Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
October 2, 2016

We Need a Hero

Lately, I’m seeing Superheroes everywhere. It’s possible that they’ve always been there: Batman symbols on water bottles at Target, Captain America logos on grown men at the farmer’s market, a Superman cape sailing from the back of my son’s sweatshirt as he flies down the sidewalk on his scooter. It’s probably just marketing genius at work, but recently wherever I look I’m meeting one hero or another.

If only superheroes were real. It has been a very hard year. I hold my breath when I check the news, afraid of what it might be today.

Since last Rosh Hashanah, we’ve witnessed an inordinate number of young black men die at the hands of potentially overzealous law enforcement officials, a tragic sniper attack targeting police officers in Dallas, news stories about our presidential election that feel frantic and frightening. We are haunted by the image of a dazed Syrian toddler pulled from the rubble of a damaged building. Orlando. As I wrote this sermon, I had to keep adding sentences to this paragraph: explosions in New York, the troubling death of a black motorist with his hands up in Tulsa, riots in Charlotte.

As we read each headline we break a little. We break and we break a little more until we are ready to shatter. I am struggling with the feeling that our world is spinning out of control. I want to fix something. I want to feel as though there is something, anything I can do. Instead, I feel weak, powerless.

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Where is our hero?

Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster introduced Superman to the world in 1938.[1] At the time, Americans were just emerging from the uncertainty of the Great Depression. Fascism in Europe was on the rise. And for two young, bespectacled, first-generation Jewish boys from Cleveland, Siegel and Shuster struggled with latent and overt anti- Semitism. In their time, both the government and surrounding culture were wary of immigrant families like theirs. Superman, a transplant himself to the Planet Earth, represented power and strength in a world where the weak, meek stranger had none.

Some say that Superman was a direct symbol for Siegel himself as he mourned his own father’s murder. Rich Goldstein writes that “the oldest surviving artwork featuring Superman shows the caped hero “flying to the rescue of a man being held-up at gunpoint by an armed robber . . . The link with Siegel’s father [is] painfully clear.”

The Man of Steel expresses our longing to rescue, to change, and to return the shattered pieces of a broken world.

No wonder that superheroes are more appealing today than ever.

I don’t want to be afraid in public spaces anymore. I don’t want to worry about bad guys lurking in corners. Each day I hope that the news will bear some evidence of the tides turning towards an era of global good. When I don’t find it, I worry that we are raising a generation of children who are fearful instead of brave, hopeless instead of hopeful, hard instead of open hearted.

Thanks to mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, the residents of Metropolis always had a news story to remind them that Superman would protect them, defend them, and keep them safe. We are lucky here on the Peninsula—we, too, feel safe thanks to strong, community-oriented police departments that keep our best interests at heart. But read the newspaper, and we know that the whole world is not the Peninsula. We, here, are fortunate.

This evening, we chanted in unison Atah gibor l’olam Adonai, You are eternally heroic, God. You support those who have fallen; You free those who are captive. These words ring out from our liturgy. In a time where so much of our world seems broken, we yearn for fulfillment of this ancient prayer.

The idea of Adonai Gibor, God as our Hero, long predates Superman as a Jewish narrative. God, with an origin story as old as time has all the markings of a classic hero. In our Torah, the Israelites were tied to the train tracks of Egypt, and God found a way to rescue them just in the nick of time. God opens the sea to allow the Israelites passage through the towering walls of water. God heals Miriam from devastating disease.

God does not seem to intervene heroically in our lives today, at least not as obviously. In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner considers his relationship with God following his son’s death, due to a rare degenerative disease. He writes:

. . . I recognize [God’s] limitations. [God] is limited in what [God] can do
by laws of nature and … human moral freedom . . .

I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters ... I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.[2]

In other words: It’s awful that it happened—whatever this week’s it is, but it was out of God’s control. When we feel powerless in our pain, God is crying, too.

In the weeks following 9/11, I came across this piece from the Onion, a satirical newspaper, and it has stayed with me ever since:

God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.

Responding to recent events on Earth, God, the omniscient creator-deity worshiped by billions of followers of various faiths for more than 6,000 years, angrily clarified His longtime stance against humans killing each other Monday.

“Look, I don't know, maybe I haven't made myself completely clear, so for the record, here it is again," said the Lord, His[3] divine face betraying visible emotion during a press conference near the site of the fallen Twin Towers. “Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don't . . .

“Not only do I not want anybody to kill anyone, but I specifically commanded you not to, in really simple terms that anybody ought to be able to understand . . .”

Upon completing His outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God's shoulders began to shake, and He wept. [4]

Every time I read this I’m stunned by the visual. The All-Powerful, powerless to stop us from destroying ourselves. Are we God’s kryptonite?

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, God was creating. Light and dark, heaven and earth, sea and sky. A whole manner of heavenly things, growing things, crawling, flying, swimming things appeared. People followed, made for this world in God’s own image. Tov m’od, God said. It was all very good.

We mortals are created in the image of God—the powerful, good-seeking, but imperfect God. Like Kushner’s God, our power is not without limit. But also like God, we possess tremendous power of our own.

We have some powers that are tangible, regular, human: Powers like time, money, and influence. We might have more of one than another, or we might feel like we never have enough of any. These powers are mundane, and of this world. But in the moments of creation, we also received holy, divine, God-given superpowers. When we combine these powers, the mundane and the holy, we can restore the broken pieces of our world.

Rabbi Jeff Salkin teaches about the first of our Torah-inspired superpowers.

After yet another mass tragedy this year, this time a shooting in San Bernardino, Salkin shared a truth that few of us dare speak out loud.

“I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. I am starting not to care. I am starting not to notice. I am starting to feel numb.”[5]

He wrote this last December. It was after Columbine and after Virginia Tech and after Sandy Hook and after Isla Vista and after Charleston. It was before Orlando, before whatever city will next become synonymous with bloodshed and heartbreak. Salkin points out that feeling numb is a normal response to tragedy, but that we are now “in an … advanced… state of existential numbness.” And when we feel numb, we can’t protest.

It is time to rouse ourselves from our grief. Let the blast of the shofar be our awakening. It is a wail of warning, a cautionary cry.

Salkin implores, “. . . Prayer and good thoughts are too easy. They are cheap. I want to hear screaming. I want to hear crying. I want to hear moaning.”[6] Torah reminds us that, ‘the Israelites cried out.’[7] Va’yizaku, they wept as they feared for their children under Pharoah’s rule.

We, too, are enraged.
We, too, have the power to make unbearable noise.
We, too, have the power to scream.

In the 1978 movie, Superman held Lois Lane’s limp body, and released a primal sob so heart-wrenching that it was heard across the universe.

We need to scream until our throats are raw and stinging.
Until the numbness gives way to pain.
Until our silence becomes outrage.
Until our voices are heard across the universe.

We make this holy noise with our time, our money, and our influence.

We scream out our message by using our time to vote for the candidates who will bring us towards a better, and more just world. By using our time to volunteer with those who are in need. We scream out with our money: giving what we can to support the institutions that help us sleep at night. We scream with our influence: we are intentional role models as we interact with our children, parents and friends.

We will make noise in every way that we can. And here, there is power.
Va’yizaku—We will not be silent. We have the raw, painful power to scream.

We can scream with our love. Our second superpower.

Rabbi Jonathan Saks tells a story about a black family that moves into a white neighborhood in 1966.

“Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true . . .

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, ‘Welcome!’

Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment, the young man later wrote,  changed his life.”[8]

It’s not a grand act—it doesn’t save a life, at least not immediately. So often our instinct is suspicion, holding one another at arm’s length. We are wary before we are loving, we are hesitant before we trust. Treating others with kindness and love is brave. To step out of our comfort zone and truly love a stranger is a power we receive from Torah itself. V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha.[9] Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always simple. It takes strength to love in a climate like this one.

There is a power in taking time to share hellos and sandwiches with strangers. There is power in letting someone else know that they matter.

Sixth-grade teacher Rebecca Lee had the impossible task of talking to her students about the death of Terence Crutcher, a classmate’s father who was killed last month by a law enforcement officer. In a viral Facebook post, the teacher shares her message to her students in their moment of grief: “We have different skin colors,” she said, and “I love you. You matter. You are worthy. You are human. You are valuable.”[10]

In this tragic moment a teacher summoned her tremendous power to love, and she saved a small piece of the world.

Torah gives us the power, and the responsibility to love without limit, to love even when we feel afraid. To love loudly, with a full voice and a full heart.

The power to let our love change someone else’s world.

But neither our love, nor our voice will make a difference if we don’t make the difficult choice to summon these strengths. Our third superpower.

We read in the book of Deuteronomy, that: “I have set before you life and good, death and evil.”[11] God has created for us a world filled with good, and given us the tremendous power to choose it. “U’vcharta b’chaim,” God urges us. “Choose life that you may live.”[12] We can choose silence. We can choose to remain numb.

Or, we can choose to scream and call out injustice, to love fiercely and assertively. We can choose to live wholly and bravely in this world, even when it terrifies us.

God created both light and dark. Even when it seems like the darkness is settling in, we can choose – not only to find the light, but to be the light.

My four year-old son, Charlie, whizzes around the block on his scooter, wearing his bright blue and red Superman sweatshirt. The shiny cape soars as he flies down the sidewalk. Strangers sweetly say, “Look at that! There goes Superman!” And my son sighs, as if he just can’t be burdened with the silliness of adults. “I’m not Superman,” he calls back to them, halfway down the block by now. “I’m CHARLIE!”

He knows that superheroes are pretend. But he doesn’t know yet the true depth of his own power.

Each one of us has, in varying combinations, some amount of time, some amount of money, some way to influence others. Being God’s partner means taking these trappings of humanity and spending them with holy purpose.

In the v’ahavta prayer, we promise to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our ‘m’odecha,’ which we usually translate as all of our might.

But the word m’od really means ‘very,’ Like when God says the creation of the world was ‘tov ‘m’od,’ it was very good. So m’odecha then is our very-ness.

This is what we have to give: all of our essence, our everything, our very-ness. All of our power — both holy and mundane.

We will never be able to bear the weight of the world alone. We are not Superman, standing solo in the center of the frame, arms above his head, effortlessly balancing the whole world in the palms of his hands.

But the inability to solve the world’s problems on our own does not render us powerless.

As individuals we make the difficult choice to use the awesome powers we’ve been given and accept the heavy responsibility that comes with them: both our mundane powers: our time, our money, and our influence, and our holy powers: The power to scream, the power to love, the power to choose.

But it is not until all of us use all that we’ve got that we burst open the limits of our power.

We are, in fact, the heroes of this story. Each one of us is responsible, but not one of us more than any other.

When we hold the world together, each one of us offering to support our share, we possess extraordinary powers both mundane and holy. Ours is a communal mission. And when we bear this worldly weight together, we are divinely powerful.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman

[2] Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Avon Books: New York, 1981.

[3] Please note that the gendered God-language here is a direct quote from the article, not the preferred pronouns of the author.

[4] http://www.theonion.com/article/god-angrily-clarifies-dont-kill-rule-222

[5] http://forward.com/opinion/326024/want-a-jewish-response-to-mass-shootings-scream/?attribution=author-article-listing-1-headline

[6] ibid.

[7] Exodus 4:23

[8] Sacks, Jonathan. To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. Schocken Books, New York: 2005.

[9] Leviticus 19:18.

[10] https://www.facebook.com/rebeccaelee?fref=nf

[11] Deuteronomy 30:15

[12] Deuteronomy 30:19