The Hebrew term for courage, ometz or ometz lev, literally means “strength” or “heart-strength.” Ometz is a core Jewish middah, a spiritual and ethical trait with which each of us is innately endowed as human beings formed in the divine image. Even those who consider themselves fearful or anxious can access the quality of ometz lev in any given moment.
In Deuteronomy, Moses imbues his successor Joshua with courage to lead the Jewish people into the promised land without him by charging him: chazak ve’ematz, “be strong and courageous.” Each of us receives a similar charge at the start of every new Jewish year. Psalm 27, recited throughout the penitential season around the High Holidays, ends with these words of exhortation: chazak veya’ametz libecha, “be strong, and strengthen your heart.” This verse encourages every one of us to cultivate the inner strength we need to meet whatever challenges emerge in the new year.
At key junctures in the biblical narrative, many characters embody the quality of ometz lev. In Genesis, Abraham audaciously confronts God on behalf of the innocent residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. Shifrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, personify ometz lev in defying Pharaoh’s genocidal orders and safely delivering Hebrew babies into the world. In a famous Midrash regarding the crossing of the Red Sea, Nachshon ben Amindanav demonstrates ometz lev by taking the lead among the Israelites and plunging into the sea, walking directly into the water until it reaches his nostrils. And in the Purim story, Queen Esther endangers herself by revealing to King Ahasuerus her true identity as a Jew.
But practicing ometz lev does not require laying one’s life on the line. It doesn’t even require fearlessness.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is known for his famous teaching: Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar me’od, vehaikar lo lefached klal. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear at all.”
But Nachman’s actual recorded teaching is far subtler and closer to our experience. Rather than use the Hebrew word lefached (“to be afraid”), he uses the reflexive form, l’hitpached (“to cause oneself to be afraid”). For Nachman, courage is not about denying or repressing fear. Rather, the fundamental principle of courage is choosing not to frighten ourselves beyond the fear we already experience. Fear is unavoidable, perhaps even required. Courage involves moving forward despite our fear, and not exacerbating our anxieties.
In fact, simply observing the fact that we are afraid, without judging ourselves for that emotion, offers the possibility of acting in a way that is not determined by that fear. That is ometz lev — doing that which is right and just, even in the face of challenging emotions.
Few of us can claim that, facing circumstances similar to those of the heroic figures of the Bible and later Jewish history, we would have acted as they did. Yet we can still find opportunities to cultivate courage in the small and large actions of our own lives. When we are attentive, we notice innumerable opportunities to practice ometz lev by facing our fears honestly and summoning strength from the heart to do that which we recognize as true and just.
As we grow in awareness of our inner strength, we also realize this strength can be directed towards both positive and harmful ends. Jewish tradition teaches us to connect ometz lev with the quality of chesed or lovingkindness, concern for others. According to a Midrash, there is no real courage in using one’s strength to push someone into a pit or off a roof. True courage consists of seizing the hand of one about to fall or lifting someone who has already fallen.
Cultivating ometz lev means applying our energy to protect and stand up for those who are at risk, including ourselves. We practice ometz lev whenever we leave our comfort zone, take an unpopular stand, expose our vulnerabilities, speak the truth, confront others, risk embarrassment or personal loss, or intervene on behalf of those unable to do so for themselves.
Jewish tradition teaches that the source of this courage lies within each of us, in our very heart.
Rabbi Marc Margolius is a senior program director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.