“ALERT: Wildfire in your area. Be ready to evacuate.”
Over the last few days this is the message on my phone. Whether it was rushing home in the afternoon under huge columns of smoke from the Basin Fire or pulling myself out of bed before dawn from the Getty Fire, these alarms snapped me to attention. Even now the Easy Fire continues to burn in Simi Valley. The other night, when I got the alert, my wife and I ran around the house packing clothes for ourselves and kids. We grabbed our wedding album, childhood photos – our ketubah. I grabbed the “Gobag” with emergency supplies. I took the portfolio with our passports, birth certificates, and other documents. We filled up water bottles and packed snacks. My kids watched cartoons. After lining the bags up by the front door, the kids were ready, I was ready. We were packed to leave.
I took a smoky breath.
Is this it? Now what? What am I forgetting?
There’s a moment in every crisis where a decision is made. It’s that moment when we decide whether or not to act only for ourselves or to help other people. In literature it’s called “Crossing the Threshold,” when the hero commits to the journey ahead. It’s also called the “Hero’s Choice.” In the movies, it’s that few precious seconds when the music swells and the action begins. It’s when Clark Kent pulls off his glasses to become Superman or Peter Parker puts on the mask to become Spider Man. Every story has this moment, when the hero makes a choice to become one.
The scientist and writer, Elizabeth Svodboda believes that heroism is cultivated. In her In her groundbreaking book What Makes a Hero? she writes that heroism can both be a banal and chosen activity. Heroism isn’t just a matter of life and death; it’s something that happens everyday. Meaningful opportunities for selflessness can prepare for larger ones, helping a loved one die, picking up a friend’s kids when they can’t (with permission) can prepare the mind for more extraordinary acts of moral courage. Rather than lowering down what it means to be a hero, Svodboda is raising the bar for everyone. There is a hero inside of you, but only if you choose to be.
No one is expecting you to wear pajamas and fly through the air, but every life story has a hero’s choice. There will be times when that choice is thrust upon you, and you have to decide to live only for yourself, or to live with and for other people.
The hero’s choice is as ancient as it is modern, and it is at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Noach. The story begins with God’s decree that the world will be destroyed by a flood because it was full of violence and lawlessness. God taps Noah to build an ark. The Torah teaches that Noah was chosen because He walked with God and was a “righteous man, perfect in his generation. (Gen. 6:9). In what became one of the most famous rabbinic debates, the rabbis in the Talmud asked if Noah was a hero. They argued whether the Torah is teaching that Noah is a hero for all generations, or merely the best of his own. In one view, Noah was a simple man whose goodness stemmed from the fact that he was surrounded by wickedness. He stood out not because he was special, but because everyone else was so evil. In the other view, Noah was extraordinary, because trying to save the world from catastrophe takes an exceptional level of moral character. In other words, the debate around Noah was a matter of seeing him as the best of the worst, or the best of the best. (T.B. Sanhedrin 108a)
The way I see it, Noah made two choices. The first was heroic, the second not so much. When it was known that the world would come crashing down, Noah followed God’s command and built the ark, welcoming the animals and his family. He refused to resign himself to the depths. He did something. He planned, he fought and he built. The second choice, though, was less heroic. Nowhere in the story or in the commentaries does Noah argue with God as Abraham did on the hills overlooking Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:22) or cast his lot with the people as Moses did at Sinai. (Ex.32:11) In the face of the world on the edge of disaster, Noah did something but only for himself. He built an ark, he packed his bags, he took care of his family, and he stayed silent. The bible is full of holy people laughing, arguing, and fighting with God. The nature of human beings is to challenge God as God challenges us. It’s a relationship, a covenant that goes both ways. Noah never argues with God or question God’s own divine justice. Noah was a God-walker who never stepped out of line. Given the opportunity, he was silent, and the world was destroyed because of it.
If we learn anything from the story of the Flood, it is that we cannot succeed in life if we only live for ourselves. Noah helped to save the world, but at what cost? When the rains came and the waters rose, the Midrash says the wicked assembled around the ark and banged on the door begging to be let in. Noah yelled at them, saying they never listened to him before, why should he listen to them now. He shut himself in, sealed the doors with pitch and shut his ears as the waters overtook them. (Gen. Rabba 32:14) He chose to be a radical individual deafening himself to the knocking of repentance at his door. For that, we as a Jewish people do not trace our heritage through him, choosing instead the heroes of Sarah and Abraham as our mother and father. These heroes that opened their tent to all, who laughed at God, and demanded the God of Justice act justly.
As the fires continue to rage across the Southland, I think back at that moment when my bags were packed, my kids were taken care of, everything was ready to go.
I remembered what I was forgetting.
My community, steeped in faith and conscience, was at that very moment choosing to become heroes. They sprang into action to make hundreds of phone calls to families. They offered up spaces in their homes to house those on the move. Some work for government as elected officials, first responders or administrators. What I was forgetting is that to be a Jew is to make the hero’s choice and to not live just for yourself, but to live for other people. I’m so proud of all we’ve done to help and to heal and to choose to be heroes to each other.
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HOW TO HELP OTHERS
- If you are VBS member and have room in your home to host those being evacuated, please let us know. Email our coordinator, Nitzan, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call VBS at 818-788-6000.