By Rabbi Daniel Wolpe
When my brothers and I were children, we used to listen to a record of songs about the Tanakh. Our favorite was “Samson, Mighty Samson.”
“His arms were big as melons/His shoulders hard as rocks/He killed a mighty army/with the jawbone of an ox.” (Actually, it was the jawbone of something else, but this was a children’s song.)
As we’d sing this song, we would flex our muscles and each of us, in turn, would pretend to be Samson.
This week, we read Parshat Naso. Naso outlines the various rules of the Nazarite, so naturally, the haftarah is about the birth of Samson, arguably the most famous Nazarite in history. But as we examine the story of Samson, we realize that he is an atypical Jewish hero.
In fact, it could be argued that Samson is the least intelligent hero in the entire Tanakh. He consistently chooses to solve his problems with might instead of intellect, and he is deceived by Delilah not once, not twice, but three times.
Ever since I was a teenager, I was bothered by this story.
I could not understand how God could have chosen such an unlikely person to be a hero of our tradition, a tradition that admires intellect and has, at best, an ambiguous relationship with shows of strength.
This tension was resolved when I taught the Book of Shoftim (Judges) to a group of 10th- graders some years ago. When we got to the story of Samson, I shared my feelings about the story with them. I then gave them the assignment to write an essay on why God might have chosen Samson. The answers I received were all very good, but one stuck out from all of the others. One young lady in the class wrote simply, “I believe God chose Samson to teach us that all of us have the ability to be heroes.”
In fact, one can argue that this is a major message of the Tanakh. If we look at the heroes God chose, from Abraham to Moshe to Samson to King David, none of them seem to have many heroic qualities in the beginning.
Abraham appears out of nowhere in the Torah, to be chosen by God to be the forefather of God’s people. Moshe, although raised a prince in Pharoah’s home, murders a man and then has to flee when it is discovered. David’s own family thought of him as a little man without much potential.
Yet all became great heroes.
Becoming a hero is not about being greater than anyone else, or smarter than anyone else, or having more money than anyone else. Being a hero is about allowing one’s heart to be bigger than one might have thought it could be. It’s about loving God’s creations, daring to do what’s right even in circumstances when doing wrong would be easier, and choosing to step up when others are laying low.
From the simple act of giving tzedakah to being sensitive to those around us who are in pain, every day has a moment when we can be heroic.
In his monumental work, The Gentleman And The Jew, Maurice Samuels explains what it was like to grow up as a Jew in England.
He was, as a young man, attracted to the British concept of the gentleman. The gentleman was not just a person who held doors open for ladies and always had a light for their cigarettes. The gentleman, with all due respect to Roger Moore who left us this week, was James Bond.
He was the man who, while holding on to a cable car miles in the air as the bad guy stepped on his fingers, responded to a woman’s cry of “Hang on, James!” with “The thought had crossed my mind.” The gentleman looked into the face of danger and laughed.
To Samuels, as a young man, that was an enticing image. However, the image of the Jew was of the old, bearded man studying Talmud. It was something of which the young Samuels was ashamed.
But as he grew older, he realized that to the gentleman, life was a game. To the Jew, life was holy. He realized that Jewish heroics lay not in disarming the bomb only three seconds before it exploded, but in treating each individual and each moment with the holiness that both deserved.
This is neither a somber nor a difficult task. Every day, each of us can choose, like Samson, to be a hero. We can do volunteer work within our community, befriend someone in our shul who looks lonely, go to the shiva of someone we barely know to make sure they have a minyan, smile at the cashier in the supermarket or the toll plaza.
These are not great actions. They will not put us in record books or make us go down in history. But when a 15-year-old girl can remind us what the true message of the story of Samson is, then we can take the time, each day, to fulfill the mission that the Tanakh has set before us and prove that she is right — that everyone can be a hero.
Rabbi Daniel Wolpe is the interim rabbi at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.