A recent report from Jenin got me thinking.
Residents of the West Bank city have hung a large picture of Saddam Hussein in the refugee-quarter’s central square. A local commander of the Fatah-aligned Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades explained that the display was intended to show Palestinian appreciation of the late and (at least in the civilized world) unlamented Iraqi dictator. He pledged that Palestinians “will continue to honor his memory as a symbol of resistance until the American and Israeli occupation is driven out.”
Much is revealed about a person by whom he considers worthy of honor. And much is similarly revealed about a people or a society. One’s heroes reflect one’s aspirations. And so the Jenin example, intended to draw eyes and hearts toward a depiction of someone for whom words like “ruthless,” “cruel” and “murderous” fall pitifully short of the mark, is both telling and depressing, not to mention something vital for would-be international peacemakers to ponder.
It is also, though, nutritious food for broader thought. Who, we might well consider, are our own heroes? To whose examples do we aspire? While no sane and civilized person would ever respond with the names of bloodthirsty tyrants, more than a few of us might still come up with those of writers, entertainers, sports figures or other public personalities, people whose accomplishments, while noteworthy and in some cases perhaps even noble, reflect our limited horizons of hope for ourselves.
What is more, in their private lives, all too many of the figures idolized in contemporary society reveal character flaws that are more than minor. The clay often extends far north of their feet.
In much of the Orthodox Jewish world, those whose examples are aspired to are great rabbinic figures. Their portraits often grace the walls of our homes. And while the men depicted (there are also venerated women, of course, but in their modesty they would consider their visages’ display to be unseemly) are renowned scholars, what makes them our heroes is their personal saintliness.
A good example is the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan), the famed Polish Jewish sage who died at the age of 105 in 1933, and whose image can be found in countless observant Jewish homes (particularly near telephones). Rabbi Kagan wrote seminal books on the prohibition of slanderous and otherwise improper speech and was an unquestionable exemplar of righteousness himself. The day after his passing, The New York Times noted how the venerated sage had “lived in poverty all his life.” The long obituary also pointed out that “Despite his fame as ‘the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel,’ the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity, all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living.”
The Orthodox community is hardly without its failures. Even some Jews who are punctiliously observant of the Torah’s mandate in most areas of life have at times shown themselves not beyond violating their responsibilities in others – sometimes in quite serious ways. The Chofetz Chaim would not be proud.
And yet the thought remains, and remains significant: While greed and other evil inclinations may find marks even within what should be a rarified community, something more trenchant is said by that community’s aspirations, no matter how elusive – by, in other words, who its heroes are.