One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.
He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”
In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”
Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”
One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:
Three years ago today, Arnaud Beltrame offered his life in the place of a female hostage.
I think his story of sacrifice is worth remembering not only because it was formerly news but because it is now an honourable legacy from which we can stand to gain understanding something about the purpose of life.
Here’s some of what I wrote at the time:
Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.
Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life.
“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”
This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death.
Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.
We need Beltrame’s legacy.
We need his example to fill us with admiration at the nobility of self-surrender for the sake of others.
His willingness to take the place of a stranger, even though it meant death for himself, confirms to us that death is not the greatest evil. What the terrorist did to Beltrame was far worse than the death Beltrame suffered, particularly for the terrorist’s own soul. But for Beltrame, while the loss is certainly tragic for his loved ones, the nobility of his self-surrender remains a resplendent example so that we are free to contemplate what it is that gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another.
It would be understandable if, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person were to retreat, to withdraw.
But that’s not Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka’s way. Instead, as ever, he continues to show leadership, to give example, and, above all, to generously go outside of himself for the good of others.
It seems that every time there is a tragedy or crisis, particularly in which his community or he himself is implicated, Rabbi Bulka has something to say with humility, sincerity, and gratitude.