Once upon a time society provided endless examples of universally admired figures. With almost no thought at all, as a teacher, I could pluck the names of statesmen, sports stars, or philanthropists out of the air to illustrate the value of a good reputation and popular respect.
But the list has continued to shrink. Dishonesty, incompetence, abuse of power, perverse lifestyles, and undisguised greed have left the world of celebrity bereft of genuine heroes. And the latest shroud to obscure the constellation of stars has come in the form of baseball's steroid scandals most notably the discrediting of the sport's erstwhile fair-haired boy, Roger Clemens.
Although the Rocket remains innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion has very nearly passed judgment on one of baseball's most successful pitchers. If events continue to unfold as they have, the asterisk that will attach itself to Mr. Clemen's career stats will eclipse virtually all he has accomplished. He will be remembered, together with Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, as a fallen hero who stole the respect of his admirers before falling forever under a shadow of disrepute.
The steroid scandal took on a new significance for me after I was asked a seemingly unrelated question by an "interviewer" from the school paper: If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?
I didn't have an answer then. I don't have one now, either.
However, with a little research I discovered that nearly the entire pantheon of superheroes Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, and the Green Lantern were created by Jewish writers and artists beginning in the 1930s. For the not-yet assimilated Jew trying to find his place in secular society, the invincible alter ego of the mild-mannered misfit was the perfect symbol of cultural ambivalence.
Although we dare not diminish the luminaries of Jewish tradition by mistaking them for cartoon characters, there is a critical point in common between the heroes of Jewish tradition and the heroes of comic book fantasy: all recognized that their unique talents and abilities obligated them in service beyond individual self-interest.
The heroes of the Bible did not seek greatness. Moses tried to argue his way out of the yoke of national leadership. The prophet Jeremiah protested that he was too young and inexperienced to rebuke his fellow Jews. Samson's divine mission was prophesied before his birth. Yet each of them rose to the responsibility imposed upon him by the power with which he was endowed by his Creator.
How reassuring, therefore, to discover in our distinctly unheroic generation that perhaps some heroes yet remain who are worthy of our respect. When implicated (so far without evidence) in the steroid scandal, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols had this to say:
"I don't have to prove myself. Since 2001, I've been proving myself with the numbers. I've been proving myself every year. How much better can I get? Only G-d knows how much better [I can] get. But do I need to cheat in this game to get better?
"Baseball is just a hobby, man," Mr. Pujols said. "G-d has blessed me. And I fear G-d too much for me to do a stupid thing. I fear Him. If I do some stupid things to help me out, to hit .400 or three-something or hit 30 home runs, He's going to take that away from me."
It's refreshing to hear a contemporary superstar credit the Almighty and not himself for his accomplishments and recognize the abuse of natural ability as a betrayal of trust. And his message is equally relevant even for those of us not endowed with extraordinary physical or mental talent. For within the recesses of each individual soul lies a potential for greatness that no one else on earth is able to fulfill.
The great Chassidic master Rebbe Zisha was once asked whether, if he had the choice, he would switch places the patriarch Abraham. Rebbe Zisha offered two reasons why he would not. First, doing so would not benefit the Almighty at all: there would still be one Abraham and one Zisha. Second, and more important, Rebbe Zisha explained that he was not worried that the Heavenly Court might ask him, on the day of his arrival in the next world, why he had not attained the spiritual level of Abraham.
"I have an excellent answer ready for them," Rebbe Zisha said. "I will say that, since I was not created with the potential of Abraham, I cannot be expected to have reached the level of Abraham.
"However," continued Rebbe Zisha, "there is one question of which I am afraid. When they ask me, 'Zisha, explain why you did not reach the level of Zisha,' what will I be able to reply?"
How sad for those who seek any means to be more than what they are. It is by striving to become all that we are meant to be that every one of us can achieve true greatness.
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