Musing: Atticus and the Yomim Nora’im

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The American 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in the news this summer, the result of the publication of an earlier version of it, a sequel in reality, that its author, Harper Lee, had written, and which was apparently only recently discovered.

Millions have found the 1960 book inspiring, and it is indeed a rare work.  It wonderfully captures Southern American life in the 1940s, and deals thoughtfully with themes like racism and friendship.  What’s more, it is suffused with subtle humor.

And it has provided American culture with a hero, in the form of “Atticus,” as the father of the narrator, a little girl at the time the novel takes place, is called.  Atticus, a lawyer, is a paragon of honor, rectitude and compassion, and, although a mere fictional character, has been an inspiration to many a living lawyer and judge.  The Alabama State Bar even erected a monument to him.

Were I a literature teacher and had assigned the book to students, a question I would ask them would be to identify Atticus’ most heroic act.  Some might point to his acceptance of the legal case at the heart of the book, defending a black man against a white accuser.  Others to his standing up to a crowd intent on a lynching of the suspect.  Some might even respond with his facing down of a mad dog, which he kills with a single rifle shot.

My own answer to my question, though, would be something very different.  At one point in the book, it is recounted how a character, Bob Ewell, a wretch intent on seeing the defendant found guilty and executed, approaches Atticus on the street and spits in his face.

Atticus, who has every reason and ability to lay the scoundrel low, instead, in the words of the woman recounting the incident, “didn’t bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and stood there and let Mr. Ewell call him names wild horses could not bring her to repeat.”

In Hebrew, the closest word to “hero” is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its definition is provided us in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos:  “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

Heroism and strength in Judaism are evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.  Something to think about as the Days of Judgment grow closer.