Hurricane Sandy brought with it horrible devastation and tragedy.
But in its aftermath, there is one small measure of consolation. While the storm created unparalleled havoc it also gave rise to unimaginable acts of heroism.
Even as nature demonstrated its capacity for ruthlessness, human beings rose to the challenge with acts of incredible kindness and courage. Volunteers willingly risked their lives to search for survivors in darkened homes that could at any moment be swept away by raging waters. Rescuers carried endangered strangers on their backs to safety, down stairwells from the highest of floors and through streets flooded almost to the point where breathing became impossible. Elderly, bed-ridden people on upper floors of high risers in Manhattan in need of food and water were visited by anonymous people who, without the use of elevators, brought them life-saving help.
People risked their own lives to help others – not just their neighbors but even total strangers.
The cruelty of the storm was, in countless ways, bested by human compassion. What we witnessed were acts of loving kindness beyond comprehension. People risked their own lives to help others – not just their neighbors but even total strangers.
In a world far too often dominated by competitiveness and indifference, how are we to understand this remarkable display of heroism on the part of so many? What suddenly turned average citizens into heroes?
I think Bob Riley was right when he wrote that “Hard times don't create heroes. It is during the hard times when the 'hero' within us is revealed.” Heroism is just another word for the biblical truth that God created us in His own image. God is inside of us. He longs for us always to fulfill our mission to be like Him.
As the Midrash tells us, the Torah begins and ends with stories of God’s compassion. God clothed the naked in the Garden of Eden, even after they sinned, in the first story in Genesis, and God buried the dead, after Moses completed his years on earth, as recorded at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. So too we must take God’s deeds as paradigms for our behavior. And deep within us, the still small voice that speaks to us from our souls echoes that very same message.
The real question isn’t about the times we live up to our spiritual potential. What we need to explain is why so often we choose to ignore the call of the sacred within us. Why is it that only in response to hardships we become so willing to be holy?
And after reading a host of stories about heroism after this past hurricane I think I finally found the answer.
We act nobly when we know we can’t transfer responsibility to others.
Invariably people who were interviewed about their acts of bravery and benevolence disclaimed any right to be singled out for commendation. They explained they simply did what they had to do because they realized “there was nobody else there to do it.” When they understood it was up to them, there was no way they could deny the call of their conscience.
Simply put, we are holy when we acknowledge our uniqueness.
We act nobly when we know we can’t transfer responsibility to others. When we are unable to rationalize passivity with the excuse that somebody else could just as well shoulder the burden we have no choice but to allow our innate godliness to prevail.
There’s a legendary story told about a very small Jewish community somewhere in the hinterlands that had exactly 10 observant Jews. They managed to have a synagogue with regular daily services. In spite of the difficulty of getting a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jews required for communal prayer, they never faltered. Every one of their members knew that without their personal participation a vital religious need would go unfulfilled.
Week after week, month after month, the community with but 10 observant Jews successfully continued their services. And then a new family came to town. To the initial delight of the congregation, the head of this household willingly accepted responsibility to join the minyan as well. And from that day forward, with now 11 possible minyan-goers, this synagogue never again had a prayer quorum!
When every single one of the participants knew that they were essential, that without them their dream of daily services would be impossible, they were successful. Once the realization dawned that somebody else could be the essential “10th man,” no one again took their commitment with the same seriousness.
In order to become heroes we need the feeling that the world depends upon us.
How remarkable that Maimonides makes precisely this point when he discusses how we must prepare ourselves for the annual days of judgment from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin.
If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.[On the other hand,] if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. This is implied by [Proverbs 10:25] "A righteous man is the foundation of the world," i.e., he who acted righteously, tipped the balance of the entire world to merit and saved it.(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4)
The first step to spiritual self-actualization is to recognize that all of our deeds are weighed on the heavenly scales and every action, good or bad, could tilt them to reward or punishment. But there is something even far more challenging than the mere recognition that everything we do has personal consequences. It is daunting and on one level truly frightening; yet, if mankind were to take it seriously, it has the potential to truly change the entire world.
Imagine if everyone understood that as individuals we have the power to affect the destiny of our planet. Imagine if we saw the direction of history influenced by our willingness to be heroes on a daily basis. Imagine if we didn’t need hardships to bring out the holiness within us.
If only we grasped the truth of Maimonides’s teaching. We might, each and every one of us, recognize that we and we alone are capable of being the “10th man.” And because there is no one else as important as us in the entire world when it stands in the balance of God’s judgment, we might become inspired enough to always live our lives with the same kind of heroic spirit that was evident in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.