What makes for a good tragedy? What ingredients need to go into a play or story for it to evoke strong emotion from the audience? This topic dates back to the times of the ancient Greeks, who invented the word “tragedy” and who considered it a very important form of entertainment. This Greek word actually translates as “goat song,” and scholars suggest that either a goat was the reward for a good tragic performance or that a chorus would sing around a goat before its sacrifice after a really good play.
While the ancients were debating the proper ingredients for theatrical tragedy, the Torah was concerned about tragedy in real life. In creating an Israeli army, Scripture says that the draft board should exempt certain potentially tragic figures. For example, any man who has just constructed a new home and has not had a chance to live in it for the first year is exempt from the draft. The same applies to a man who has just gotten married and hasn’t had a chance to live with his wife for the first year.
The tragedy of these events is that a man invests so much effort and resources into building a new house. All his dreams and aspirations are wrapped up in his new home. That he won’t enjoy the fruits of his labor is tragic enough, but what’s worse is that another man will move into his home and enjoy all that he so painstakingly immersed into the endeavor. As the Rashi commentary states: “This creates great agony for the soul.”
The Gerrer Rebbe (Rabbi A. M. Alter, d. 1948) once commented that there’s a deeper tragedy here. The last thoughts of a Jewish soldier on the battlefield, as his last sparks of life are ebbing away, should be about meeting his Maker, making peace with his life and repenting one last time. Instead, this poor soul can’t stop thinking about his new patio deck. “Oh, my beautiful patio,” he’s thinking. “Some lucky stiff is going to enjoy sunsets from that patio instead of me.” A Jew thinking about his material losses a moment before his death is a tragedy indeed.
But there is one person who is even more tragic. The final exemption listed by the Torah is the man who is “fearful and of soft heart,” who is exempted from serving in the armed forces “lest he soften his brethren’s hearts like his own” (Deuteronomy 20:8).
What is he so scared of? The p’shat (simple understanding) is that he’s simply yellow, afraid of violence and warfare. But if we look at the context of this exemption, we find that it is listed after all the people who have taken the initiative to be productive with their lives: There’s the person who’s built a new house, who’s planted a new vineyard, and who’s just gotten married. What these people all have in common is that they have taken risks. Clearly, investing in a new home or a new marriage involves the risk that things might not work out.
Perhaps the man who is fearful is the one who has never done any of these things out of fear of failure. What if I prospect on a house and the deal falls through? What if I court a beautiful young lady and she spurns me? Or worse, what if I build a house and get married, and then I die soon after?
These are legitimate fears for the cautious, risk-averse individual. But in the end, one cannot properly live his life without taking risks. The fearful individual never truly lives, and that, too, is a tragedy.
This is what led the early-20th century inventor William Hoskins to state: “To me, there is only one really tragic figure in life, and that is the man who never makes a start.”
Life is full of risks and it is full of tragedies. One cannot lose his fortune without first making one. Nor can one lose a spouse without first marrying one, or become estranged from a child that he never sires. The fearful individual is exempt from army service “lest he soften his brethren’s hearts like his own.” We can’t have that kind of fear in Israel or we’ll never flourish and grow as the people we’re destined to be.
The person who allows his life decisions to be controlled by his fears will never reach his potential. And that is the greatest tragedy of all.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh in Hancock Park, director of community services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.