Becoming Superheroes

Parashat Naso | June 18, 2016

Last week, we celebrated our official start to the summer season with our tie untying ceremony. And with summertime comes many things. Afternoons by the beach, afternoons by the BBQ, afternoons inside because of thunderstorms, and of course, summer superhero movies. We’ve already seen Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. Independence Day, Ghostbusters and Star Trek are just around the corner. But which of these heroes, which of these franchises is best?

Even as difficult as director Zach Snyder can make it these days, Superman to me is always the best. He’s the best because he has to be the best. Because it’s in his name. Superman. In whatever he is doing he has to be Super.

One of the most hotly contested superhero debates of all time, aside from the famous who would win between Batman and Superman, is the debate, was Superman Jewish? In Superman II, as Christopher Reeve flies in to save a child falling into Niagara Falls an onlooker remarks, “What a nice man, of course he’s Jewish.” On Krypton, Superman wasn’t known as Clark Kent, but instead by the name Kal-El. If we’re paying attention, we can see that this name, includes a name for God, El. Just like we have Isra-El and Samu-El and Dani-El. All of these names include a reference to God. What does Superman stand for? Truth, Justice and the American Way. This is quite similar to the passage from Pirkei Avot that teaches, “the world stands on three things, truth, justice and peace.” (Pirkei Avot 1:18) It seems like there’s a fair amount to make you think.

But even beyond these hints dropped into the character, there is a strong case to be made that much of Superman came to be because of its creator’s Jewish identity. Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, as the youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants. When Siegel was a high school student in the 1930’s, with anti-Semitism rising around the world, he began to feel that this was a time where those who were weak were likely to get bullied, and pushed over, if not far worse. He dreamed that one day, the world would see Jews and others who are weak, as the superheroes they really were. From this mindset, we can certainly see how Superman, someone who is strong and always stands up for what is right, came into being. Can we say for sure he was Jewish? Maybe not, but we can definitely see the Jewish-ness in him.

We can also go one step further. In an unpublished memoir, Siegel discussed many of these matters, and he also addressed one character on which he based many of Superman’s attributes, and that is the biblical figure of Samson. If you missed it earlier, much of our Torah and Haftarah readings this morning explain parts of who Samson was. In Parashat Naso, we read of the Laws of the Nazarites, someone who takes an additional oath to consecrate themselves to God. When a person becomes a Nazarite, they vow to abstain from wine and other intoxicating drinks, they vow to refrain from cutting their hair, and they vow to always remain ritually pure by having no contact with corpses or graves.

There is much discussion on whether a Nazarite is a good person – someone who voluntarily aspires to higher levels of holiness, or are they someone who has trouble controlling their impulses and so had to impose limits on themselves beyond what most people do. Opinions are split on this, so we’ll save this discussion for another time. But we do know the most famous Nazarite in the Bible was Samson.

Found in the book of Judges, the narrative of Samson spans four chapters, beginning with his birth, that we read this morning, and concluding with his death. He is born in a situation not so uncommon in the Bible. A woman is unable to conceive a child and prays to God. The prayer is answered when an Angel appears before her and her husband Manoah, saying that if you swear to raise your child as a Nazarite, a son will be born to you. The son, Samson was born, and was given super strength by God in order to help lead the Israelites against their enemy the Philistines.

Over the next two chapters, there is a series of Samson’s adventures and mis-adventures. On his way to meet a girl, he kills a lion with his bare hands, and on the way back, finds a honey comb in the lion’s carcass. He poses a riddle to his wife’s friends, and when they answer it correctly, he kills 30 men and takes their clothes to give the friends a prize. Later on he catches 300 foxes, ties their tails together, sets them on fire and then turns them loose in a Philistine town. And in yet another “heroic” or maybe anti-heroic act, when a large group of Philistines come upon him, he finds the jawbone of a donkey and slays 1,000 men with it.

All of this precedes his eventual downfall at the hands of the woman, Delilah. She tries to learn the secrets of his strength and after tricking her a few times with the wrong answer, Samson finally has two much to drink and reveals the secret that his strength comes from the Nazarite vow and his long hair. That night when he goes to sleep, Delilah cuts off his hair taking away his super power. He is captured by the Philistines, and held captive in their temple. In his final act, Samson summons his last strength, and shakes down the entire temple killing himself and all of his captors.

It’s quite a story. Lots of action, lots of drama, lots of violence. It definitely has the feel of a modern-day superhero movie. But what do we think of the superhero himself? What do we think of Samson. Honestly, he comes off as kind of a jerk. He breaks every aspect of his Nazarite vow, drinking, being around dead bodies (that’s a result of killing so many people), and in the end cuts his hair. He is impulsive, wreck-less, kills first and asks questions later. Not exactly an ideal superhero, Judge, or biblical figure. So what’s he doing there?

Most modern scholars believe that the entire book of Judges is a lesson on leadership, giving many example that don’t work. There’s a series of Judges or chieftains that deal with different issues, attacks and battles. A few of them, Deborah, Barak, are successful, but by and large, the Judges are kind of bumbling fools and Sampson is no exception. The final message of the book seems to be indicating that this brand of “superhero leadership” doesn’t work, and the Israelites will be better off with a King.

Today, we can also look at Samson and the book of Judges as having this message for us, that not only does superhero leadership not work, but that there are no superheroes to begin with. As much as we’d like there to be someone who can fly in and save us from falling or someone who will always be there to protect us, there unfortunately is not. As much as we wanted someone to save 49 lives at Pulse Night Club, there wasn’t.

But while there are no superheroes in this sense, that does not mean there are no heroes in a different sense. There were the heroes who helped injured people escape, the heroes who lined up, and waited for hours to donate blood, the heroes who donated plane tickets or places to stay for bereaved family members to come to town. And there will be heroes who will work to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Whether that means new legislations or new policies, our hope is that heroes will arise not from foreign planets or from the days of the bible, but from among ourselves. The heroes who can teach that we are all created in the image of God. The heroes who will show that killing innocent people in Orlando or Tel Aviv is never the answer. The heroes who will live the values we want to create for the next generations.

To me, this is the ultimate message of the book of Judges. Superheroes won’t do anything for us. Instead, we can do something for us. We can find the heroes among us who can help when called on, who can work to make a difference, and to live that difference. No it’s not the ability to kill a lion with our barehands or to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it is this super power that can make a hero today.

Superman, and superheroes will always be there in the movies and on tv, but as much as we might like, they will never be there in real life. They can still entertain us, but maybe they can also inspire us. They can inspire us of the potential of every person to be a force for good. That every one of us can make a difference in some way. That whether super or not, we still can all be heroes.

Shabbat Shalom