There is a famous Jewish legend that holds that at any given time, there are 36 tzadikim -- particularly good people -- living on earth. Thanks to them, the world does not self-destruct. If the number were to decline, the world would end.
I have always wondered whether this belief is optimistic or pessimistic.
The answer, I have concluded, depends on an individual's point of view. If you believe that there are many particularly good people on earth, the legend is optimistic. If the world needs only 36 such people to continue its existence, we have nothing to worry about.
On the other hand, what if the legend implies that there are only 36 such people? Then we have a lot to worry about.
I, for one, am torn. On the one hand, I have met a few such moral giants in my lifetime, and I am only one person. On the other hand, they sure are rare, and they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by moral dwarfs.
From what I know about Pat Tillman, he sounds like he was one of the 36. He embodied goodness, idealism, strength and character in a way that is increasingly rare.
First, he did something almost none of us would do. He voluntarily risked his life to fight evil and serve his country rather than become a multi-millionaire, deified pro football player. Instead, he decided to forgo all that money, all that glory and all that fame, and fight for America in a remote corner of Afghanistan.
Second, he made this decision and sought no credit for it. He refused to give interviews about his decision.
Third, and perhaps most telling, the Washington Times reported that, "When in high school, Sgt. Tillman beat up someone who had assaulted his friend and ended up serving 30 days in a juvenile-detention facility."
Apparently beating up bullies was a deep yearning in Tillman from his youth. That is, after all, exactly what he did and what America is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq -- beating up bullies. Pat Tillman hated evil. That alone puts him in a distinct minority in today's world.
Pat Tillman would have been reviled in Japan. The three Japanese held hostage in Iraq are, according to the New York Times, the three most hated people in Japan today. You would think that they would be honored in Japan for volunteering to go to Iraq to help the Iraqi people build a prosperous, healthy and free society. But they caused the Japanese trouble when they were held hostage, and in Japan you are not celebrated for doing good, but for not sticking out.