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Being a hero is not cool

"I'm sorry," [Ron] said in a thick voice. "I'm sorry I left. I know I was a -- a --"

He looked around at the darkness, as if hoping a bad enough word would swoop down upon him and claim him.

"You've sort of made up for it tonight," said Harry. "Getting the sword. Finishing off the Horcrux. Saving my life."

"That makes me sound a lot cooler than I was," Ron mumbled.

"Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was," said Harry. "I've been trying to tell you that for years."

-- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


One of the things I love about the Harry Potter series, and I believe one of the reasons it was so staggeringly successful, is that the heroes are so relatable. Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others are not superheroes, gifted with extraordinary powers (well...okay, they can do magic, but then so can pretty much everyone else in the story). They are normal human beings, with human failings, who regularly screw up, and then redeem themselves.

Similarly, their heroics are not superhuman actions. As Harry is constantly at pains to point out to his admirers, he doesn't ever feel like he's particularly special; he gets out of all his tight spots by raw nerve and improvisation. Harry is not Superman; he's just...Harry.


This is one of the areas where I think contemporary Jewish writing has failed our generation, and particularly in the genre of biographies. For some reason, the published life stories of Torah scholars nowadays tend to follow the pattern of showing how Rabbi X showed extraordinary brilliance, even as a youngster; he had sterling character traits, was always polite, considerate, helpful, and certainly never would have pulled his sister's ponytail, had a temper tantrum, or got sent home from school for fighting.


I think I understand what they are trying to do, which is instilling such an awe and reverence for great rabbis that we are inspired by their example and look up to them as our role models and leaders. Unfortunately, though, I think these stories do more damage than good. By turning our rabbis into superheroes, we deny "regular" people the ability to become heroes themselves. "Me? Become a great person? I could never do that! I'm not a superhuman like Rabbi X."


I write this as a prelude to sharing a very personal experience with you.


Last week, I donated a kidney to a person I had never met. Lots of my friends and family sent me messages afterwards to say what a hero/unbelievable person/"tzaddik" I am, often accompanied by some or other version of, "I could never do that", or "I don't know how you managed to do that". And there's me, thinking: I didn't do anything. All I did was sign a few consent forms, submit to a bunch of medical tests, and fail to say "No" at any point in the process. All I had to do in the hospital was lie down and let things happen.

Video: meeting my recipient (Hebrew)


Now, of course this downplays the very real (and scary) exercise of (a) making a conscious decision that the pain and inconvenience I would have to go through to donate a kidney could not possibly compare to the gain of literally saving another person's life, and (b) therefore actively reaching out to Matnat Chaim to find out more about becoming a donor. (And if you think the "life-saving" part is an exaggeration, I invite you to have a conversation with someone who is or has been dependent on dialysis.) Thereafter, I willingly drove to all my medical tests, and brought myself to the hospital for the operation. There were no classic heroics involved; I never had to charge into a burning building to save a trapped child; I never had to body-tackle someone out of the path of an oncoming train. I just did simple, prosaic things, and had the courage to continue even when I was afraid...and from that, a life was saved.


I don't want this to come across as a humblebrag. I don't need anyone's praise or admiration. I only choose to publicize my story because I hope it will inspire others to be heroes themselves. Not everyone has the ability to become a kidney donor, but everyone in their own way has the opportunity to make a difference to the world. Sometimes you can create the most phenomenal outcomes, just by continually performing seemingly insignificant actions that move you in the direction of something greater.


You don't need to be cool to be a hero. Superheroes are cool. Real heroes are...real.

©2017 by Shaul Behr