Heroism

I was recently asked for help preparing material for a va’ad on heroism. Shirah Bell, one of the other recipients of the initial email offered this as a typical definition of heroism:

The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.

Nothing sprung to mind, so my first reaction was to wonder if perhaps that indicated that heroism simply wasn’t a Torah value.

A gibor, often translated a “hero”, is one who is “koveish es yitzro – conquers his desires”, is able to place duty ahead of desire, or perhaps one’s desire to lead a meaningful life over one’s baser desires. In Or Yisrael, “conquering the yeitzer” means the ability not to act on the inclination even though it still persists within me. (As opposed to tiqun hayeitzer, in which the inclination is repaired and exists in proper proportion and in response to the appropriate triggers.) Gevurah is the self-restraint of letting my 2 year old fall over her own feet because doing what comes naturally would never allow her to learn how to walk.

But replacing the original question with addressing gevurah is akin to saying that there is a Jewish heroism, it just happens to be something different than heroism as generally understood. I have seen writers take that approach; but to my mind, if it’s no longer the same idea, why use the same word and imply a parallelism that isn’t there?

Alan Morinis, another name on the email’s “to” list (published author of two Mussar books and founder of The Mussar Institute), suggested that perhaps the “space” that would normally be occupied by heroism play less of a role within a Mussar outlook. With sufficient bitachon , trust in Hashem that everything is going and will go according to His plan, one is attacking fear in that domain rather than lauding the person who overcomes fear.

However, the conversation eventually got back to the author’s original suggestion, the roots of the words chizuq and ometz. Which got me to Hashem’s charge to Yehoshua at the beginning of the book:

ו: חֲזַ֖ק וֶֽאֱמָ֑ץ כִּ֣י אַתָּ֗ה תַּנְחִיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶת־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתִּי לַֽאֲבוֹתָ֖ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶֽם׃

6 Be strong and of good courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.

ז רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַֽעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל־הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל־תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃

7 Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all of the Torah which Moshe My servant commanded you; do not veer from it to the right nor to the left, so that you would achieve wherever you go.

ח לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֨עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַֽעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃

8 This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you will contemplate it day and night, so that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will succeed in your ways, and then you will achieve.

ט הֲל֤וֹא צִוִּיתִ֨יךָ֙ חֲזַ֣ק וֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ אַֽל־תַּעֲרֹ֖ץ וְאַל־תֵּחָ֑ת כִּ֤י עִמְּךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃  {פ}

9 Have not I commanded you to be strong and of good courage? Do not be afraid and not not get discouraged; for Hashem your G-d is with you wherever you go. {P}

Chazaq ve’ematz” has a clear central role in Yehoshua’s success at his mission — Hashem uses the expression three times in His berakhah when Yehoshua takes leadership.

So, what do the words mean?

I think we can take a lead from the parallelism in pasuq 9: “חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, אַל-תַּעֲרֹץ וְאַל-תֵּחָת – be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid and not not get discouraged…” Fear is something we experience when dealing with the unknown, the new. Discouragement sets in after someone tries an activity, and success is evading them. The verse would therefore suggest that chizuq is the strength to get something started whereas ometz is the ability to stick with it after the newness and the initial excitement fade.

The language of Tanakh being what it is, we could equally argue that the injunction is not to fear and not to get discouraged as not to act on any fear or loss of hope. In general, the concept of being obligated in a middah is difficult. We therefore often explain the mitzvah as an obligation in kibbush, not tiqun, hayeitzer. For example, this is a dispute between the Rambam (Gezeilah 1:9) and the Raavad (ibid) as to whether the prohibition “lo sachmod” is on the literal desire (Rambam) or acting on that desire such as persuading the owner to sell it despite the seller’s best interest (Raavad). Both only say a sin is committed upon action — but according to the Rambam, the violation is not punishable, as the essence of the violation was not the act.)

In which case, if chazaq ve’ematz means continue even when you are afraid or despairing, it does give us a concept much like heroism.

It also closely resembles zerizus (alacrity) as described in the Mesilas Yasharim. From the beginning of chapter 7:

THERE ARE TWO DIVISIONS OF ZEAL, one relating to the period before, and the other to the period after the beginning of the deed. The concern of the former is that a man not permit a mitzvah to grow stale, that when the time for its performance arrives, or when it happens to present itself to him, or when the thought of performing it enters his mind, he make haste to take hold of the mitzvah and perform it, and not allow much time to elapse in the interim, there being no greater danger; for each new minute can bring with it some new hindrance to a good deed. Our Sages of blessed memory awakened us to this truth through reference to the coronation of Solomon (Bereshith Rabbah 76:2), in relation to which David told Benaiah (I Kings 1:33,36), “…and take him down to Gichon,” and Benaiah answered, “Amen, may God say so .” “R. Pinchas asked in the name of R. Chanan of Sepphoris, `Was it not said (I Chronicles 22:9), “A son will be born to you and he will be a man of tranquility” ? The answer is: Many adverse occurrences can take place from here to Gichon.’ ” We were therefore warned by our Sages of blessed memory (Mechilta Shemoth 12:17), ” `Watch over the matzoth’ – if a mitzvah presents itself to you, do not permit it to go stale;” and (Nazir 23b), “A man should always advance himself towards a mitzvah, for because the elder daughter preceded the younger she was worthy of putting forward four generations of royalty in Israel;” and (Pesachim 4a), “The zealous advance themselves towards mitzvoth;” and (Berachoth 66), “A man should always run to perform a mitzvah,even on the Sabbath.” And in the Midrash it is stated, (Vayikra Rabbah 11:8), ” `He will guide us eternally ‘(Psalms 48:15), – with Zeal, as young maids ["eternally" and "young maids" are similarly constructed in the Hebrew], as it is said (Psalms 68:26), ‘…in the midst of young maids playing upon timbrels.”‘ The possession of Zeal constitutes an extremely high level of spiritual development, which a person’s nature prevents him from attaining at once. He who strengthens himself, however, and acquires as much of Zeal as he is able to, will, in time to come, truly attain to it. The Creator, may His Name be blessed, will present it to him as a reward for having striven for it during the time of his service.

The concern of “Zeal after the beginning of the deed” is that a man, after taking hold of a mitzvah, make haste to complete it; not for the sake of ease, as with one who wishes to relieve himself of a burden, but for fear that he might not otherwise be able to complete it. Our Sages of blessed memory have voiced many exhortations concerning this: (Bereshith Rabbah 85:4), “One who begins a mitzvah and does not complete it buries his wife and sons;” and (Ibid.), “A mitzvah is attributed only to the one who completes it.” And King Solomon, may Peace be upon him, said (Proverbs 22:29), “Have you seen a man quick in his work? He will stand before kings. He will not stand before low-life.” Our Sages of blessed memory paid this tribute to Solomon himself (Sanhedrin 104b) for having made haste in the building of the Temple, and not having idled and delayed it. They commented in a similar manner upon Moses’ zeal in the work of the Tabernacle (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:2).

So perhaps we can return to Dr. Morinis’s answer. Perhaps after all that, chazaq ve’amatz are not discussed very often in Mussar literature because the situations in which they arise tend to be discussed in terms of zerizus. Rather than discussing the power to overcome fear or discouragement, attacking the impediments in the way of accomplishing one’s goal, the talk was historically in terms of commitment and zeal for that goal. One could wonder how to overcome a problem; or one can have such a fire burning to get the job done that no problem would stand in one’s way.

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