An article I wrote for Religion News Service about misconceptions concerning proposed changes to Israel’s Law of Return can be read here.
The closest word for “hero” in Hebrew is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.” And its true definition is provided in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos: “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his natural inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”
True strength in Judaism is evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.
In parshas Noach, we meet a very different kind of gibor, a gibor tzayid, a “strongman hunter” (Beraishis 10:9). His name is Nimrod, his goal was power and, as Rashi notes, based on the Targum Yerushalmi and midrashim, what he hunted was human followers, attracting them with braggadocio and bluster.
Nimrod was the first “hero” to harness power in order to, in Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch’s words, “trap men for [his] own egoistic purposes.” He sought to “subjugate the less strong and clear-sighted, to keep them under his yoke until he would need them…”
As such, Nimrod exemplifies, continues Rav Hirsch, “the evil of tyranny which [has] continued so perniciously through the history of nations.”
And which remains as true today as ever.
And Nimrod was a gibor tzayid lif’nei Hashem, a strongman hunter before Hashem. Explains Rav Hirsch: “[Nimrod] misuse[d] the name of God, cloak[ed] his domination under the show of its being pleasing to God… to demand[ing] recognition of his power in the name of God.”
Indeed, today, too, we daily witness the scowls of scoundrels and liars bent on amassing personal power invoking divine “values” as a means of attracting religious followers who mindlessly regard the speechifying would-be dictators as “heroes.”
May we be spared such gibborei tzayid. And merit to see – and be – true gibborim, those described in Avos.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
The law of kana’im pog’im bo – “the zealous ones can attack him” – that Pinchas acted upon to dispatch Zimri and Kozbi is a highly unusual, if not singular, one: If one poses it as a halachic query, it is rendered a forbidden act; but if acted upon without consultation, it is meritorious. How can something prohibited be a mitzvah? We find yibum rendering what was an aveira (relations with one’s brother’s wife) a mitzvah, but there the situation has changed, with the death of the brother. Here, the same act under the same circumstances is both wrong and right.
In physics, there is something called the “observer effect,” referring to the fact that the act of measuring something affects what is being measured. For instance, a thermometer placed in a liquid can’t truly measure the liquid’s temperature, since the thermometer’s own temperature changes the liquid’s (and using a thermometer with the same temperature as the liquid would require knowing the liquid’s temperature beforehand).
The observer effect is even more pronounced in quantum physics, where even the most basic act of observation disturbs the state of subatomic particles.
I wonder if something like the “observer effect” may exist in the halacha of kana’im pog’im bo. The act itself, in its essence, is proper; it is the introduction of self that changes the status of the law, rendering the act forbidden.
If the aspirant to the status of “zealous” has the presence of mind to query whether he should act, the answer is that he should not. Once a he has entered the situation, it changes what was permitted, even meritorious, into something forbidden. With the introduction of self, everything changes.
When an act of kana’us is performed automatically, though, devoid of “self”-consciousness, without consideration of its potential impact on oneself, it is praiseworthy. And Pinchas, who acted out of pure dedication to Hashem, with no concern for self, is rightly praised.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
… the document below made its way to my website, but will leave it there…
To fine-tune Nicholas Kristof’s imaginary scenario (NYT Opinion, June 3):
Were British Columbia intent on killing Americans and dispossessing our country’s population, and had weapons that could reach Washington and New York, and, after the U.S. prevented war-grade material to reach the province (without impeding humanitarian aid), the Canadian province launched 4000 missiles at Seattle and San Francisco, I think most of us would be in favor of doing anything necessary to degrade its ability to do more of the same.
Recent columns of mine that have appeared in Ami Magazine can be accessed through the links below: