THE REAL HEROES: (Yom Kippur Day)
Years ago, my family and I went to visit a place which, to me, symbolizes the greatness of Israel and its people. The bullet factory, located in Rechovot not far from Tel Aviv, was where the Haganah secretly produced all the bullets needed to fight the English during the British Mandate and the Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence.
What’s unbelievable about the Bullet factory is that for all the years it was in operation, it was kept a secret from the British who controlled Palestine at the time. The entire factory is underground, below a functioning kibbutz which was being watched and patrolled by the British who made it illegal for Jews to create munitions. And so the Haganah commissioned a small group of volunteers, consisting of both men and women, who would appear to be Kibbutznicks working in the fields above. While ostensibly, they were simple commune workers, they would descend into this hidden factory below and work in rotations with huge bullet manufacturing machines to produce tens of thousands of bullets each day.
They took us into the laundry room for the kibbutz and our tour guide moved this huge washing machine which covered this large hole in the ground. We then climbed down a ladder about 25 feet into the ground to get to this surreptitious factory. They showed us the tanning machine the volunteers in the factory would use, because after spending so much time down below, their skin grew pale. In the interest of maintaining appearances, that is to say, appearing as Kibbutzniks working the fields, they would tan themselves below. They thought of every contingency, and ultimately produced 40,000 bullets a day, bullets being the only munitions that the Haganah didn’t run out of during the war to create the Jewish State.
I was quite impressed, but the one thing I just couldn’t wrap my mind around was how they somehow got these huge and sophisticated bullet making machines in the first place. They couldn’t have manufactured them in Palestine, and they certainly could not have gotten them from their Arab neighbors. I asked our tour guide and he said that there was a group of Polish Jews who purchased these machines in 1938 and spent the next 4 years between the years of 1942-1946 smuggling in all the machine parts from Poland.
Who were these people capable of successfully pulling this off? While Jews were being put into ghettos, these people were somehow able to smuggle machine parts through Nazi occupied Europe, into the Middle East, pastBritish security? Were they some kind of spies? 007? War heroes? Who were they?
Well, the answer is a lot less glamorous than any of those. They were simple Polish Jews. They weren’t spies, they weren’t soldiers. They were ordinary men and women who did something extraordinary. They were true heroes precisely because they were regular people who did what needed to be done when it was most necessary.
There was a fascinating article in the Science section of the New York Times entitled: “Free Will, Now You Have It, Now You Don’t.” The article dealt with the ongoing debate within the world of science and philosophy as to whether there truly exists free will; whether we as human beings can truly transcend the deterministic and causal world in which we live–to break out of what, many times, feels like controlling elements from our own socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds–and act in a completely independent way.
While many people treat it as such, this is NOT just an academic issue. It’s not just a quandary for dusty philosophers, it’s a real one for us today on Yom Kippur, as we make our resolutions for the New Year. Should we even try to live in a way that is different from our cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds? If your whole family consists of accomplished professionals; your Mom is a lawyer, your Dad is a doctor, your brother and sister are Wall Street analysts (that’s a fun family) and your grandparents and all your cousins and friends are the same, do you have free will to become a photographer or an artist of some sort?
Do we really have the power and ability to make autonomous decisions that are not in line with our backgrounds? The general consensus these days is that, essentially, we are products of our environment and genetics and therefore cannot be expected to live in a manner that goes beyond the community, culture and environment in which we are raised. Except when it comes to making money. Hence, the American mentality of “rags to riches” is very much felt, but ostensibly exclusively within the financial arena. When it comes to virtually everything else, the world teaches us that the decisions we make are ultimately determined by our socioeconomic and family background, and by the natural tendencies and dispositions we possess from birth. As a result, simple people from ordinary places cannot be expected to live extraordinary lives, and individuals not raised with religion may not even think about becoming more religious, because that’s just not the kind of family or background they have. The Torah vehemently disagrees with this and strongly believes that each of us is capable of things way beyond what our backgrounds and natural dispositions would dictate.
Over 800 years ago, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote about Judaism’s strong belief in Free Will. He wrote that what distinguishes human beings from the animal kingdom is our ability to rise above instinct, make independent choices and to exert our own free will over the decisions we make in our lives. Maimonides went as far as to say: “kol adam rauy lo lehiyot t’zadik kemoshe rabbeinu” – any person can be as great as Moses our teacher, “o rasha keyeravam” -or as evil as Yeravem, who was an evil tyrant in the times of the prophets.
If we don’t believe we can rise above our circumstances and natural dispositions, then why, asks the Rambam, did God send prophets in Biblical times to speak to the people to attempt to improve their ways? If everything was determined and we have no free will, then improving our behavior is an impossible task. In fact, what purpose would there be for the whole giving of the Torah? Ultimately, the Torah is an agent for change, a catalyst for us to improve and refine ourselves. If each of us is hard wired to behave in a certain prearranged way, if or our backgrounds and dispositions dictate everything, then self-improvement is impossible and the whole Torah becomes meaningless!
God gave us a Torah because He believes we are capable of evolving, of becoming different and better. God gave us His Torah because He believes in our capacity to grow. The question is do we believe in ourselves and in our ability to accomplish great things, or do we sell ourselves short because of where we come from or who we think we are? If we sell ourselves short, then why are we here on Yom Kippur? Why beat ourselves up for not doing everything we should have in the past year and why strive to be better in the coming year? We come on Yom Kippur because we sense that notwithstanding our backgrounds and dispositions, we are capable of more and we can do better. We just have to believe in ourselves.
An elementary school teacher in Israel told a story at a conference. She said, “I work as a resource room teacher with children who have learning disabilities. A few years ago a young boy began taking lessons in my resource room. I couldn’t figure out what had brought him to seek my help; he clearly had no difficulty with his lessons, and he did well on all his tests. Yet, time after time he consistently came to my resource room for his lessons. I was determined to find his area of weakness but, as hard as I tried, I could not find any type of learning disability or difficulty.
“Finally, out of frustration, I took him aside and told him I could not continue giving him lessons. It was a waste of his time and his parents’ hard earned money and he clearly did not need any sort of remedial help. The boy turned to me and said, ‘I will tell you why I am here but I’m asking you not to tell anyone else. I have a friend with a learning disability. Our teacher told him that he needed remedial classes in the resource room. He was so embarrassed to be singled out as having to go to your classes. I told him that it was no big deal and that I also take remedial classes. That is why I come to you- so that my friend will not be embarrassed.'”
Heroes are regular people who do amazing things. Whether it’s making bullets for the Haganah or just being sensitive to a friend, these are all acts of heroism. It’s just that some are a little quieter than others. Being more careful of what we say about others in a world that loves to gossip can be heroic because it might require great restraint. But maybe not for some people, which is why heroism varies from person to person.
For some, dating only Jewish people is a heroic act. I’ll never forget sitting in Logan airport waiting for my flight back to NY from a rabbinic conference in Boston when a guy dressed in a full pilot uniform comes running over to me saying, “Rabbi Wildes, what are you doing here?” I looked beyond his hat and replied, “David, is that you?” “Rabbi, you know I fly for American Airlines. Gotta go fly your plane but I just want you to know that because of my involvement with MJE I only date Jewish girls now.’ For David, that was heroic. For someone else, dressing more modestly in a world where “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” is an all-too-prevalent maxim is an expression of heroism.
When making our New Year’s resolutions, let’s not limit ourselves by what we were not given as children, but rather use the blessings each of us was given, by our parents and our families, to grow even further. To pray with greater conviction, to study even more about our heritage and traditions, to excel as much as possible in all parts of our lives (be it in our professions or in our most intimate relationships). And let’s do all this because we believe that we, ordinary people, can do extraordinary things.