Profiles in Courage-A Kol Nidre Sermon

Two years after John F. Kennedy was elected Senator from Massachusetts, he wrote a book called Profiles in Courage that would win a Pulitzer Prize and also help propel this handsome young senator into the White House three years later. Kennedy, a history buff, chose to profile eight political figures whose courage while in office was, shall we say, out of the ordinary. Kennedy consciously sought to emulate those figures in his own Presidency; most historians would judge that Kennedy did that admirably, particularly in his ability to walk the world back from the ledge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I want to speak tonight about what it takes for each of us to live our lives as a “profile in courage.”

A couple of years ago, on the heels of a sermon I delivered called “WWMD: In Search of Character and Ethics”, I taught a course for Adat Shalom on Musar, Jewish ethical teachings. For each midah, the Hebrew term for a positive character trait, we had a worksheet that helped participants make that midah more present in their lives. Character, not unlike proficiency at an instrument or in a sport, requires practice, a lot of practice. One of the entries on that worksheet was a space asking each participant to fill in the name of someone who was a living role model for that midah. Definitions take you only so far. Seeing how a character trait is embodied by a real person, responding to real circumstances makes it much more possible for us to try to emulate that trait.

For this reason, before I offer a Jewish spin on the character trait of courage, let’s first talk role models.

Role Models

There is hardly a better role model in the world today for “courage” than Nelson Mandela. The outline of his story is familiar. A leader in the African National Congress which was dedicated to ending the Apartheid regime in South Africa, he was convicted of sabotage and treason in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment. After 27 years in jail he was released in 1990 amid escalating international pressure and civil unrest. He partnered with President F.W. DeClerk to establish free, multi-racial elections in 1994, an election that he won, allowing him to ascend to the Presidency of South Africa, serving five years, from 1994-1999.

What was so notable about Mandela’s leadership was his ability to rise above anger and to withstand the natural tendency to seek revenge and retribution. He did not forget the oppression and suffering that black South Africans experienced at the hands of the white, Apartheid regime. He paid a personal price for fighting that system every day of his imprisonment. Yet he also understood that the future of his country depended on uniting the country, white and black together. His decision to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Panel headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the vehicle for Mandela to create a historical record of the injustice of the Apartheid regime without allowing the past to doom the country to decades of violence and retribution.

Even more surprising, especially to Blacks in South Africa, was his decision to meet with senior figures of the hated Apartheid regime. Emphasizing personal forgiveness and reconciliation, he announced that “courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”

When South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela became fan #1 of the South African national team, the Springboks, even though the team and the sport itself was the chosen pastime of the white minority. As portrayed in the movie, Invictus, with Matt Damon, when South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final, Mandela presented the trophy wearing a Springbok shirt. Some say that it was at that moment that Mandela succeeded in uniting a country that, under other circumstances, under a political leader without Mandela’s vision and moral courage, would have been mired in racial conflict for another century.

Other Role Models

Jews too have a Mandela like figure in the person of Natan Sharansky. In the 25 years that I spent as an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement, Sharansky was one of my personal heroes. Thousands of Soviet Jews became refuseniks when they were refused permission to emigrate by Soviet officials and they often lost their jobs as a punishment for their “civic ingratitude”. Hundreds of other Jewish political activists were imprisoned on trumped up charges, sometimes for drug charges after the KGB planted drugs in their apartments. But Sharansky was the best known of all Soviet Jewish refuseniks.

He was the most public of all activists in speaking to the western media on the blatant human rights abuses of the Soviet government. He also refused the requests of Jewish organizations that asked him to avoid getting involved in championing the rights of other Soviet dissidents. They felt that such partnerships would lessen the chances for success on the Soviet Jewry issue. But one of Sharansky’s closest friends and colleagues was Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet atomic bomb, a non-Jew who became a political critic of the Soviet government. Sharansky was resolute in his commitment to human rights for all Soviet citizens, not just for Jews.

If you want to understand what courage looks like read Sharansky’s memoir of his nine years in prison, Fear No Evil. The most obvious example of courage is that he refused to betray any of his colleagues to the KGB, paying the price time and again by being put into solitary confinement. But even move importantly was his refusal to capitulate to KGB intimidation that he would be put to death. He continued to live as a free man in his mind, even as his body was imprisoned. Within a year of being released from prison, he stood on the stage of the Summit Rally for Soviet Jewry at the Capitol here in Washington D.C. in December 1987, a symbol that one man of courage could defeat the Soviet state. Within four years of that rally, close to a million Jews had re-enacted the Biblical Exodus and left the Soviet Union for Israel and the West and the Soviet Union was left on the dustbin of history.

Sometimes courage comes in surprising packages. Malala Yousafszi, the Pakistinian school girl was a hero even before she was almost killed by a Taliban assassin last October and even before she addressed the UN this summer. At age 12 Malala started blogging for the BBC under a pseudonym in order to bring the world’s attention to the need to educate young girls in the Moslem world. By the age of 13 she began to speak at public gatherings and to the press. At age 14, she received Pakistan’s National Children’s Peace Prize and the prime minister set up a technology college for women at her request. She began receiving death threats at age 15 but refused to stop her activism for female education. Now 16 years old and recovering from her near assassination, it is clear that her voice will not be silenced.

A final example: This year a documentary came out about one of the thousands of amazing stories of survival during the Holocaust. No Place on Earth tells the story of how Esther Stermer, a mother of six, saved her family and five other families, 38 people in all from the Nazis by taking refuge in a cave and living there for almost a year and half, 511 days. As the Nazis occupied western Ukraine, Esther led her family to one of the largest tunnel systems in the world, called the Priest Grotto. They lived there in complete darkness except when they prepared food. The head of each household sneaked out at night to forage for food. Water was found underground. Her sons, Sam and Saul, now 87 and 90 respectively, tell the story of how two Nazis on patrol found their mother on patrol early in their odyssey. With her life and that of all the others at risk, she refused to play the victim. She spoke boldly to the Nazis: “What the Furher will lose the war because an old Jewish woman is hiding in a cave with her family?” Remarkably, they left her alone and they survived the war underground.


What can we gain from pondering the lives of Nelson Mandela, Natan Sharansky, Malala Yousafszi and Esther Stermer?

It is a Jewish value called ometz lev. This value does not have a direct translation in English. Literally it means “heart-strength” and it has nothing to do with eating low cholesterol foods.  A better translation is moral courage, fortitude, resolve. When I was growing up, the epitome of strength were photos of a 20 year old Mr. Universe named Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was my role model! I decided to order the weight training ropes he was endorsing from the back of a comic book. I used the ropes religiously, every day. Months later, when the ropes failed to have their advertised result, I took solace in the teachings of Judaism that made clear that strength was in the heart, not in the biceps. Mi hu gibor, asks the Mishna; “who is brave and courageous?” Hakovesh et yitzro, “the one who is able to control his or her impulses.”  

Personal Application

The first three examples I shared with you all came to public attention because of their well publicized plights that took place in political contexts. But don’t think that just because you are unlikely to be featured on the cover of Time magazine that ometz lev does not apply to you. All of us are capable of strengthening our ometz lev.

The Book of Proverbs teaches: “the refining pot is for silver, the furnace purifies gold but God tests our hearts (17:3).” Life can be hard. We are tested every day. How?

  • Consider the mid-career professional who is let go because of the changing priorities or reduced budget of the agency. That professional now worries about how they will provide for their family, pay for college, or have self-respect within their community of peers.
  • Consider the teen who, because of awkwardness or shyness, being too smart or too dumb, being too tall or too short, or struggling with their gender identity is being bullied at school. He has no friends. She has noone to talk to. This teen considers taking his or her life to end their silent agony.
  • Consider the 60 year old adult who gets a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Just a week earlier there were things to look forward to. Life was just beginning. A vacation, children getting married, taking on a new hobby. And now the prospect is of hospitalization, dependency and saying goodbye. What of the spouse, who wants to be strong for their beloved but is undergoing their own private hell with the prospect of burying their life partner.

Each of these situations is taking place in our community right now. Each of these situations is in this very room right now. Maybe it is someone sitting right next to you.  Sometimes we know about it and there is the sustenance of sacred community and its ability to reach out and support people in their times of fear, of pain and of loss. But in many cases, we don’t ever know. The fear and the pain is borne in silence. Perhaps that silence is a sign of stoic courage; perhaps it is a sign that our society places too much emphasis on a person’s ability to “tough it out”, to be independent and not to rely on others.

In each one of these cases, we need ometz lev, the courage that comes from deep inside of ourselves. This is a courage that does not win medals for bravery but a courage that gives us the ability to confront life’s toughest challenges and go on living. Perhaps we each need a healthy dose of ometz lev just so that we can tell others that we need help and support. Perhaps the most courageous thing we can do is to say: “I’m scared, I feel all alone, I feel helpless, I need help”. One of the great gifts of a sacred community like Adat Shalom is the deep reservoir of chesed, of lovingkindness that exists here and that is shared with people in their times of deepest need. Chesed is to ometz lev as rain is to a withering plant. It sustains the life giving force within us. In the year ahead, I invite you to be part of that sacred, communal give and take. Try to grow closer to this community that needs you to sustain it and that can, in turn, sustain you in your most trying hour.  

Day to Day Life, and Death

Just to be clear, you need not be facing a life-threatening situation to find the trait of ometz lev to be helpful. In our own community I am constantly inspired by examples of people exhibiting this “courage of the heart”.

  • Parents who are raising children with physical, mental or learning disabilities, who modify their life and/or career to accommodate visits to doctors, hospitals, schools, all manner of therapists and who must support their child through the emotional turmoil of finding their place in the world.
  • People battling their own inner demons, be it a chemical dependency, food addiction, fear of social settings, each of which makes each day a struggle for balance and sanity.
  • Adults caring for aging parents watching the gradual loss of competence and independence of the people who were once your source of support. Are there any easy answers about when to bring help into a parents’ home? When to take them into your home? When to place them in a nursing home? When to move them to hospice? When to make that fateful decision about life support in a hospital?  I think not.

All of these circumstances call for ometz lev.

This past summer my mother’s sister, my Aunt Zahava, was taken to the hospital for a lung infection. The families were relatively close. Aunt Zahava and her family lived in Flushing and I grew up on Long Island so we spent a lot of time in each others’ homes. My Aunt Zahava never forgot a birthday or an anniversary and though the stroke that almost killed her 20 years ago made her physically weak, she led an active life with her second husband, Eli in Baltimore. Now in her early 80’s, the hospitalization took its toll. Soon other parts of her system started to break down. The most serious condition was a leaking heart valve that a cardiologist suggested be repaired a decade ago as a voluntary procedure. My aunt refused at the time and now the medical consensus was that in her weakened state, she would not survive heart surgery.

I visited Zahava a couple of times and she was awake and alert, surrounded by her husband and her children although she could not speak because of a trach in her throat. When Sandy and I visited her together, we stood on either side of the bed and she engaged us in conversation with her eyes. She held each of our hands and did not stop caressing us for the entire visit, a way for her to communicate her love.  A week later, with no prospect for recovery, Zahava, fully conscious, aware and mentally sharp, asked that they turn off all the life support machinery that was keeping her alive. She did not want to live that way with all that would imply for her loved ones. Her husband and children acceded to her wishes. Within a day she died.  The loss is deep and still painful for those of us who loved Zahava. What an example of heart courage! Sometimes ometz lev can not only help us learn how to live, but also how to die with grace.

The Hasidic tradition gives us a metaphor to understand the challenge of having this level of courage. It comes from R. Nahman of Bratzlav; many of you may know it as a song. R. Nahman taught: kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod; vehaikar lo lefached; “the world is a narrow bridge, and the essential lesson of life is not to be afraid”.

A Gift

Just a few weeks ago I heard an interview on NPR with Sebastian Rossouw, pastor of Regina Mundi church, the largest Roman Catholic in S. Africa, located in the black township of Soweto.  He was being asked about the legacy of Nelson Mandela and he said: “The legacy that Mandela brings is that despite what the past has dealt you, do not allow it to determine your future.

What a great Jewish lesson. Leonard Fein has written that Jews are “prisoners of hope”. I love the expression and have used it time and again. By “prisoners of hope” he meant that Judaism has taught us that it is within our power to change; not only change the world, but also change ourselves. As part of our soul-searching this season, we should ask ourselves—are we going to accept that who we are and how we behave today is all that we are capable of or do we have the courage to begin again and do better.   

Each of our role models, Nelson Mandela, Natan Sharansky, Malala Yousefzai , Esther Stermer prevailed because they had the ometz lev to look past the hand that life dealt them and create a new reality for themselves and for the world. They were “profiles in courage.”

This is also the gift of the yamim noraim, the High Holydays. To be better people, we need to strengthen our resolve. To face the challenges that will inevitably come our way this coming year, we need courage.  It is good to be reminded that within each of us is a deep well of ometz lev that we can summon up for those moments when we most need it. Then, and only then, will we realize that we don’t need to check Profiles in Courage out of the library. We just need to look in the mirror.