Chanukah is a time of heroes, but do we really have heroes anymore? It seems as soon as a contender emerges, a story appears almost as quickly undermining his or her potential status. Even President Obama, viewed by so many, whether deservedly or not, as heroic, is watching his popularity drop in the face of not having already met every possible expectation vested in him. And do we really need heroes, anyway?
The answer to these questions is yes and most certainly, though we may have to adjust our sights and the focus of our search to find the real heroes and appreciate how close at hand they may be, perhaps even staring back at us when we look in the mirror. And
that’s where the story of Chanukah comes in.
We all know the story of brave, strong Judah Maccabee and his brothers. But do we recall that he was a small town boy with few material or institutional resources at his disposal when he began his career? In all likelihood there was little special about this Judah and his family until circumstance and their own determination presented them with a challenge they saw as an opportunity. Judah became a hero because he lived his values, not because he became famous.
In a culture that too often substitutes celebrity for heroism, and cynicism for sophistication, we need to recall that part of the story, also. It’s the part that reminds us that everyone is already a hero, or at least has the capacity to be one. It’s the part of the story that reminds us that no matter who we are, we can live according to our most deeply held values and proudly share them with others. That’s what Igor Olshansky does.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Dallas Cowboys defensive end with Stars of David tattooed on his shoulders arrived in America from Ukraine in 1989. Fiercely proud of his Jewishness and happy to tell all listeners that it defines his efforts to be a good person, Igor, too, is a hero in that he is living his values. And that is something each of us can also do.
Each of us, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, is a living Chanukah candle capable of spreading our own inner light in the world and living a story of heroism by doing so. Like that little jar of oil which burned longer than anyone thought reasonable, we can live more brightly than we often imagine, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
Like Judah and Igor, each of us can live our most deeply held values in ways that not only improve our own lives, but contribute to the lives of those with whom we live and work. When Ben Zoma teaches us (Avot 4:1) that a hero is one who overcomes his urges or impulses, it is of course possible that he speaks of heroism as an act of self-limitation. But it is also possible that he refers to overcoming the impulse to minimize all that we can do and be.
Perhaps, like Rav Kook, Ben Zoma knows that true heroism begins with a sense of our own capacity and the need to resist the urge to minimize either it, or the obligation to rise up and make use of it in the best way we can. How that heroic spirit expresses itself may be very different from one person to the next. Just look at Judah and Igor. But as Ben Zoma suggests, it’s within all of us to do.
This Chanukah, remind both yourself and at least one other person that he or she, too, can be a hero by living their values out loud. The early Zionists who first dreamed and then built the Jewish state taught us to sing the words “Who can re-tell the Jewish hero stories of Yisrael? We can!” Chanukah is all about reminding ourselves of that fact.
What do we have in common with Judah Maccabee? A potential for heroism. In an age when people question whether there really are heroes anymore, Chanukah reminds us that there are always heroes and we are they — if we give ourselves permission.