Are You a Hero? — Yom Kippur 5783

By now, you’ve heard quite a bit about my sabbatical; perhaps more than you wanted to know. Apologies if that’s the case. 

On Rosh Hashanah, I talked about how I tried to embrace the spirit of Shabbat by refraining from productive work, and avoiding the news as much as possible; relearning how to be still, but also realizing the challenges inherent in retreating from the world. 

Last night, I talked about the parashah comic book series I began writing; how it took me down the Rabbit Hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and how that led me to think deeply about the idea of true self. 

I have to say – writing a comic book is harder than it looks. It required me to study an art form with which I had only casually engaged in the past. Most of you know that I love many movies based on comic books, especially superhero movies. But I had never really read many of the comics themselves. There was something about the format that never really grabbed me. 

So this summer, I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels, seeking to understand their unique language of storytelling. That means I spent a lot of time with hero stories. In the process, I began to see the concept of heroes everywhere I turned: 

I watched many movies and TV shows, which were, of course, filled with stories about heroes. 

I listened to more music than usual, including a deep dive into David Bowie’s discography, especially the excellent albums he recorded while living in Berlin in the early 1970’s, the best of which is arguably, you guessed it, “Heroes.”

I also read voraciously, and even picked up a biography of Hank Aaron, one of my all-time favorite baseball players, the kind of book I likely would never have read were I not on sabbatical. And want to hear something eerie? The book’s title is…The Last Hero. We’re through the looking glass here, people.

As the idea of heroes became increasingly inescapable, I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t receiving a message from on high, that I was for some mysterious reason being called to consider the meaning of heroism. 

So with my copious quantity of sabbatical free time, I bought a copy of literary scholar Joseph Campbell’s famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces – something I’ve always wanted to read (and, if I’m being honest, have often pretended to have read) – in the hopes it might offer some insight. 

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell teaches that stories about heroes are remarkably consistent across space and time. Campbell calls this narrative pattern “the hero’s journey.” The journey always begins with the hero experiencing, and refusing, a “call to adventure.” And the pivotal moment of every hero’s journey is when the hero goes through a trying ordeal that leads them to embrace their calling, transforming the hero into someone different than they were at the beginning of the journey. Campbell refers to the challenging experience that causes the hero’s transformation as “The Belly of the Whale” – which is, of course, a reference to the book of Jonah that we read each Yom Kippur afternoon. 

But is Campbell right? Is Jonah a hero? 

That question is urgent for us to contemplate today. Rabbinic tradition considers the Book of Jonah central to Yom Kippur. To understand Jonah, then, is to unlock the meaning and power of this day. So, is Jonah a hero? Let’s consider the story:

God tells Jonah, an Israelite, of the wickedness of a great city called Nineveh and instructs him to go there and proclaim God’s judgment upon it. 

The city’s name may not mean much to us moderns, but for an ancient audience, Nineveh was as well-known as New York or Paris. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of antiquity’s most powerful empires. Importantly, the Assyrian Empire was a mortal enemy of ancient Israel; in fact, Assyria utterly decimated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. 

God therefore gives Jonah not only the task of prophesying to a population of non-Israelites, a charge that is literally without precedent or parallel in the rest of the Bible, but also specifically to prophesy to a nation that is utterly hostile to his own. 

So Jonah runs away, clear in the opposite direction of where he is supposed to go. God tells him to go east, and instead he gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, the westernmost edge of the known world at the time. 

Now, one could perhaps understand if Jonah flees out of fear. Presumably, the Assyrians of Nineveh would have been a very tough crowd for an unknown Israelite prophet bearing bad news. 

But Jonah doesn’t run away because he’s afraid. As he reveals later in the book, “I fled to Tarshish because I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2). In other words, Jonah flees because he knows that God is a big ol’ softy who, when push comes to shove, won’t execute Nineveh’s sentence; and, spoiler alert, that is precisely what happens. 

So Jonah runs away not to save his own life, but to try to ensure the people of Nineveh won’t be able to save theirs. Jonah believes in law and order, in crime and punishment. Those who sin deserve to get zapped. Don’t want to get zapped? Don’t sin. That’s why, when Jonah defies God’s command, he fully expects to get his just desserts, and accepts this fate. 

Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish, and God sends a powerful tempest to destroy it. Jonah, however, has made his peace with the fact that the ship will be his casket and the ocean, his tomb. He goes down into the hold and takes a nap. When the panicked captain rouses Jonah from his slumber, and demands that he join him and his crew in their fervent prayers for salvation, Jonah instructs the crew to save themselves by throwing him overboard. He knows he has willfully done wrong, and therefore deserves to die. 

But God doesn’t let Jonah drown. Instead, God sends a great fish to swallow him up. 

Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. In the putrid bowels of the great fish, Jonah offers a prayer. Some commentators have read Jonah’s prayer as a model for repentance, what our tradition calls teshuvah. But according to our tradition, teshuvah is about rejecting wrongful behavior and returning to a path of goodness. It requires one to acknowledge their wrongdoing, admit their guilt, seek forgiveness, and commit to changing their ways (Cf. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:1, 2:2-3, 2:4). Repentance, in other words, is about transformation. 

But if one looks carefully at the words of Jonah’s prayer – a pastiche of canned quotations from the book of Psalms – Jonah notably doesn’t ask God for forgiveness or to be saved. He neither expresses remorse for disobeying God nor promises to follow God’s orders in the future. Rather, Jonah simply accepts that he got what he deserved. What Jonah does in the belly of the fish is decidedly not teshuvah.

God orders the fish to spit Jonah out, and the reluctant prophet goes to Nineveh. But he doesn’t obey God’s command because he has been changed by his experience in the fish’s belly. He goes because he has no other choice: Running away didn’t work; trying to get himself killed didn’t work. What else could Jonah do? As a matter of fact, we can see Jonah’s lack of transformation in what happens next: Instead of repeating God’s message as instructed, Jonah goes rogue, delivering his own prophecy: “Od arba’im yom v’Nineveh nehepahat / Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” These are not God’s words. They’re classic Jonah: crime must be punished; criminals must pay; no salvation, no forgiveness, no mercy. From the beginning of the story until its very end, Jonah refuses to change. 

The book of Jonah is therefore quite deceptive. It has many characteristics of what Campbell calls “the hero’s journey.” But according to Campbell, the hero’s journey must be transformational (Campbell, 23). Jonah isn’t changed by his experience in the belly of the fish. He doesn’t embrace his mission; he goes to Nineveh only because God coerces him. Once there, he delivers his own message, not God’s. When God ultimately refrains from destroying the city, Jonah becomes extremely angry and lashes out at God for failing to bring down the swift hammer of divine justice. To the very end, Jonah remains unchanged. Jonah is no hero.

Transformation is central to the hero’s journey because it takes conviction, strength of character, and power of mind and spirit to recognize one’s failings and strive to overcome them. Succumbing to one’s baser instincts is easy; recognizing the error of one’s ways is hard. Rare is the person who can master themselves. To make mistakes, even to fail, is human. To strive to learn from those errors and change for the better? That is heroic. As Rabbi Abahu teaches in the Talmud, “מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין / In the place where the person who has done teshuvah stands, even the completely righteous do not stand” (B. B’rakhot 34b). Being perfect doesn’t make one a hero. A hero is one who learns from their mistakes and changes their ways. 

So, if Jonah is not the hero of the book, who is? Well, if the defining quality of a hero is transformation, then there is only one character in the book who fits the bill: the people of Nineveh.

In chapter 3, immediately after Jonah’s pronouncement, the people of Nineveh proclaim a fast, don sackcloth and ashes, admit their guilt, cry out to God with sincere remorse, and commit to changing their ways. In other words, the people of Nineveh repent, spontaneously and voluntarily engaging in the process of teshuvah. Jonah may not change, but the people of Nineveh sure do. Jonah is not a hero. But in their willingness to change, the people of Nineveh are the very definition of heroism.

But the Ninevities’ heroism is about more than just their willingness and ability to change.  

As I mentioned earlier, this summer, I read Howard Bryant’s excellent biography of Hank Aaron, The Last Hero. Aaron, of course, is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. But as I read the book, I discovered that, beyond the fact that Aaron hit 755 homers, I actually knew very little about the man. For starters, it turns out he much preferred his given name, Henry, to the moniker Hank. 

I also hadn’t fully appreciated the uniquely challenging conditions in which Aaron played: he cut his teeth in Alabama at the height of the Jim Crow era; when Aaron signed his first big league contract in 1954, there were still very few black players in the majors, and the ones who did make it experienced horrible bigotry and discrimination. 

As Aaron closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record in the early 1970’s, now playing for the first major league team in the Deep South, he was subject to unimaginable racist abuse, including torrents of hate mail and death threats. He was forced to hire round-the-clock security and rely on the FBI’s protection. 

That he was able to accomplish what he accomplished in such a brutal environment is extraordinary. And, as Bryant points out, Aaron’s career is even more exceptional when contrasted with the player who ultimately surpassed his home run record, Barry Bonds. 

Bonds was, of course, also a great hitter, quite possibly one of the best all-around players in baseball history. But Bonds – like many other players of his era – was so obsessed with being the best, and acquiring for himself all the fame and fortune that went along with it, that it ceased to matter how he went about pursuing that goal. So Bonds ultimately beat Aaron’s record in 2007 – with the help of copious quantities of performance-enhancing drugs. 

Both men’s “how’s” reveal something about their “why’s.” For Bonds, pursuing the home run record was solely about naked self-interest. Certainly Aaron had his own selfish reasons for seeking the record; he was human, after all. But no one perseveres through what Aaron endured for ego alone. Aaron – who risked his life not just to play baseball, not just to hit the most home runs, but also to become active in the civil rights struggles of his era – had his sights on something bigger: showing a society still mired in racism that every single human being deserves respect and equal opportunity’ and showing those who are systematically degraded as he was that they, too, are infinitely dignified and worthy of pursuing their dreams. 

Ultimately, it was Aaron’s capacity to see beyond himself toward his broader responsibility that made him a hero. And in a world in which too many of our leaders – in sports, entertainment, even in religion, and most definitely in politics – seem increasingly unable to think past their own self-interest and unwilling to see how their actions affect others, it may well be that Aaron is worthy of being considered “The Last Hero,” as Bryant calls him. Heroes like Aaron are indeed in short supply these days.

It’s not just the ability to change that makes one a hero. According to Campbell, the hero’s transformation is not an end to itself. The hero’s transformation must inspire and enable them to help others (Campbell, 23). 

According to our tradition, our inborn inclination to serve ourselves first and foremost, what Jewish tradition calls our yetzer ha-ra, is the root of all wrongdoing. Despite how the term is often translated, the yetzer ha-ra isn’t inherently evil, per se. Our tradition acknowledges that, without a yetzer ha-ra, no one would ever have children, or engage in productive work, or enjoy the delights of the world. But unchecked by an opposing force, the strong gravitational pull of our yetzer ha-ra can lead us to harm ourselves and others, ultimately producing inequality, oppression, and bloodshed. 

That opposing force is what our tradition calls yetzer ha-tov, the altruistic impulse, an innate desire to help others that we all inherently possess alongside our selfish instinct. 

When our yetzer ha-ra outweighs our impulse for altruism, we harm others and ourselves, deepen social inequities, and even precipitate violence. 

But when our yetzer ha-tov triumphs over our yetzer ha-ra, we act in ways that are loving and just. 

Our tradition teaches that we can control these inclinations. We have the ability to overpower our yetzer ha-ra with our yetzer ha-tov, to transform from being mostly concerned with ourselves to taking responsibility for the wellbeing of others, to change our ways from selfish and uncaring to loving and just. 

But it’s not easy. It takes both will and work. One of the primary aims of Jewish religious practice is to help us cultivate and strengthen our yetzer ha-tov and diminish the power of our yetzer ha-ra. Jewish religious practice, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, serves to take us out of the narrowness of our own self-interest so that we might recognize our relationship to, and responsibility for, one another, enabling and inspiring us to act in ways that make the world more loving, more just, and more peaceful. 

That’s why the person who has done teshuvah, rejecting wrongful behavior and returning to a path of goodness, is our tradition’s paradigmatic hero. The person who does teshuvah is making an active choice to strive to overpower their yetzer ha-ra with their yetzer ha-tov, committing to the work necessary for their altruism to triumph over their selfishness. The person who has done teshuvah is not only a person transformed, but a person who deliberately undergoes a transformation in order to help others. 

If a hero is a person who makes the conscious choice to change from being self-centered to living a life of service, one who chooses to set aside self-interest and embrace a life of helping others, then the person who has done teshuvah is the model of heroism; and therefore, the process of teshuvah, the process that Yom Kippur invites us to embrace, is the real “hero’s journey.”

Jonah not only fails to complete the hero’s journey because he doesn’t change; he fails because, from the beginning of his story through the end, he only cares about himself. The nature of the transformation of the people of Nineveh, on the other hand, is from selfishness to widespread concern for others: “ וַיַּ֤רְא הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽת־מַ֣עֲשֵׂיהֶ֔ם כִּי־שָׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכָּ֣ם הָרָעָ֑ה / And God saw their deeds, that they turned from their selfish ways” (3:10). They take responsibility for themselves and each other. Even the king, who might be expected to have been the most self-interested Ninevite of them all, who could have easily found a way to just save himself and his own family, takes pains to help everyone in the city avert destruction – not only the city’s human residents, but also all its animals. Jonah, selfish from beginning to end, is no hero. But the people of Nineveh, who do real teshuvah, choosing to set aside their self-centered ways and commiting to serving others, most certainly are.

So the real question for each of us on Yom Kippur is, therefore: which will you be? Will you be like Jonah, or the people of Nineveh? Will you become a hero?

The book of Jonah ends without a resolution. God gets the last word, and we don’t know if Jonah will finally acknowledge the error of his ways and commit to changing. We don’t know whether Jonah will ultimately choose the hero’s path of repentance. 

But maybe Jonah’s journey is left unresolved to remind us that God’s invitation to change is perpetually extended not only to Jonah, but to each and every one of us. No matter the choices we’ve made in the past, we can, each of us, right at this very moment, choose to change

We don’t read about Jonah on Yom Kippur because he’s a hero. We read his story to remember that, like the people of Nineveh, we can embrace God’s ongoing invitation for us to become heroes ourselves.

The power of Yom Kippur – this day that invites us to consider with genuine regret the ways we have failed to live up to our highest ideals, sincerely seek forgiveness for our wrongdoings, and wholeheartedly commit to living differently in the year to come – is to remind us that we can change. And in changing, we can be heroes. 

It need not be a permanent transformation. As imperfect beings, it most likely will not be. But even if, to quote David Bowie, we are only heroes just for one day; even if it is only for this one day – one is better than none. And tomorrow, we will have yet another chance, because the invitation for transformation is extended to us each and every day; indeed, the opportunity for teshuvah exists in each and every moment. The process is perpetual; the choice to be a hero is one we must make continuously. 

So – are you a hero? If you’re anything like me, probably not. At least not yet. But today is a new day. This moment is a new opportunity. We can be heroes. And God knows our world needs heroes, now more than ever. Will you choose to be one?

May this be a heroic year for each and every one of us, and indeed, for the whole world. 

Gmar hatimah tovah.

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