Since September 11th, images of masculine strength and compassion---especially of firemen and paratroopers---have dominated the media. They are the new American heroes. They are, as Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "the men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone where to go to be safe."
It took a national trauma of terror, but the image of the strong, protective male has undergone a swift renovation; transformed from a figure of blockhead chauvinist ignominy into a hero of rescue. The icon of the dotcom multi-millionaire in khakis and BMW has been peremptorily deleted; the struggle for gender equality has been muscled aside by the struggle to bring Osama bin Ladin back dead or alive.
But for how long? New heroes are always waiting to be projected by the media. It could be the scientist who discovers the wonder drug to cure anthrax. Or it could be the next Woodward & Bernstein who dig up the true story behind the September 11th attack. Our need for heroes is deep and undying. But the ever-changing images in the media are superficial, often ersatz, manufactured for the moment, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Jewish tradition has always recognized the need for heroes---the kind that have staying power. The Sages teach that each of us must ask: "When will my deeds reach those of my fathers---Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?"
They too were heroes of rescue. Abraham fought the four most powerful kings of his time in order to save his nephew Lot from captivity; Jacob rolled the mighty boulder off the well to water Rachel's sheep. Moses was singled out for leadership when he searched over the mountain to find a lost lamb, and when he slew the Egyptian who was beating his fellow Jew to death. (Isaac is omitted here for reasons that should become apparent in the following paragraphs.)
Tradition gives no hint, however, of their height and weight, with or without helmet and shoulder pads. For they were above all giants of the spirit, and their physical exploits were secondary. Any success they had in the material world was purely due to their merit as servants of G-d.
The heroism of the Patriarchs was part and parcel of their spirituality; and there is a depth and subtlety to it which far exceed the capacity of any media image to capture. The concept of chessed (kindness), goes further than just responding to the call for help. We learn from the Patriarchs that chessed means becoming the kind of person who seeks out opportunities to improve the lives of others. When Abraham discovered the Creator as the ongoing Giver of life and blessing, he brought that message to the world. He set up a chain of lodging places where people could rest and eat, and where he taught them to appreciate that everything including the food he was serving them comes from the Creator. He didn't wait for them to come to him; he went to them. The Jewish ideal of chessed is not reactive, it is an irrepressible expression of the essential man.
But the archetype of chessed does not stand alone. The ultimate Jewish role model is a triad, a coalition of spiritual greatness. Whereas Abraham represents pure chessed; Isaac represents introspection, self-criticism. Without it, chessed unchecked can become a destructive force. Kindness to the wicked (these days it may take the form of "understanding" the causes of terrorism), can be a cruelty to his innocent victims. On the other hand, a self-critical rigor without love can lead to moral and emotional paralysis. And to maintain harmony between the two, we need emet (truth); the constant striving for a kindness and introspection unimpaired by the hidden agendas of the self. That is why we are enjoined to direct our aspirations to all three of the Patriarchs, so that we may be guided by their balanced example.
We can take heart from the acts of brave men; but real guidance and a lasting source of inspiration needs something deeper. For that we turn to the founders of the Jewish tradition.
Sources: Michtav MiEliyahu, Volume 2, Pp. 160-1; Carl Sandburg's "Chicago...City of the big shoulders."