The Heroism of Cowardice

Friday, 2 September, 2022 - 6:50 am

Being a coward is something looked down upon by society. I remember one Chanukah night in Newark, New Jersey as a yeshivah student. I was waiting for a bus after leading a Chanukah party for elderly Jews at an old age home. I was not from the neighborhood and should have known better. In a few moments, I was virtually surrounded by some teenagers up to no good.  I could have stood my ground. But instead, realizing I was outnumbered and outsized, I noticed an escape route out of the corner of my eye and bolted.  I managed to get away unharmed and with my wallet still intact. How I outpaced the gang is still a mystery to me.

I don’t tell the story to display my courage because some will say I should have fought back. But, in retrospect, I do wonder which is more laudable? Dealing with the confrontation head-on may have been the gutsy move, but it may have led to an emergency room visit and a stolen wallet – at best.

One thing is for sure, I had to act and I had to act fast.  In that regard, I had no choice.


In this week’s parsha – Shoftim – we read about the preparation for warfare. War is always ugly, but sometimes it’s necessary.  The Torah tells us that certain individuals are exempt from fighting alongside their brothers in combat. They are: one who has recently built a home; one who has recently betrothed; one who has recently planted a vineyard; and one who is fearful of war.

The reason for the final category is, “That he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart.”

In practice, however, this is only referring to the rare instance of an optional war. In a defensive war, no options were given. To defend our people, everyone was an equal. No exceptions.

What of the concern, “That he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart?” Do we want a bunch of cowards destroying the army’s morale in a critical war defending the homeland?

My colleague, Rabbi Yossi Goldman, explained it as follows:

Fear and anxiety are magnified when there is more than one option open to us. When we have the choice of fighting or not, then I may very well choose to retreat. 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 might not be Usain Bolt, but with no other choice my speed held up.

I know I am not alone. In situations where people have no choice, they always seem to step up. Be it a mother lifting a heavy vehicle off her child or overcoming the fear of blood when a child needs help.


In life, we sometimes shy away from opportunities because we have choices.  If we can choose an easier way out, we might go for it. But if we consider something non-negotiable, we often manage to succeed.

During the month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holidays, let us remember this message. We can either look at Torah and mitzvot as negotiable items on our spiritual smorgasbord, in which case we often will never muster up the courage for change.

Or, we can recognize that – cowards or not – we have the power to change if something is non-negotiable. If a mitzvah is non-negotiable, it will get done.

Stop thinking of yourself in terms of spiritual cowardice versus courage. Start thinking of yourself as negotiating the non-negotiable. You’ll see the type of hero you really are.

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