There is no word in classical Hebrew for “hero” in the sense in which we use the term in American English. The usual translation, gibbor, derived from a verb that means “to prevail” or “to overcome,” is used generally to denote an individual of remarkable physical strength or particular moral stamina. When Scripture labels King Nimrod as a gibbor tzayid (literally, a “hero of the hunt”), for example, it presumably means that he was a powerful, strong guy whose strength wielding his weaponry made him notably successful at the hunt. In Pirkei Avot, on the other hand, when Ben Zoma famously asks “Who is the [true] gibbor?”, his answer—that such a label can only be properly applied to someone possessed of the strength of character to master his or her own inner drives—reflects exactly the other definition of the term. In other words, Ben Zoma is teaching that while any run-of-the-mill Hercules can lift a car or wrestle a tiger to the ground, only those able through the sheer force of their own moral bearing to overcome their endemic inclination to sin, to behave poorly, or to turn from virtue are truly entitled to be called by the title gibbor. But that is not exactly what the word “hero” has come to mean in common discourse.
I’ve returned to this topic many times in my letters to you. As a teenager, I had two heroes: Miep Gies and Henryk Goldszmit, known to the world by his pen-name of Janusz Korczak. From the latter, we obviously heard nothing after his supreme act of unparalleled heroism: this was the man who chose to accompany the 196 orphans in his charge to Treblinka on August 6, 1942, where he and they were murdered upon arrival, rather than accept the offer of safe passage to the Aryan side of Warsaw credibly made to him by the then-active Polish underground. Would he have considered himself a hero? As a young man, I certainly thought so. And, indeed, it was in just that light that I read the various versions of his story obsessively in those years…always wondering if I could have passed that test, if I myself would have chosen service to the children in my care—children whose lives I could not possibly imagine being able actually to save—over the easy-to-rationalize decision to save my own neck and thus to be alive in the future to serve other children. (If any readers are curious to read more about this man who more than anyone at all shaped my sense of honor, the one-two punch is first to read Betty Jane Lifton’s excellent biography of Korczak called The King of Children: the Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, published in 1988 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, and then to read the man’s own Ghetto Diary, originally brought out in 1978, but now republished by Yale University Press with an introduction, also very compelling and well done, by the same Betty Lifton.) To finish with Korczak, I can only quote William Blake’s famous poem, “Auguries of Innocence.” The beginning, everybody knows: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an Hour.” But later on, he gets to the part that stays with me still, the part that he could have written about Janusz Korczak: “He who mocks the Infant’s Faith / Shall be mock’d in Age and Death. / He who shall teach the child to Doubt / The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out. / But he who respects the Infant’s faith / Triumphs over Hell & Death.” Really, what else is there to say? For what it’s worth, Blake absolutely considered himself a kind of latter-day prophet…so maybe he actually was writing about Korczak!
Miep Gies, I’ve also written about before. (If you wish to reread what I wrote about her on the occasion of her death in 2010 at age 100, click here.) As many will surely recall, she was the woman who put her own life on the line to save Anne Frank and her family, as well as the others in hiding with them. (You can learn all you’ll need to know from her 1987 book, Anne Frank Remembered, in which of course she tells her own story as well.) Unlike Korczak, Miep Gies survived the war and so was able to comment on the way she was hailed as a true hero. And that is exactly how she was celebrated in the post-war years. Yad Vashem recognized her as a selfless rescuer and planted a tree in her honor on the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles on its grounds. Queen Beatrix of Holland knighted her for her bravery. Germany itself offered her the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic. Austria, her homeland, awarded her its Grand Decoration of Honor. I’m sure she was flattered by all the attention. (Who wouldn’t be?) But she balked mightily at being called a hero, writing in the introduction to her book words that stay with me still, “There is nothing special about me,” she wrote. “I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.”
I’ve cited those words to you before because they are so deeply resonant with me: here was a woman who apparently believed that doing the right thing, putting the needs of the persecuted first, acting forthrightly to save the lives of people in danger of being put to death for professing the wrong faith or embodying the wrong ethnicity, obeying the inner voice of virtue and justice that most of us prefer to drown out most of the time lest it lead us off the path of self-gratification and self-absorption—here was a woman who believed that it did society no good to apply the “hero” label to people who simply do the right thing…and that we would do better to create a society in which doing those things was considered not the province of the uniquely brave or the saintly, but the reasonable path forward for the common, average person raised from childhood to embrace virtue and to do good.
And that brings me to this week’s hero, Lassana Bathily. A Muslim originally from the West African nation of Mali, Bathily was working at the Hyper Cacher grocery store in the Porte des Vincennes neighborhood of Paris when Amedy Coulibaly burst in on January 9 in an insane attempt to divert the attention of the police from the pursuit of his fellow-travelers, the Charlie Hebdo murderers. Immediately upon entering the market, Coulibaly shot four patrons dead, all Jewish people doing their pre-Shabbat shopping in an unremarkable market in a distant suburb of Paris that none would ever have expected to be the scene of anything like what then ensued in that place. Acting quickly and wisely, Bathily led fifteen shoppers, including a two-year-old child, to a cold storage area in the basement of the building where he locked them inside, took the key with him, then managed to escape up an elevator shaft to the street where he was able to give the police the key, tell them what was going on inside, explain where exactly Coulibaly was holed up, and draw a floor plan of the store. Unsure if he was friend or foe, the police initially treated him hostilely, handcuffing him and forcing him to the ground. But the truth became clear soon enough, and Bathily was hailed a true hero, as someone who risked everything to save people whose lives might well otherwise have been forfeit.
To reward Bathily for his efforts, the French government acted quickly and dramatically, cutting through what might otherwise have been years’ worth of red tape to grant him French citizenship at a ceremony attended by the highest officials, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. But it was Bathily’s reaction that caught my attention the most dramatically. (You can watch him deliver his very brief remarks by clicking here. He speaks in French, but NBC News provides English subtitles.) He had been hailed as a hero across all of France. Benjamin Netanyahu himself referred to him in precisely those terms in a speech praising his bravery and his selflessness. But the man himself chose to speak of his deeds much in the manner of Miep Gies. “People say I am a hero,” he said quietly, knowing the world was listening carefully. “But I am not a hero at all,” he continued, “I am Lassana. And I will stay the same. I would do the same again too, because I was only following my heart.” The video clip is remarkably moving and I think I’d think so even if I weren’t so emotionally tied to the whole incident in Paris and its aftermath. Here is a man who, like Miep Gies, felt right in rejecting the accolade “hero” for merely having done the right thing, for simply having behaved decently and bravely, for having seen people in terrible danger and having done what it took to make them safe.
I could not admire that approach to life more. I have spent my whole life wondering what kind of person I am, if I could have been a Korczak, a Miep Gies, now a Lassana. May God spare me from finding out in the way any of them did! But these individuals who rejected—and I’m feel sure Korczak too would have scoffed at the idea that he was properly to be labelled a Superman-style hero for declining to abandon terrified children to their fate—these three whose example suggests that the ability to behave extraordinarily is specifically not something best relegated to a handful of exceptional people but embraced by ordinary people like ourselves who, like it or not, absolutely are possessed of the ability to behave magnificently when, in the twinkling of an eye, the path to moral greatness opens before us and we must decide on the spot whether to flee or take that first step towards selflessness and virtue—these are my heroes, the people I wish the most ardently to consider myself up to following whose example. Listen to Lassana’s soft-spoken remarks—they last all of forty-five seconds—and, if you dare, ask yourself what you would have done, if you could have behaved in that way when, in the space of a second or two, greatness was thrust upon you…and the choice to embrace it bravely was yours to make. The question is not whether you could have shimmied up that elevator shaft. The question is whether you could have decided to risk everything…to do good, to save a child, to embrace virtue not as a superhuman hero…but simply and plainly as yourself. That is the question to ask…and, if you dare, to answer honestly.