Monday, November 19, 2007

Hedgehogs, Heroism, and Foxes

Are you a hedgehog, or are you a fox?

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin divides thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. A hedgehog only knows one dramatic way of engaging its enemies: rolling into a ball and pointing its barbs outwards. Similarly, “hedgehog” thinkers have one central idea or vision, around which all of their thought is structured. “Fox” thinkers, on the other hand, employ multiple approaches in a less than unified fashion. (Which resembles the fox, who employs a variety of strategies to hunt his prey.) This is an excellent metaphor for world of ideas; there are thinkers with one big idea, and big thinkers with lots of small ideas.

I’d like to extend this metaphor to the world of action as well.

There are hedgehog accomplishments, and fox accomplishments. In the Bible, many of the figures are hedgehogs. People such as Abraham and Moses transform world history through their remarkable faith and leadership. History books focus primarily on the activities of “hedgehogs”, including state builders like George Washington and David Ben Gurion.

However, most of us won’t be hedgehogs. For the rest of us, there is still the possibility of heroism, albeit, of a different sort: the heroism of “foxes”.

A fox doesn’t desire glory and grandeur. Indeed, he is content to know he doesn’t have to transform history by himself. Rabbi Tarphon’s statement in Pirkei Avot, that “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task”, is the fox’s creed. The fox, aware of his limitations, humbly accepts that he cannot solve the world’s problems single-handedly.

At the same time, the “fox” has much to do. Rabbi Tarphon also reminds us that “but neither are you free to absolve yourself from the task”. The fox is not a quitter; he simply manages his expectations. In fact, because the fox does not desire an immediate triumph, he does not despair in the face of overwhelming odds. Instead of grand gestures, the fox slowly works at changing the world, one good deed at a time.

Indeed, the Torah is made for the heroism of foxes. With a scheme of 613 duties, the Torah is telling us that foxes make a difference. One small act of goodness may seem insignificant; however, an army of foxes, doing hundreds of small mitzvot, can perform the truly heroic.

All of us have been transformed by the deeds of foxes. I can recall how my seventh grade teacher complimented me on a good question; this gave me the confidence to pursue new intellectual vistas. Or how I enjoyed my grandfather’s jovial nature, and how he taught me to always interact with others in a cheerful manner. Usually, it is the foxes, the people who do little things like cook us chicken soup or teach us Talmud, that transform our lives.

Foxes can’t change the world overnight. But they don’t quit either. By changing one life at a time, foxes also accomplish the truly heroic, without fanfare and grandeur.

That's why I'm proud to be a fox.