I’ve always had a thing for superheroes. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Wonder Woman. I had the Underoos and everything. I had an early crush on Superman…although later that turned to a crush on Bat Man (although debatable whether he’s a super hero, I know). To this day, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite shows. And for the first couple of seasons, I even loved the TV show Heroes.
I even wrote a sermon about it that I gave at Hofstra University Hillel when serving as a high holy day rabbi there. I later adapted it as a lesson for my 7th graders at Temple Beth El in Huntington, NY in Adventures in Judaism, although I took out the parts about the TV show, as it was already old by that point. Finally, I adapted it again last Yom Kippur and gave it as a short drash about the Torah portion at both the main service and the family service at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. The essential message of it is the same as the message of the TV show: We are all heroes and we have powers that we do not realize; it is up to us to figure out how we’re going to use them. (I’m putting the sermon below, in case you want to read it).
This is a message I had also been part of teaching at the Kutz Camp for staff week in 2006. As the Leadership Team, we used this theme of superheroes as our theme for staff training. One of the highlights, for me, was our final program, where we started to talk about who is a hero, and (with the help of a few audience shills) got everyone to stand up and say they were a hero, with a nod to one of the great scenes of movie history:
We kept the theme up throughout the summer, using a superhero theme for regular staff recognitions, and tried to remind all the staff that the work we were doing was not only holy work, but that it indeed made us heroes. At the end of the summer, as we said goodbye, each staff member got a cape, with the emblem of the League of Extraordinary Staffulty, that the other staff then had a chance to sign–as a lasting reminder of the work we had done, and the difference we had made.
This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes, since hearing the sad news that Sam, the six-year-old son of my dear friends and colleagues, Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, had been diagnosed with Leukemia. His story, their story, is being shared here at Superman Sam. They’ve asked here for all of us to be superheroes for Sam, and show him that he has a whole team behind him. I encourage you all to take a picture and send it to him…let’s use our powers to show this little boy that he is not alone in his fight. Let’s all use our super powers to make a big difference in a seemingly small way.
After all, that’s what heroes do.
Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5772
…A Jewish tale, told from one generation to the next…
One evening, the Baal Shem Tov, exhausted, quickly fell into a deep sleep. After what felt like no time, though, there was an angel right next to his bed, shouting, “Wake up! Get out of bed!” Although it was still evening, he followed the angel. As they went outside, the Baal Shem Tov saw a man walking carelessly across a narrow, rickety bridge. Below him, on either side were icy depths and a fiery furnace. Clearly, this man was in great danger, couldn’t seem to see his peril. The Baal Shem Tov tried to shout out to the man, but his lips had been sealed. Suddenly, there’s a great flash of lightening and the man can suddenly see the bridge, see the icy depths, see the fiery furnace. He panics, and starts to lose balance, teetering on the bridge, struggling not to fall. At that same moment, the Baal Shem Tov regains his speech and shouts to him, “Fly! You can fly!” And the man flew.
For generations, we’ve had tales of ordinary people who develop powers that they never dreamed of-who seemingly do the impossible. The story of the Baal Shem Tov, ambiguously told so that it could all be a dream, shows a seemingly ordinary man who suddenly is able to save his own life through flight. All it took was someone telling him that he could do it.
As a recent example, Harry Potter knows nothing of his powers until Hagrid comes to tell him. Stories of heroes are as old as stories themselves–and as new as this moment. Stories of people possessing power that they did not realize they had have always existed.
Or take Superman, who was incidentally created by Jews, ultimately becoming the prototype of the modern American superhero. Based in many ways on classic hero tales in many cultures, Superman was unique in the idea that superhuman powers could (and should) lead to a decision to increase justice in the world. As it says on the very first page of Superman 1, “Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind…and so was created SUPERMAN! Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.”
While Superman’s origin story changed over the years, the essence has always remained of Clark Kent having a decisive moment to use his powers towards righting the wrongs around him (and, with the ability to go faster than a speeding bullet, around is a large space). I can’t think of a more Jewish idea. Once his abilities are realized, Superman goes forth on a mission of tikun olam—repairing the world. Superman embodies the answering of Isaiah’s call to us that we read each Yom Kippur, to unlock the chains of wickedness, to loosen exploitation, to free all those oppressed, to break the yoke of servitude.
SO…What’s YOUR power? How are you a hero? And what are you going to do with it?
The Yom Kippur parashah, Nitzavim, we read, as it is translated in our machzor, “For this mitzvah, which I enjoin on you today, is not too puzzling for you, nor too remote. It is not something high up in the heavens, so that you might say, “Who shall go up to the sky for us, and bring it to us and make it understandable to us? Then we might do it!” It is not beyond the ocean, so that you might say, “Who shall cross the ocean for us, and bring it to us, and enable us to hear it—then we might do it!” But rather it is very close to you, upon your mouth and in your heart—it can be done!
I suggest that we reinterpret this message. Looking at this not as being about how remote the Torah is or is not–for parts of it are surely challenging–but as a text about us and the power we have. I suggest the following translation:
For this mitzvah which I enjoin on you this day, is no more wonderous than you, and it’s not far. It’s not in the sky, “Who will go up for us towards the sky and bring it to us and tell it to us so we will do it?” It’s not across the sea, “Who will cross the sea for us and bring it to us and tell it to us so we will do it?” Because the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do.
The question about sending someone up up and away, or across the ocean isn’t so much about no one being able to do it-. Perhaps the heros are reluctant—or the community doesn’t want to pressure them towards using their powers in that way–or they just don’t know yet that they can do it. Or perhaps they’re asking for a volunteer—Who’s going to go check to see if it’s there? Just in case? Because maybe there’s something else important that we might find. And, in the end of the passage, while we generally assume the “hadavar” (it, in the machzor, thing in my translation) refers back to the Mitzvah, I disagree. Throughout the paragraph, the references back to mitzvah are simply pronouns. Why introduce a different noun all of a sudden? No, I think it refers to something else. While that could be a number of different possibilities, at this moment, I suggest that hadavar, the thing, is the power that you possess. “Because the power is very close to you—in your mouth and in your heart to do.”
You are all superheroes. You can do it. Together, we can change the world. Oh, and don’t forget…you can fly! Ken y’hi ratzon.