The testing point

The Power of Stories. A Series.

Jewish Family Education

With Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

“During the Second World War,” recounts Rabbi Menashe Feiger, “a Nazi officer came over to my mother and said that he was going to shoot her. ‘Turn around and look away!’ he cruelly shouted at her. ‘If you are going to shoot me, you will have to look me straight in the eyes,’ she replied. The Nazi didn’t shoot.”

Courage. In books or online, it’s rarely listed along with Jewish values like gratitude, justice, and lovingkindness or identified as central to a Jewish worldview.

In fact, when surveyed by Forward, not one of the 21 rabbis from across the spectrum even alluded to courage.

And yet biblical and rabbinic literature are filled with courageous characters. Abraham, who smashes his father’s idols. The midwives who defy Pharaoh’s murderous order. Nachshon, who advances first into the Sea of Reeds. The daughters of Zelophehad who petition Moses for the right to inherit.

David, who faces down the mighty Goliath with a slingshot. Mordechai, who refuses to bow to Haman, and Esther, who defies court protocol to approach the king.

“Courage lurks at the background of many Jewish texts,” Rabbi Yizchak Blau points out.

Similarly, two mitzvot (commandments) are implied calls to act with courage. The Torah warns judges “not to cater their decisions to aristocrats or bullies.”

Biblical priests exhort soldiers before battle, “Do not be fainthearted.” And although not a commandment, the recurrent biblical phrase hazak v’ematz (strength and courage) is a clarion call for a courageous spirit when facing all manner of challenges and dangers.

Unlike the effortless fearlessness of inborn bravery, courage is a choice, explains blogger Brette Warshaw. From the French root meaning “heart,” it’s the willingness to confront challenges despite one’s fears.

In Hebrew, courage is ometz lev, literally “strength of heart” or “inner strength.”

Rabbi Marc Margolius describes it as “an innately endowed spiritual and ethical trait, the human capacity to do what is right and just, even in the face of challenging emotions. Ometz lev isn’t the absence of fear, but the inner strength to move forward despite fear.”

Ometz lev is at the heart of some of the best Jewish storytelling.

The garden
Long ago in Jerusalem lived a wise and caring king, but he had no heir. So he invited the kingdom’s school-age children to a special gathering to help him choose one.

Each child was given a small bag of seeds and told to plant a garden. Later, he would tour the kingdom to determine whose garden had grown the best, and that child would be his heir.

When the king began touring, he saw magnificent gardens of every design. But he didn’t smile nor did he speak.

Then he arrived at Arial’s garden. The soil was bare. There wasn’t even a seedling. When the king asked about her lack of success, Arial nervously explained that she had tried everything: watering and weeding, fertilizing and aerating, even seeking advice from gardeners and landscapers. But the royal seeds simply wouldn’t grow.

The king smiled and declared Arial his heir. “This wasn’t a test of gardening, but of character,” he explained to his people. “All the royal seeds were boiled before being given to the children — they couldn’t grow. Only Arial had the courage to stick with the rules, seek advice, try new approaches, and honestly tell me what happened. She has shown you why she is worthy of being your next ruler.”

The soldier
His draft notice from the czar’s army in hand, a young yeshiva student went to the Rebbe, the famed S’fas Emes, for a blessing to be saved from war. The Holy Master studied the youngster, disappeared, then returned with a manual on circumcision. The Rebbe told the young man to learn how to perform a bris, gave his blessing, and sent him on his way.

In basic training, where the peasant soldiers were raucous, undisciplined, and dirty, life was very difficult for the yeshiva student. But he worked hard to look and act like a proper soldier, and in spare moments or when especially lonely, he studied the Rebbe’s little manual from cover to cover.

One day, he was ordered to report to the Russian general, who promptly aimed his pistol at the boy and began peppering him with questions and shouting orders.

“Is it true you eat only kosher food? I order you to eat everything to build strength for the czar’s army! Is it also true you keep the Jewish Sabbath? No resting. I order you to work every day!”

The young Jew was terrified, but answered truthfully and respectfully refused to comply.

Suddenly, the general smiled, put down his pistol, and said simply, “I had to be sure.”

Secretly Jewish himself, the general had a newborn son and wanted a real kosher circumcision, one by a dedicated Jew.

Because of his courage and the Rebbe’s manual, the yeshiva student not only performed the bris but was honorably discharged by the general from the czar’s army.

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues,” concluded Maya Angelou, “because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”


Literature to share

Courage: Formulas, stories and insights by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. This how-to-guide is perfect for those who want to learn how to increase their courage in everyday situations. Not much bigger than two smartphones side by side, it’s packed with dozens of practical suggestions for dealing with everything from anxiety and self-image to speaking up and quitting a project. Best of all, the insights are gleaned from real people who grew their own courage. Easily read in one sitting, each single-topic chapter is no more than a few pages, each with a blueprint for how to implement a courage-building idea. Pick and choose or try them all.

Kayla and Kugel’s Happy Hanukkah by Ann Koffsky. Along with introducing the Chanukah menorah and dreidel, Kayla and her dog, Kugel, offer a simple retelling of the Chanukah story and the miracle of the oil. Sepia pages are cleverly used as visual cues to the ancient story, while lively modern illustrations and engaging characters for modern times make this an excellent Chanukah reading choice. Perfect for preschool and primary ages.

To read the complete December 2021 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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