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Chanukah - Deciding the Debate about the Essence of Heroism, in Battle and in Life

On Hanukkah, we mark the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucid Greeks. The war broke out over cultural and religious disputes, namely, the Greeks’ attempt to Hellenize the Jewish people, not over national or territorial disputes. For that reason, the purification of the Temple and the renewal of its service have far-reaching spiritual consequences. Yet there is another facet of the Jewish victory over Greece, albeit one related to the cultural and spiritual struggle: the debate over the essence of heroism.

There are echoes of this conceptual debate in a talmudic passage that describes a bizarre moral philosophical dialogue between Alexander the Great – who lived several decades before the Hasmonean Era – and the “Elders of the South”:[1]

Alexander of Macedon asked the Elders of the South ten things… He said to them, “Who is called a hero?”… “They replied: ‘Who is a hero? One who suppresses his urges.’” (Tamid 31b, and compare to Avot 4:1)

Apparently, Alexander – the Greek ruler, philosopher, and general who conquered the entire known world – expected a military answer that would elucidate the phenomenon of belligerent heroism, like in Plato’s Socratic dialogue Laches. However, the Elders of the South answered him from the realm of morals, according to which heroism is a virtue of character, not a physical trait; it is not measured exclusively on the battlefield. In Greece, as in other nations of the ancient world, heroism was measured in terms of risk faced and aggressiveness displayed.

Heroism in war was perceived as an expression of brutality, physical aggression, and violence. The soldier’s toughness and courage in the face of the threats of war were also viewed as overcoming the inborn instinct of fear. Soldiers were often motivated by hatred and demonization of the enemy, the thrill of war and the hunt, and the expectation of material reward that they would win along with victory. The cultures of these nations contain odes to victory, to their undaunted heroes who overcame their worst fears, and to superhuman heroes with immense powers. The main squares of cities were adorned with statues and sculptures of their national heroes, the symbols of their physical prowess.

In contrast, the Jewish sages had a completely different attitude toward heroism in battle. They viewed it as a psychological and spiritual trait, not as an aggressive phenomenon. This is how R. Yitzhak Arama explains the mishna in Avot (4:1) “Who is a hero? One who suppresses his urges”:

It similarly states that one who suppresses his urges is a hero, for a hero is one who controls himself. First he controls his body, and later he will rule others. Similarly, the virtue of wealth belongs to one for whom what he has is sufficient, who understands that if this is what God created him with, then this is all he needs – no more. For that reason, this idea is derived from the verse, “You shall enjoy the toil of your hands” – meaning, God has given you hands, not gold, because your hands are enough for you. It further explains that the honored is the one who honors others; it is meaningless when others honor him, for they may be honoring him without cause. But if one’s actions are honored, then he is truly honored...

This mishna indicates what we should strive for to become like the Sages who separated themselves from that which was permissible to them, and to separate in every way from the habits, traits, and ideas of the masses. For the masses think that the wise man is one who teaches everyone, so the Sages teach that he is really one who learns from everyone. They think the hero is one who conquers another, but he is really the one who conquers himself. A rich man is not a successful businessman, but the one who is happy with his lot, whether he is poor or wealthy. And the honored is the one who honors that which is honorable, not the one who is honored by the masses. (Akedat Yitzhak, sec. 65)

The Jewish sages made exceptional displays of physical courage during war contingent on the soldier’s inner strength and virtue; physical prowess flows from this inner strength. War indeed provides unique tests of inner strength while lives hang in the balance, in the face of terrible events, and when loved ones fall. But these are tests of inner strength, not physical strength. The heroism displayed in war is no greater than the inner heroism required to cope with the great and ongoing challenges of routine life. We can understand Rav Kook’s aphorism (Meged Yerahim 5674) in light of this approach: “True heroism can be found only where God’s light shines.”

Heroism depends on the spiritual strength that beats within the heart; when God’s light illuminates the soul, one can attain true heroism in battle and in life. That heroism depends on God’s illumination of the spirit can be explained in light of something that Rav Kook wrote elsewhere:

Without a goal for life’s heroism, the nation will continue to dissipate, its strength will lessen, and it will go to waste, lying ready at the bottom. Life’s supernal strength, adorning the community of the people, appears with its goal prepared for it, in our lives, in our inner lives, for which we live and exist, fight and overcome. (Shemonah Kevatzim I:18, cited in Orot p. 62 [p. 164 in Bezalel Naor’s translation])

When one is not motivated by hatred, but by his understanding of and identification with his objective and purpose, his heroism becomes a function of that understanding and identification. God’s illumination of his spirit gives his life a sense of destiny and purpose, thus affecting his morale and the courage that beats in his heart. Rav Kook’s words here dovetail with his interpretation of the morning blessing, “Who girds Israel with heroism.” According to the Sages, this blessing was instituted for recitation when one puts on a belt, dividing man’s heart from his private parts:

Israel’s heroism is unique; it is expressed not by conquering, subduing, or annihilating others, but primarily through man’s conquest of himself – the divine soul, man’s noble spirit, subduing his animalistic body and his unrefined and passionate appetites. This is the heroism of the patient man, who is greater than the war hero, and of one who is governed by spirit, who is greater than one who captures a city.

This is the heroism that girds Israel, an appropriate basis for pure morality and for raising man’s value higher than that of an animal… (Olat Re’ayah, p. 75)

As Rav Kook explains, wearing a belt that separates the heart from the private parts symbolizes the heart’s control over one’s urges. For this reason, the blessing invokes the virtue of heroism; it gives man the strength to overcome his drives.

In the modern era, there is consensus regarding the spiritual aspect of heroism. The view of the Jewish sages has won the debate. In virtually every army in the world, it is understood that the soldier’s inner strength and morale are decisive factors in battle – no less than the number of tanks and jets. It is now clearer than ever that battle requires more mental fortitude than physical fortitude, and that a soldier endowed with inner strength will be a more effective fighter. We are still faced with a great task: engraving on human consciousness that the heroism manifested in daily life and the heroism manifested on the battlefield are rooted in the same inner virtue, and that the heroism of one whose spirit governs his passions is greater than the war hero.

To broaden this topic further, it is worth studying this passage from Rav Kook (Orot pp. 24-25, pp. 110-111 in Bezalel Naor’s translation):

The Lord of Hosts is the Lord God of Israel, and the hosts of Israel are the hosts of the Lord. In our spirit and the essence of our soul are engraved, with divine writing, the strength and power of the Creator. The world and its fullness were created, came, and come into existence, live and endure, develop and are strengthened, by the hand of the Lord. Our emergence as a divine people is bound up with the creation of Genesis. “The power of His actions He told His people, to give them the inheritance of nations” (Tehillim 111:6).

It is from the mouth of the divine power that rests in the world, that originated the world and continuously renews it every day, that we heard the Torah. From the mouth of God’s power (“mi-pi ha-Gevurah” – see Makkot 24a) we heard “I am...” and “You shall not have…,” and Moshe received the entire Torah from God’s power. We do not abandon the body – neither the individual body not the body politic. Rather, we triumph over it. We know that the good inclination and the evil inclination are one creation from the hands of the eternal God. So too this world and the next, the social world, the governmental, the spiritual, the theoretical, the ethical, the ideal, the real – all is one unit, and it all ascends the rungs of holiness and is subject to a higher authority. All is, “I spoke and My will was done” (Menahot 110a; Zevahim 46b).

Our heroism (gevurah) is subtle; it is not possible that it would be the heroism of destruction and annihilation. God’s power (gevurah) in the world meets nothing outside its own invention, and thus certainly nothing outside its control. Therefore, in all its trappings, it is full of the depth of compassion. The arising of contradictions broadens the scope of existence. Good accentuates evil and evil deepens good, delineating and strengthening it. This total absorption in the divine cosmic consciousness, which penetrates to the abyss of the soul, wrapped together with the depths of national history, bound to the fullness of worlds, embracing all with love and transcending all with strength (gevurah), humble and compassionate to all, is the foundation of the glory of Israel – expressed in the truth of Yaakov, with the goal of God’s throne in the world, which will never end, that keeps us alive.

Neither with chariots, nor with horses is the foundation of our strength, but rather, “We will utter the name of the Lord our God; they succumbed and fell, we rose and were heartened” (Tehillim 20:8-9). If our self-awareness be superficial, the world’s awareness of our value will be superficial. The world’s understanding of our passion and the divine flight of our soul-life is faulty.

Therefore our first attempts – which arose without deepening the foundation, without baring the spring of life – are dissipated. This dissipation, this terrible rotting, this penetrating pain, will eventuate a new world; a new spirit will circulate among nations, a penetrating, inward consciousness in Israel. Might and heroism; passion and chivalry; faith and victory; transformation of the depth of resignation to a source of salvation and blossoming of life; sublime holiness as old; and all glows with the appearance of redemption: the understanding, the critique, the social order and depth of faith, the renewal of souls and freshness of bodies, through acceleration and progression, from the source of the truthful recognition of the greatness of the name of the Lord, God of Israel, God of all worlds, Creator of all worlds, and Creator of the spirit of man in his midst; from the source of all life with which Israel lives forever and ever.

“I will be magnified and sanctified, and manifest to the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Yehezkel 38:23). “Left and right you shall expand, your seed will inherit nations and desolate cities will be inhabited. Do not fear nor be confounded, for the shame of your youth you will forget and the embarrassment of your widowhood you will no longer remember, for your lover is your Creator, the Lord of Hosts His name, and your redeemer the Holy One of Israel, who be called God of all the earth” (Yeshayahu 54:3-5).

[1] In the writings of the Arizal, the south (“Darom” or “Negev”) is related to the mystical sphere of wisdom. Rav Kook too writes: “Wisdom is particularly found in the south of the land of Israel – ‘the Elders of the South’ [Tamid 31b] and ‘one who wishes to be wise should face south’ [Bava Batra 25b]”.

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