Heroes and Villains: Washington, Jefferson, The Dark Knight and You

When I was growing up near Washington D.C., George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were two of my great heroes. I lived in the Washington area and rooted for the Washington teams; my family often went to Washington’s home called Mt. Vernon and Jefferson’s home called Monticello, near the re-created colonial town of Williamsburg. Along with Davy Crockett (whose coonskin cap I wore and for whom I named my little brother) and Biblical figures like Charleston Heston, Washington and Jefferson were my heroes. They were the epitomes of what made America great. They were two of the Founding Fathers, legendary geniuses who with seemingly divine wisdom created the greatest political system known in human history.

But by the time I got to college, something had happened; history had changed.

Now, Washington and Jefferson were not only two dead white males but also two of the worst deadest whitest malest figures in history. They were racists, sexists and classists. The American Revolution was an unmitigated calamity and an abject failure because it failed to free the slaves, failed to offer full political equality to women, failed to grant citizenship to Indians and failed to create an economic world in which all could compete in equal terms. Washington and Jefferson were now men who owned black slaves, exterminated Indians, subjugated women and looked down on the poor. Political correctness had turned my heroes into villains.

So there I was in college, looking at my previous hero-worship for the Founding Fathers as juvenile and adolescent.

But hold on. George Washington had slaves, but was he a villain? What about the fact that he was an incredible patriot who forged a nation?

Thomas Jefferson had slaves, but was he a villain? What about the fact that he articulated some of the greatest ideas in the political history of the world? The Declaration of Independence was a fundamental breakthrough in human history. And if the man who wrote it was imperfect not only by our standards today but even by his own, for he knew his contradictions, then does that destroy his contribution to our society?

“Heroes and villains” is just too easy. If someone whom we think of as a hero turns out to have imperfections, faults, or sins, we think of them as villains.

Life is harder than that. We have to learn that Washington and Jefferson were both great and necessary steps towards the future but also men who bought into the prejudices of their time and place. We have to both thank them for their greatness and criticize their failings.

Jewish people are raised to understand that no one is without fault or sin. The Bible is remarkable in that not one Biblical hero is perfect; not Abraham, not Moses, not King David.

In our Wednesday night Bible class, which in its 28th year continues to be a great personal pleasure for me, my friend Alex Weiss asked the question in a piercing way:

“Here’s Jacob, who becomes Israel, and he does things that we would call cowardly or sneaky. How come we have his name?”

It was a great question. Jacob was selected by G-d to be the heir of Abraham and Isaac. We say his name all the time in our prayers, invoking his name: The Gd of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob became known as Israel, and Israel is our name, the name of our people: We are the Israelites, the children of Israel.

The answer is to look at the whole person. Look at who Jacob was in our history.

Look how he fathered the twelve tribes while an indentured servant.

Look at how he wrestled with an angel and faced his worst fears.

And, as my friend Dave Ullman responded, he taught us resilience. To be resilient means to do what you have to do to survive, to adapt, to go on, to do the best you can.

Now think about the so-called heroes and villains of our lives. Just as we should reach an understanding of the important figures of history, that they are people who can be capable of both great contribution and terrible failings, we should develop a mature attitude towards people in our own lives.

We’re adolescent in our attitude toward people. They’re either heroes or villains or they don’t matter at all.

We do this all the time with our family members and friends.

We describe our parents, our spouses or ex-spouses, our siblings, our children, our friends or former friends, our in-laws, as either heroes or villains.

We have this crazy expectation that other people should be without faults and then when lo and behold we discover a fault or a failure, we throw them out the window as if they were only that one negative.

We criticize other people without mercy and without understanding and with the crazy expectation that they’ll do everything our way and G-d forbid if they don’t, they’re villains.

You should listen sometimes to the way you talk about other people.

He didn’t support me on that issue and I will never forgive him

I can’t believe anyone would dress like that; doesn’t she have any pride?

I don’t care if he got a health care bill passed; he’s trying to turn America into a socialist state.

When you think about the people in your life, see if your judgment hasn’t been too quick and too harsh.

Let’s not be so quick to be so harsh.

We have to learn to take the bad with the good. If you love someone, you will forgive their bad actions or their faults. If you don’t love the person, you probably will forgive nothing.

But Judaism says: It takes all kinds to make a minyan, to make up the ten people required for a service.

We’re each a part of the minyan

We also judge ourselves in this way, negating our wholeness for some inadequacy or some hole in our biographies.

These days, during these very tough days for a lot of us, many of us are just so disappointed in ourselves and our lives that we look at our lives and say:

“This is not where I expected to be at this age.”

“This is not what I expected life to be like at this point.”

We think that if we do not meet some arbitrary ideal of where we should be in life, how much we should have and so on, we’re just nothings, we’re failures, and we start hating ourselves as if we’re the villains of our own lives.

People define themselves negatively, just like they label others, based on one characteristic.

But that’s not how I see people. I see people in their wholeness. I know that while certain things may not have gone their way, or they may have a fault that hurts them or others or even me, I always try to see them as complex people who have more good than bad.

And on the High Holidays, when G-d is judging us, I want to remind you that G-d doesn’t judge you based on one characteristic.

I want to remind you that if G-d chose a Jacob with his faults and an Abraham with his faults, it demonstrates that G-d selects His heroes with full knowledge of their imperfections.

Judaism, listening to G-d, following the Bible, sees everyone in his or her wholeness.

Judaism doesn’t just see one part of you.

We have to take the bad with the good in our own lives and learn how to forgive ourselves. We cannot become the villains of our own stories.

You’re a doctor; you make a mistake, you get sued for malpractice.

You’re an attorney who could have framed your argument differently and lost the trial. You have to let it go.

So here’s Derek Jeter, future Hall of Fame shortstop for the world champion New York Yankees. And someone hits a grounder and it takes a bad hop and Jeter just misses it. And he looks at his glove, as if it’s the glove’s fault, as if the glove has a hole in it. And then he shrugs it off, and makes the next play. The capacity to shrug it off is important. If you let an error get in your head, you will make more errors.

You’ve heard of Derek Jeter, but do you remember Chuck Knoblauch, All-Star Second Baseman until it got into his head that he couldn’t throw the ball to first base? He ruined his career because something got into his head that was not true. He could make an accurate throw to first base. I could make an accurate throw to first base. But he made some errors and then started to believe that he couldn’t do it anymore. I promise you: If you let your errors go to your head, you’re finished.

I’m not saying to forget your mistakes. We learn from them. I‘m not asking you to forget your mistakes but I am asking you to forgive your mistakes, or at least to come to terms with them. Otherwise, you will be the villain of your own story.

Instead, we have to see ourselves as the heroes of our own lives. Sometimes, to be a hero is to come to terms with who you are and who you are not. It’s juvenile to think that you’re a superhero.

Jerry Seinfeld says that when boys are growing up and they read about Batman, Superman, Spiderman,  “… those are not fantasies …. they’re options.”

But heroes like Batman and Spiderman have changed in recent years. Now they’re complex, filled with guilt and self-doubt. Not so super; just human. It’s part of this whole leveling process of making our heroes just like us.

The best expression of this is the last Batman movie, called The Dark Knight. The movie was a huge hit, partly because it was one of the last performances by Heath Ledger, who played a character who was evil for the sake of being evil. Lost in the pandemonium over Ledger’s performance and death, what a lot of people missed was the incredible ending, where Batman says that people need heroes like the dynamic District Attorney who had turned evil, and decides to take the public blame for what that D.A. did. Batman runs off, knowing that people will see him as a villain. That’s why he’s now “the Dark Knight,” who knows that what he is doing is good and just and so he can withstand what others mistakenly think of him.

The Dark Knight, for me, is Israel in 2010, the hero that is seen as a villain.

Israel is the Dark Knight, the country that was scorned for bombing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in 1988, even though that was an incredibly wise move that made the world safer.

Israel is the Dark Knight, that unlike so many other countries that appease evil, and will soon realize the terrible mistakes that they have made, Israel calls terrorism and evil what it is and fights the fight that other countries are scared to engage in.

And then everybody jumps all over Israel for fighting that necessary fight.

Think about the recent sequence of events relating to Gaza that has prompted the vilification of Israel.

When Israel totally withdrew from Gaza, unilaterally seeking peace, no one demonstrated in support of Israel that in the hope of peace unilaterally gave up land that it had won in hard-fought conflict.

How did the people of Gaza show their appreciation for the withdrawal? By bombing Israeli towns every day. 10,000 bombs and rockets pounded Israeli towns where civilians lived. Israel warned the people of Gaza countless times to stop it.

When Israel had had enough of being shelled, it took incredible precautions not to hurt civilians. In a first in the history of warfare, Israel dropped tens of thousands of leaflets, warning the people of Gaza and telling them where military action was going to take place and pleading with them to evacuate those areas. The Israeli military made thousands of phone calls urging people to leave areas that were going to come under attack. When the fight came, and the people didn’t leave, and when civilians allowed rocket launchers in their backyards to operate, what exactly was Israel supposed to do? When schools, hospitals and mosques were used as munitions centers and staff centers, what was Israel supposed to do?

And then the world denounced Israel for bombing a school or a hospital. Israel was accused of using disproportionate force.

But by the way, any Israeli self-defense anywhere is automatically judged “disproportionate.”

What were those thousands of rockets and bombs shot into Israel? Proportionate? Appropriate?

The cold answer is “Yes, if you attack Jewish people, it is fair, appropriate, proportionate.”

If America says: “We have the right to build a fence to stop illegal immigration or inspect every suitcase or boat or plane entering our country,” we call these measures “security precautions.” If Israel protects itself, it is called barbaric and deadly.

Somehow, Israel is made into the villain.

For all of the dictators and genocidal maniacs in this world, who are allowed to do their evil every day, it is only Israel that is demonized.

But Israel is the Dark Knight. Second only to the United States, Israel is the world’s most important factor in science and technology, way out of proportion to the small size of its population. Israel is at the forefront of the arts, law and medicine. Israel has become outstanding in agriculture. As Isaiah prophesied, Israel strives to be a light to the nations. Everyone could bask in the light, if they wanted to.

Let’s take the issue of women’s rights. The Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court and one-sixth of the members of the Knesset are women. Compare this, say, to Saudi Arabia, a medieval theocracy, where women are not allowed to drive cars, where they cannot leave the country without the permission of a male relative, where women can be condemned to 60 lashes if the modesty police deem them not to be properly dressed in public.

I see the demonstrations in Europe and on college campuses in America against Israel. But just out of curiosity, where are the demonstrations on the streets of Europe and on the college campuses in America against the horrible treatment of women in those Arab countries?

If anything happens that is connected with Israel, there is an insane rush to judgment and it’s put in the headlines on Page 1. Everyone assumes that Israel is at fault. And then when they realize that Israel was not at fault to begin with, the retraction is at the bottom of page 35. And no one ever sees the truth.

See the truth. Don’t believe the lies. And when Israel is vilified, remember that she is the Dark Knight, on the front lines against terrorism.

Know who the real villains are; they’re the ones who need to vilify the innocent.

There are villains in this world, and we have to recognize them and protect ourselves from them.

But there also are people in your life whom you’ve decided are villains who may be a lot better than you allow yourself to think. And many of those so-called villains, like Washington and Jefferson, are also great heroes.

In a way, Seinfeld is right; we have taken the option of heroism. I understood this a couple of years ago when I listened to a man named Paul Rusesabagina. If you know the story of Hotel Rwanda, you know that the people of the African country of Rwanda were caught in a deadly war. Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a hotel, observed his neighbors being killed. Paul curried favor with people of influence, bribing them with money and alcohol, trying to keep his family safe. When civil war erupted and Paul’s neighbors were threatened, he negotiated for their safety and brought everyone to the hotel. He eventually saved over 1200 refugees at his hotel.

Rusesabagina spoke in this area at my daughter Sarah’s school a couple of years ago and I went to hear him, because to me he is a Schindler, someone who saved others at the risk of his own life. And here’s what he said:

“You don’t make a decision to become a hero. I happened to be the manager of a hotel where people sought refuge from genocide.”

And I walked away thinking: “Maybe, in our lives, heroism is thrust on us by the cards we’re dealt. You don’t make a decision to be a hero.”

You are a hero if you’re doing what life has made you do.

Because you don’t have to do it; lots of people run away from their responsibilities. Lots of fathers abandon their children. Lots of people have taken the easy way out through drugs.

Seinfeld was right; heroism is an option. We don’t wear bat costumes and we didn’t write the Declaration of Independence but we choose to carry on with our lives.

Plenty of people have the chance to be heroes and don’t take it.

So maybe to be a hero is to do what life asks of you.

I think about the people who are here in this room who, in my mind, are heroes.

Life didn’t throw refugees to their hotels

But they stayed with their responsibilities,

working extra jobs,

denying themselves any pleasure to take care of their loved ones.

They fought a disease all by themselves.

So as you’re judging yourself on these High Holidays, remember: You’re not a villain because you don’t have this or you never got that. Don’t just concentrate on what you don’t have.

Maybe, if you’d think about it, the Dark Knight in your life is you, a dark knight because your heroism is dark and unknown and unclear to you.

Heroes are those who believe and are resilient and keep going and keep trying.

You are a hero if you do the best you can.

You’re a hero if you do what life asks of you.

Do you get it? You’re more of a hero than you ever knew.