Courage: the Essential Virtue

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When Avram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, who had been born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night he and his servants divided his forces against them, then attacked and pursued them all the way to Hovah, north of Dammesek. He recovered all the goods and brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, together with the women and the other people. Genesis 14:14–16, CJB

As Screwtape observes in one of his final notes to his disciple Wormwood, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality” (CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters). Without courage, Screwtape continues, every other virtue is conditional—we’ll practice it only as long as it’s safe or not too costly. “Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

In her recent book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior defines courage by building on the Latin root of the word, cor, which means heart. “Courage requires putting a greater good before a lesser good. Courage is getting your heart in the right place at the right time despite the obstacles.” Prior’s definition implies a moral quality to courage; it’s not just boldness or daring, but “must refer to some outside, objective standard of goodness.”

A brave act must be for a noble end in order to constitute the virtue of courage. Aristotle says that ‘it is for the sake of what is noble that the courageous person stands his ground.’ An act of daring committed for an ignoble purpose may be bold, but it’s not truly courageous. It may, in fact, be worse. Ambrose says that ‘fortitude without justice is the source of wickedness.’ Such acts cannot be considered virtuous and therefore are not acts of courage. Courage must always be connected to a just end.

As we follow Abraham’s journey with God, we’ll notice that it doesn’t always lead him around the trials and it doesn’t generally trace out the easiest route from point A to point B. Instead it shows him, and us, how to face and push through the sort of obstacles we’re bound to face on our own journeys. On the other hand, though, it won’t take us into an obstacle-laden route just for the sake of the challenge, as often happens in extreme adventures these days. (Like a Grand Canyon R2R2R for example, a run from the south rim to the north rim and back—in one day! “A rim-to-rim crossing is roughly 21 miles with around 5,700 feet of vertical gain and 4,700-foot descent one way. A rim-to-rim-to-rim traverse doubles that” Abraham’s journey has God-given purpose, beyond the admittedly worthy R2R2R-like purpose of just getting it done. God called Abraham out of his country and kindred and father’s house to bring him to a new land where he will found a family that becomes a great nation and the source of blessing to all the nations. Abraham didn’t embark on his great journey for the adventure of it, but for a higher purpose. Abraham has courage, not bravado.

Obedience to God is always a “just end” and Abraham has already shown true courage in his response to God’s command Lekh l’kha, “Get going.” If we recognize this, we shouldn’t be so surprised to see our patriarch leading an armed militia in a daring raid to strike four retreating armies, rescue his nephew Lot and all the other captives, and carry off a load of booty in the process.

Commentator Nahum Sarna notes that this account brings “into prominence new facets of Abram’s character. The one who displayed fear and evasiveness in Egypt now shows himself to be decisive and courageous in the promised land. The man of peace knows how to exhibit skill and heroism in battle” (JPS Torah Commentary). True, Abraham displays courage and heroism in this part of his journey, but we should have recognized this virtue in him earlier, from the beginning.

Words like courage and heroism, or the Hebrew equivalents, however, aren’t pronounced directly here. It’s only much later that the Torah introduces a term that is most often translated as courage. In Moses’ final speech to the people he has led for forty years in the wilderness, he tells them to “be strong and courageous” after he leaves them. Then he turns to Joshua, who will take over after his death, with the same charge: “be strong and courageous” (Deut 31:6–7, 23). The phrase is repeated again four times in the first chapter of Joshua. In Hebrew it is hazak v’amatz, with amatz signifying “courage” or “courageous.”

Amatz makes just one appearance in the story of Abraham’s family, but it’s a telling usage. It shows up while Abraham’s grandsons Esau and Jacob are still in the womb.

The children struggled together within [Rebekah], and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger (ye’ematz) than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.” Gen 25:22–23

Of all the defining qualities that Hashem might have cited to distinguish between the younger, Jacob, and the elder, Esau, he noted only this one, amatz, courage, fortitude. Without courage Jacob and his descendants would be likely to fall short in practicing all the other virtues, as Screwtape noted.

Sustaining the legacy of Abraham is going to take guts, and it still does. Abraham’s journey and the journeys of Isaac and Jacob after him are fueled by courage. They remind me to watch for turns in my own journey that I might avoid because they’re too risky or dangerous, and to count on Hashem for the courage to take them on instead.



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