Three days following the death of two-year-old Lane Graves, who was killed by an alligator in a lagoon in Orlando, Florida, a five-year-old boy in Colorado was attacked by a mountain-lion. On Friday, June 17, the boy’s mother heard desperate screams. Immediately, she ran out to the yard of her Aspen home and found the cougar atop her son. With one hand she grabbed the cougar’s paw and with the other pried its mouth off her son’s head and neck. She succeeded in rescuing her son from the jaws of death. Literally.
Although Graves’ incident ended heartbreakingly, it was not without a glimmer of heroism. Matt Graves made an attempt to wrestle his son away from the alligator but was unsuccessful. The alligator probably swam away with Lane too quickly for Graves to have a decent chance of saving the child.
Believe it or not, there was a third animal-vs.-person incident that made headlines that week. On the same Friday as the cougar attack in Colorado, Joanne Barnaby and her dog Joey came up against a menacing wolf in a northwest Canadian forest. For 12 long hours, the wolf kept trying to separate Barnaby from her dog — continuously blocking their path and forcing them ever deeper into the woods. Barnaby’s salvation eventually came in the unlikely form of a mother bear. Barnaby approached its cubs — with the wolf following, of course — in the hope that mama-bear would view the wolf as a threat. The plan worked. When the crashing noises of the bear-wolf conflict commenced, Barnaby and her dog made a mad dash, eventually returning to the safety of civilization.
I think there is a common denominator to these three stories. In each situation, the protagonist undertook an action, full-throttle, that he or she would have otherwise never imagined doing. Think about it. Can you see yourself ever wrestling an alligator or a lion? Or try to imagine yourself instigating a fight between a wolf and a bear by luring the latter towards the former’s cubs. Just doesn’t work, does it? There are very, very few people who would be willing to attempt such things even in exchange for a lot of money. Yet, when you or your child’s life is in grave danger, you can suddenly discover that you have the mental preparedness and physical strength for something you thought only Shimshon Hagibor could do!
Of course, we all know the pseudo-scientific label for this phenomenon is adrenalin, and, for some reason, labeling it and postulating that specific hormones coursing through the bloodstream are the mechanism behind it seems to undermine the wonder of it. But that’s really neither here nor there — at least as far as the point of this article is concerned. What is relevant is the hero definition that all this brings to the fore.
The mother who extricated her son from the attacking cougar was lauded as a hero by Deputy Sherriff Michael Buglione — an appellation well deserved. I don’t recall Matt Graves being called a hero for trying to wrestle his son away from the alligator, but that’s probably because the tragedy completely overshadowed his effort. No doubt, though, his brave attempt to rescue his son, albeit unsuccessful, should be considered no less heroic. Ditto that vis-à-vis Barnaby’s tenacious and successful battle of wills and wit against the menacing wolf.
To put this all into perspective, though, let’s take a sharp turn to the well-known Midrash about Moshe Rabbeinu compassionately carrying his errant lamb back to the flock. Both Dovid Hamelech and Moshe Rabbeinu, says the Midrash, were tested by how they dealt with their flocks of sheep. Harav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, quoting Harav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, zy”a, asked: Would it not make more sense for Hashem to test the leaders of Klal Yisrael with some fantastic act of mesirus nefesh? Doesn’t shepherding sound a bit petty as a prerequisite for such an august position?
The answer is that an isolated feat — grand as it may be — does not reveal a person’s true mettle. Almost anyone, emphasized Rav Weinberg, in a moment of incredibly intense stress can pass a test of mesirus nefesh with flying colors. But to successfully navigate the nitty-gritty of the day-in day-out of life — that’s what identifies a true Gadol b’Yisrael.
Are tremendous acts of bravery deserving of being called heroism? Sure. But, at the same time, the real, true heroes in this world are those who live life — each day, each hour — according to the morality and guiding light that Hashem has given us. And those heroes are the ones most often unsung. But you know who you are.