Friday, December 09, 2022

The Courage of Ordinary People


Rembrandt, Jacob wrestling with the angel, 1659, oil on canvas

For centuries, antisemites have libeled the Jews as cowards. During World War I, rumors circulated among the German public that the Jews had refused to fight on the front lines. In October 1916, the German Military High Command announced a Judenzählung, “A Jewish Count,” to examine these charges. (When it turned out that a remarkably high percentage of Jews had volunteered for combat duty, the report was shelved.) Jews went to great lengths to disprove the image of cowardice. Peter Gay, in The Cultivation of Hatred, writes about the duels popular among German university students in the late 19th century. The goal of the duel was to get injured, and the schmisse, the wound received while fighting, was considered to be a permanent record of one's courage and honor. Gay explains that Jewish students, eager to disprove the antisemitic libel that they were cowards, were four times as likely than others to engage in these duels.


Jews have a complicated relationship with courage, and Jewish jokes often adopt the stereotype of the “cowardly Jew” as well. One joke tells of two Jews who are walking at night and come across two thugs in the street. One says to the other, "We'd better make a run for it. There are two of them, and we are alone."


Another joke is told about Sid Luckman, the famed Jewish quarterback who played for the Chicago Bears. One day, Luckman invited his father to a game; his father, an immigrant who was ignorant of the rules of football, watched the game nervously. On one play, Luckman went back to pass, and the defensive line began to give chase. Luckman's father jumped up and shouted: "Sid! It's not worth it! Just give them the ball!"


This joke is particularly interesting; while it finds humor in the immigrant father's cluelessness, it contains a cynical edge, an unwillingness to embrace popular attitudes towards courage. Does it really make sense that a person would be willing to get crushed by a pack of hulking giants rather than hand them a small piece of pigskin? Does it really make sense to have your face sliced up in a duel, just to prove how brave you are?


The unusual perspective Jews have on courage begins in this week's Torah reading. In a single night, Jacob is transformed; or so it seems. On the way to visit his brother, Esau, an angel attacks and wrestles with him; Jacob eventually defeats his supernatural foe. As the morning arrives, the angel tells him “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”


This new name declares that Jacob is a new man, a courageous hero rather than a crafty coward. Jacob had always lived in the shadows, afraid of confrontation. He is born grasping at Esau's heel, a desperate also-ran; he is even named for the heel, which is a constant reminder that he came second. Now he is powerful, confronting his attacker and fighting him off. Afterward, like a cinematic hero, Jacob limps away into the sunrise, soldiering on to his next engagement. He is Jacob no more.


Several commentaries highlight this transformation. Seforno explains that the gid hanasheh, (the sciatic nerve), which is where Jacob was injured, is forbidden as a gesture of indifference. The injury meant nothing to Jacob, who just shrugged it off and moved on; we symbolically recreate this moment of resilience by ignoring the sciatic nerve and refusing to eat it. The Sefat Emet and Shem Mishmuel interpret the name Israel (Yisrael) as an anagram for 'I am the head' (li Rosh); Jacob, who until now has a name that declares he is at the very bottom, at the heel, is now Israel, at the very head of humanity.


But what remains a puzzle is this: If Jacob is now a new man, a man of courage, why does he appear so timid and weak in the confrontations that follow? The next morning, when Jacob sees Esau, he is obedient and flattering, constantly calling his brother “my master.” Later, when it comes time to confront Shechem over the rape and capture of his daughter Dinah, Jacob does nothing; when his sons destroy the city of Shechem, Jacob objects by saying: “You have… made me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land…and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.” Not only does Jacob not join the battle, he also objects to his sons' attack, seeing it as too dangerous. Jacob seems no more courageous after the wrestling match than he did before; he does not sound like an "Israel," a proud warrior, at all.


In part, this question is the product of a myth, that of the classical hero. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out in his essay Catharsis that the classical view of heroism sees courage as an end in itself. He explains that the hero…. was a grandiose figure with whom, in order to satisfy his endless vanity, classical man identified himself with….The hero is an actor who performs in order to impress an appreciative audience. The crowd cheers, the chronicler records, countless generations afterward admire, bards and minstrels sing of the hero. Courage is a display, a public exhibition of one's power and strength. Public adulation makes the hero's actions worthwhile.


Soloveitchik explains that Judaism holds a very different perspective on courage. A true hero will at times withdraw, and step away from victory; as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches, "Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations." Heroism demands self-discipline and self-defeat as well; and at times, heroism is actually humbling.


That is why after overpowering the angel, Jacob doesn't glory in his newly discovered courage. Instead, he does everything to reconcile with his brother. Yes, Jacob may be groveling, but it was necessary to do so to repair his relationship with Esau. Jacob castigates his sons for their recklessness, and will later criticize them for their bloodthirstiness, in their battle with Shechem. Heroism in the pursuit of honor is worthless if it is irrational and immoral. Judaism rejects courage as an end in itself; what matters is not glory, but goodness.


Another aspect of the myth of the courageous hero is that heroism is a special endowment, the preserve of an extraordinary elite who are preternaturally fearless. Judaism rejects this and asserts even ordinary people can become heroes. Courage is born when an ordinary person, fearful and trembling, steps forward to ensure their destiny.


This is precisely what happens with Jacob. He wakes up in the middle of the night and moves all he has across a river; it is then that the angel comes and wrestles with him. But why did God send an angel to wrestle with Jacob? The Rashbam offers a fascinating explanation. He says that Jacob had decided to flee; he didn't want to confront his brother Esau, who was arriving with 400 men, and seemingly quite angry at him. As Jacob flees, God sends an angel to stop him; and the angel wrestles with Jacob simply to ensure that Jacob doesn't run away.


It is only after the wrestling match begins that Jacob gathers the inner strength to fight. Yet that belated bravery is enough to make him worthy of a new name, Israel.


The lesson is you don't need to be fearless to be a hero; what is important is to rise to the occasion when the situation demands it. Jacob teaches us about the courage of the ordinary man, of the lengths to which good people will go to ensure that goodness continues. Perhaps no one will make a movie about these small acts of courage; but it is precisely this type of courage that has allowed the Jews to survive and thrive.


My mother, who was a survivor of Auschwitz, would often point out to me that she never imagined she would find the strength to grapple with the horrors of the Nazi killing machine. She had grown up spoiled and sheltered; nothing about her or her upbringing would have predicted that she would respond courageously. Yet somehow, she found the fortitude to continue onward.


At the end of the war, my mother and her two sisters were forced onto a death march. In middle, her younger sister was starting to collapse, and it was clear that she wouldn’t survive the death march. So when the guards turned their backs, the three sisters escaped, racing away from the German soldiers and their attack dogs.


When I tell my children my mother’s story, I always emphasize this point: my mother never imagined she would be courageous. But when the time came, she rose to the occasion.


This is precisely the Jewish legacy of courage; a history of ordinary people doing what they must to pursue their destiny.

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