Nitzavim- Vayelech: A World Without Heroes

A World Without Heroes

We all like to make heroes, it’s true. Whether it’s sports legends like LeBron James and Serena Williams or inventors like Elon Musk and Marie Curie, or firefighters or soldiers, there is something inside of us that looks to the singular individual and we stand in awe of their accomplishments. It’s why we have posters and memes and cards with their pictures, why we study their work and gawk in amazement at their talent or verve. A hero is like a gift to ourselves, as we wrap their life around ours like a birthday present – that enlarges our life for a moment or two and shows us what humanity can achieve in the singular sense. 

It’s a wonderful addition to the beauty of life to make a hero. It’s wondrous to think what it would be like to sit next to Buzz Aldrin and scrape the stars for the first time, or to accompany Florence Nightingale through the dark days of the Crimean War to help wounded soldiers, or to take the field with Jackie Robinson. Heroes enchant our lives. But heroes are made not by their actions or their intelligence, not by their swift movement or decision making, not by being the first to a place, or by an idea; heroes are made by the veneration of those that want to be with them on their journey or who have benefitted from what they discovered. Heroes are made by students, by fans, by delegates, by storytellers.  

Heroes don’t exist; they are made.      

The downside to making heroes is that it risks making spectators of us all. What do we lose when we lurk in someone else’s story? If our greatest moments are in watching an athlete achieve or an artist perform, what does that say about our own lives? If we see only the greatness in the singular few, do we not overlook our own capacity for greatness? 

Judaism, like so many other faith traditions, has its heroes. There was Abraham who marched across the world to discover a new approach to life that starts with the idea of blessing, Sarah who laughed at God, Joseph who saved the very family that forsook him, Miriam who kept the community going through slavery and in the wilderness, Devorah, the judge and chieftain  who fought back the tyranny of the Philistines. The Bible is not short of heroes.  Arguably, however, the greatest hero, Moses the prophet, the judge and the teacher for whom the Torah is named, wanted a world without heroes.  

In this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim – Vayelech, Moses brought the fledgling nation around him for one last teaching. This week finds us in the final hours of Moses’ life. He is running out of time, but not out of words. He says, “You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God  – from the tribal heads, the elders and officials…your children, your wives, even the stranger and the water-drawer and the woodchopper to enter the covenant of the LORD your God.” (Deut. 29:9-11

In the eyes of God and the covenant, there are no heroes. There are the powerful and the wealthy, the privileged and the vulnerable, but when it comes to building God’s world, it is not power or privilege that makes someone a hero.  

The rabbis, thousands of years later, know that what Moses is saying is truly radical. They discuss the question of the hero, finally stating that even if an exceptionally righteous person is found among you and you want to live under the umbrella of their merit, you can’t. Your life is too important, they say, to feel that a single righteous person is the foundation stone for the whole world. ( Prov. 10:25) Instead they give birth to a much more powerful and transformative statement saying, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bezeh, “All of Israel is responsible for each other.” (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 2:1) In place of hero worship the rabbis echo the radical teaching of Moses. In God’s eyes all of our lives are precious, pregnant with the possibility of greatness. God wants a world without heroes, because everyone from Abraham to Moses, to you, to me, to our children, can accomplish the most important task of all – living life to its fullest by caring for ourselves and others. 

We tend to make heroes out of individual people. We tend to build a world with winners and losers with a zero-sum mentality that for me to live my best life, I have to destroy yours. The truly radical nature of what Moses and the rabbis teach is that what the world needs is fewer heroes, and more care. It’s not personal success that matters, it’s what we can do together that matters. 

We don’t need more heroes. We need each other. That’s what sits at the center of the covenant.  Not celebrity but celebration. Not veneration but validation. Not fame but friends. Whether you are rich or poor, born to privilege or not, whether your hands are calloused from work or not, whether you have diplomas or not, one of the Torah’s final teachings is that we must be committed to our mutual success.  

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

One comment

  • You are always thought provoking and your interpretations make the Torah so meaningful to our lives, to my life. Though not able to thank you in person, In addition to my family and friends, for whom I am forever grateful for, I am grateful to have found teachers, rabbis like you who make me think, who, like the Chinese cook in East of Eden, point out the beauty of Judaism, you are not destined in life, you have the choice and Torah gives us the guidelines of how to act.

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