From Where I Stand

By Rabbi Yossy Goldman

“Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted?”

–Devarim 20:8

What makes a real-life hero? Are most normal people cowards and only a few crazies who throw caution to the wind the fearless few?

In this week’s parashah, the Torah discusses war and some of the moral imperatives that apply even under fire. Specifically, we read of the exemptions that entitled a soldier to leave the front. One of these was “the man who is fearful and fainthearted.” Lest his cowardice melt the hearts of his comrades in arms and demoralize them, the Torah rules that he should rather go home and join the civil service.

Rambam rules that this exemption only applied to wars which were optional for political or territorial reasons (milchemes reshus) but not to obligatory wars where the Torah itself mandated Israel to go into battle (milchemes mitzvah), for example, to conquer the Promised Land.

But where is the logic here? Why the distinction? If the problem is that the coward’s fear will have a negative effect on his colleagues in combat, then that is a psychological fact of life. What difference does it make if the war is obligated by G‑d or by Jewish leadership of the day? Surely a coward is a coward whatever the war!

But Rambam is sharing with us a striking analysis of human nature. Fear and anxiety are magnified when there is more than one option open to us. When we have the choice of fighting or not, when war is not strictly commanded by G‑d and it’s only a decision by the government of the day, then I may very well choose to retreat, to live and perhaps fight another day. But when there is no choice, when it is a non-negotiable mitzvah from G‑d that this war be fought, then even cowards become heroes.

I am fond of quoting that famous American philosopher, John Wayne, who once said, “True courage is not the absence of fear. True courage is being scared like hell and saddling up anyway.” Now that’s a wise cowboy. The fearless few are indeed strange exceptions. Most normal people experience fear in scary situations. Those of good courage face up to the fear and confront it.

I can tell you many stories of ordinary people who became heroes. How? By overcoming their fears and doing whatever deed had to be done. A friend’s father, the late Pinne Merkel, once ran into a shul on fire in the old neighborhood of Doornfontein, Johannesburg, to rescue the Torahs from the Holy Ark. The firemen warned him not to, but he ran in anyway. Pinne was not a religious man. But for him, saving the Torah scrolls was not up for negotiation. It just had to be done, so an ordinary Jew became a holy hero.

Hugh Raichlin, son of a deceased congregant, is not a doctor. He’s a lawyer. But when his wife was in labor and suddenly things started happening much too quickly, he delivered his own child inside the car in the parking lot of the maternity hospital. He wasn’t looking for heroism. He had no option. Heroism found him.

When something just has to happen, we find a way to make it happen. We pluck up the courage and act valiantly. Haven’t we heard stories of women lifting heavy cars to rescue their child trapped underneath?

My own father used to be a chain smoker. Thank G‑d, he eventually gave up the habit. It often amazed me that the same person who would never be without a cigarette between his fingers six days a week, was able to go cold turkey every Shabbos! For six days he couldn’t wait two minutes, but once a week he waited for 25 hours! How? Keeping Shabbat for him was simply a non-negotiable commitment, so he had no option and survived. As soon as Shabbat was over, though, he and his fellow Shabbos-observant smokers would make a mad dash for the nearest pack.

It applies to life, marriage, business–to everything. If something is so important to us that to lose it would be unthinkable, we discover that we really can make a plan after all. In our Jewish lives, too, when we accept that a particular mitzvah is a sacred principle and inviolate, we will observe it no matter what the challenge.

So, cowards of the world, unite. Let us be bold and brave and do what we know must be done. That’s how ordinary people become heroes. v

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at

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