Friday, February 11, 2011

Another Kind of Hero

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about the concept of heroism and invited you to consider what it means to be a hero. In that letter, I focused on the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr., the man who chose to remain incarcerated in a Texas jail even after he was eligible for parole simply because he would have had falsely to admit his guilt and express remorse for criminal acts he never committed in order actually to be paroled and sent back into the world of free men and women. At that time, I asked you to wonder along with me what kind of moral strength it would take to pay that kind of price for the right to think of oneself as an honest person, and inevitably thus also to wonder what we ourselves would do if we somehow found ourselves obliged to make a such a ghastly choice with respect to our own lives and our own freedom. I submitted to you in my letter that the ultimate definition of a hero was someone whose commitment to his own values and his own virtues was not mostly unshakeable, but totally so.

Now that I think about it, though, it strikes me that there are other definitions of heroism as well. One, for example, would be the ability to look past the misery of one’s own situation to do good in the world not despite all the reasons not to do so but because of them. Perhaps that’s not the clearest way to put it, but the example I have in mind, the one I would like to write to you about this week, will clarify my point in the telling. I am thinking of an Israeli hero this week, a man named Yuval Roth whose life exemplifies a different aspect of the heroic character. I was very moved reading about his story and I think you all will be as well.

Yuval Roth’s brother Udi was murdered by Hamas terrorists in 1993. The story of his death was reported in the media and I think perhaps even that I remember reading about it at the time—several terrorists had the idea of dressing up as religious Jews and then going out to pick up an IDF soldier hitchhiking to or from his base and then to murder him. Yuval’s brother, on his way to his annual reserve duty, was their victim. Most of us would respond to an outrage like that with unbridled rage, with hatred, and with a barely containable desire for revenge. But Yuval Roth’s path forward from his family’s tragedy led him in a different, and entirely unexpected, direction. Uncertain where to turn for comfort, Yuval eventually found his way to an organization called “Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace,” a remarkable organization that gets far too little press in the West. (You can visit their website at to learn more.) The concept is that the foundation for peace in Israel can perhaps best be laid by those families who have paid the highest price for there not being peace, those who have lost their own children to violence. And by coming together, the Palestinian and Israelis who meet under the auspices of the organization have somehow managed to put their politics away and to share their stories, to resolve to live in peace, to work for the violence-free resolution of conflict, and to stand up for the values they find, probably at least slightly to their own amazement, they have in common. The stories you can read on the organization’s website at are remarkable moving; some are so painful that it leaves you in awe of the fact that the people you are reading about somehow found it in them to rise up over their own emotions to channel their grief in a positive direction. I recommend you find some time to visit the site; I think you will be as impressed as I was. In fact, I know you will be.

The Mishnah records the ancient sage Ben Azai’s observation that each mitzvah we perform has the ability to bring others along in its wake. And that was exactly what happened here. One day in 2006 a Palestinian member of the group expressed frustration over the fact that, although he was eligible for treatment in a hospital in Haifa and had in fact already been accepted as a patient there, it was nonetheless almost impossible for him actually to get there. And so was born a different organization called Derekh Hachlamah, the Hebrew words for “A Path to Healing.” The organization, founded by Yuval Roth, does only one thing. It isn’t well funded. It isn’t famous. But it’s two hundred members, all volunteers, have resolved to help the sick become well, in this particular case by personally arranging for the transportation of sick Palestinians from West Bank villages underserved, or not served at all, by public transportation to the hospitals in which they are to be treated in Israel. In wartime, only traitors aid or abet the enemy. But by looking at elderly, infirm Palestinians as human beings rather than as enemy soldiers, and by treating them compassionately and kindly, Derekh Hachlamah is, I believe, laying the groundwork for lasting peace by proving that, when properly motivated by common goals, Israelis and Palestinians can be good neighbors and look past their own history into a future based on mutual respect.

It is not only the elderly who benefit, however. CNN had a story about Derekh Hachlamah just this week about a three-year old Palestinian child named Aya whose kidneys and liver have failed and who requires dialysis to survive. Could she have survived this long without help? Probably not. Palestinians cannot drive into Israel proper. There are no busses. Aya needs to go to the hospital five times a week, but the only way to get to Haifa would be in two different taxi cabs costing a total of about $90 each way, a sum far out of the realm of possibility for Aya’s parents. Her life would surely by now have become forfeit in the un-unravelable mess that is the separate yet also endlessly intertwined lives of Palestinians and Jews on the West Bank and in Israel, but Yuval and his volunteers stepped in to help and have by now driven Aya from her West Bank village to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa over five hundred times. Her situation is not great, but her chances to survive to adulthood, previously more or less nil, are now real. And her parents are grateful. She too is not a soldier or a terrorist, just a little girl with health problems most adults would find overwhelming. But somehow her parents’ hope in her future has not only not been extinguished by the cruelty of circumstance, but has been enhanced by the kindness of a stranger, a man to whom they previously had no connection at all who saw an opportunity to do good in the world and who seized it. You can see a short clip of Aya’s story at The clip is narrated by Yuval Roth.

Cornelius Dupree Jr. is a hero in my book. But Yuval Roth is also a hero. Neither man went to hero school. But both recognized the moral imperative facing them when the far simpler, and far more expected, path would simply have been to tell the lie, to look away, to enjoy thinking of themselves respectively as honest and kind but without actually doing what it was going to take actually to be those things when doing so involved more than just talk. To me, the basis of heroism is the willingness to live up not to other people’s ideals but to our own, thus not to live the lives other people think we should lead but to become the men and women we ourselves feel we can and should be. Does it take real bravery to embrace one’s own values? When put that way, it sounds as though it shouldn’t. But which of us who lives in the real world would argue that it does not take the courage of a true hero to live up to one’s own ideals not occasionally or when the world is looking, but always and without regard for what others might think?

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