What’s the difference between being a coward and being a hero? FDR said at the height of WWII , “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” John Wayne, perhaps paraphrasing Roosevelt, put it this way: “True courage is not the absence of fear. True courage is being scared like hell and saddling up anyway.” The Duke didn’t mince words.
Bottom line, heroes are made in moments when people don’t have time to think about the consequences of their heroism and rush in at their own peril because it appears they have no other choice.
Courage is embodied in the brave men and women who rushed up the stairs of the Twin Towers twenty-one years ago next week when everyone in the building was rushing down.
Courage is Oskar Schindler who started out making a shrewd business decision to use cheap labor in the form of Jews to work at his enamel factory. He ended up saving approximately 1200 Jews from the concentration camps by bribing Nazi officials to spare his workers from deportation. Had he been found out, he would have been executed alongside his workers.
Consider the courage of the Chernobyl rescue team, Alexi Ananenko, Valeri Bezpoalov, and Boris Baronov, who in 1986 donned scuba gear and, to avoid a graver explosion, swam to the floor of a flooded room and opened a valve located on the floor to drain the water. Because of their bravery, further danger and contamination was averted. All three men gave their lives to save others as they succumbed to radiation poisoning days later.
Why did any of the brave people, who were undoubtedly terrified of the consequences of their actions, do what they did? It was because they couldn’t see a choice in the matter. They acted to save others despite what might happen to them.
In this week’s portion Shoftim we read about the laws associated with warfare. The Israelites did not maintain a standing army or at least not one of any significant size. Rather, they had a civilian army or militia that could be mobilized in times of need and commanded by officers appointed for such a purpose. The priest was in charge of addressing the troops prior to a battle:
"Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the LORD your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory." Deuteronomy 20:3-4
After the priest was finished, it was the commanding officials’ turn to speak to the men. He advised that men who had built a new house, planted a vineyard they had never harvested or just gotten married were excused from service. The officials went on to say,
“Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” Deuteronomy 20:8
There you go. First, the priest tells them to take courage, not to panic or be afraid because God is with them. Then their commanding officer says that if they are too afraid to go, they can leave and return home.
Maimonides provides an interesting perspective on this passage. He points out that there were two kinds of wars. The first was a war mandated by Torah and thus, by God. An example would be a war of self-defense–think Amalek sweeping out the hills as the Israelites escaped the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. Or consider the war to conquer the Promised Land. Moses didn’t give the tribes of Reuben and Manasseh a choice to stay on the east side of the Jordan with their flocks and herds while the other tribes went to fight for the Land. He made them promise to assist in the battle before returning home to their families and livestock. In these kinds of war, Maimonides said no choice was given.
However, there were also wars for political or territorial reasons and for these, Maimonides said, choices were allowed. If you are too frightened, just go home.
Why is there a distinction between the two? Isn’t it war any way you cut it? I mean if fear in battle is going to have a negative effect on your fellow combatants, isn’t that always true whether it is mandated by God or by man? A coward is a coward, no matter the reason for war, right?
What Maimonides is saying goes beyond times of war. He is saying that courage comes to the forefront only when you don’t have a choice, when your morals prohibit you from holding back, or the situation presents itself right before your eyes and you have to act. If you have a choice, fear and anxiety heightens and cowardice bubbles up. Consequently, when there was a choice because of a political or territorial war, men who were afraid were allowed to opt out. But when no option presents itself, even cowards can become heroes.
This is true in our everyday life as well. Marriage is perhaps a good example. If I choose to live with someone, the option is always open to leave. That’s sort of the deal. If I don’t like living with you or things get rough, I’m out of here. There’s nothing but love–or the tatters of love–to keep me there. Once you professing that love before family, friends, and God, once you sign that paper saying you are bound to one another, the relationship takes on new meaning. Now to leave is to break a covenant to which you swore allegiance.
In business, we might be an employee, with nothing more to hold us than our own will. If we decide we don’t like our boss or don’t care for the work environment, we take a hike and look for something else. More consequential is owning your own business. You invest your life’s savings or find investors among friends and family to start a business. Now you are far less likely to walk away. You could lose it all and so you have to screw up the courage to make it work.
Our courage is tested every day in something as simple as the choices we make to consistently adhere to the morals and principles of our faith. If they’re important to me then I shouldn’t “be in fear, or in panic, or in dread…For it is the LORD [my] God who marches with [me] to do battle…to bring [me] victory.”
This may be one of the more difficult battles we face in a culture that is not very accepting of our beliefs. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe and it takes discernment and certainly help from God to take that stance not only in a principled way, but in a rational and kind way whenever possible.
We are all of us cowards. We want to shrink away from what is difficult. But even a coward can become a hero when they determine that there is no choice but to act.