courage is being scared like hell and saddling up anyway.” Now that’s a wise cowboy. The fearless few who heedlessly plunge into every offered challenge are indeed strange exceptions to our race. Most normal people experience fear in scary situations. Those of good courage face up to the fear and confront it.

I can tell you many stories of ordinary people who became heroes. How? By overcoming their fears and doing whatever deed had to be done. My friends’ father, Pinne Merkel, once ran into a synagogue in the old neighborhood of Doornfontein, Johannesburg, to rescue the Torahs from the holy ark. The firemen warned him not to, but he ran in anyway. Pinne was not a religious man. But for him, saving the Torah scrolls was something that just had to be done, so an ordinary Jew became a holy hero.

My congregant’s son Hugh Raichlin is not a doctor. He’s a lawyer. But when his wife was in labor and suddenly things started happening much too quickly, he delivered his own child inside the car in the parking lot of the maternity hospital. He wasn’t looking for heroism. He had no option, and heroism found him.

When something just has to happen, we find a way to make it happen. We pluck up the courage and act valiantly.

My own father, may he be well, used to be a chain smoker (thank G‑d, he gave up the habit long ago). It often amazed me that the same person who would never be without a cigarette between his fingers six days a week was able to go cold turkey every Shabbat. For six days he couldn’t wait two minutes, but once a week he waited for 25 hours! How? The answer is that keeping Shabbat for him was simply a non-negotiable commitment, so he had no option and persevered. As soon as Shabbat was over, though, he and his fellow Shabbat-observant smokers would make a mad dash for the nearest pack.

It applies to life, to marriage, to business, to everything. If something is so important to us that to lose it would be unthinkable, we discover that we really can find a way after all. In our Jewish lives, too, when we accept that a particular mitzvah is a sacred principle and inviolate, we will observe it no matter what the challenge.

So, cowards of the world, unite! Let us do what we know must be done. That’s how ordinary people become heroes.