Superheros

on Friday, 18 December 2015.

I was speaking to Sidney Greene the other day, and she told me that she was a big fan of the Marvel comic company. She hasn't seen all of the superhero movies, but she has seen all of the good superhero movies, and reads the comics when she can. I also enjoy the movies, and was an avid reader of the comics when I was a bit younger.

If you have read the book Cavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, you know that many of the early superheroes were created by Jews. Superman, Batman, The Spirit, and of course, most of the Marvel heroes-- Spiderman, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and so on. According to Michael Chabon, the Jews invented superheroes in the 1930s and 40s because they felt powerless. Powerless to stop the slaughter in Europe, and powerless to fight with anti-semitism here in America. Powerless also to get the United States to enter the war against the Nazis.

This would explain why kids like superheroes so much. Kids also feel powerless sometimes. Kids can't choose what they will eat, or when to go to bed. They can't choose what they will be doing for most of the day. Why not fantasize about being a mild mannered/98 pound weakling who whips off his glasses, or puts on a mask, or gets angry, and turns into someone who tosses cars around like toys, who flies through the air, who does whatever she wants whenever she wants?

It is a good theory, but I don't buy it. If kids liked superheroes because they wanted to be powerful, then Superman would be the most popular superhero by far. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Superman is invulnerable. He can fly. He can lift aircraft carriers out of the ocean, boil water with his eyes, see through walls, and hear a call for help from a hundred miles away. Superman is boring. He is boring because he has no challenges. The outcome of his struggles are a forgone conclusion. They had to invent kryptonite to try to give some tiny possibility of failure, to add some drama to the Superman comics.

The Marvel comic heroes are more interesting, because they are all flawed. Many of them don't want to be heroes. Look at Spiderman. Dirt poor, can't keep a job because he is always up late fighting evil, can't keep a girlfriend. He is smart, but can't pass his college courses because the superhero business is always getting in the way.

I think the reason kids like superheroes is quite different. I think that kids like superheroes not because they are powerless, but because they are powerful. Like the superheroes, kids are always gaining new powers, and they have to figure out what to do with them.

The power to crawl. The power to walk. The power to say no to your parents. The power to bite, and to hit. The power to go to school on your own. The power to see when adults are not being the people they should be. The power to drive. The power to date. The power to choose your college, your job, your life partner. All of these are amazing powers, and, like the superheroes, we must learn to use them for good.

The heroes in the comics almost always win their battles. It is an occupational hazard. If The Mighty Thor gets killed in comic #451, it is going to be hard to come up with a story for #452.

But in the Marvel universe, they sometimes make bad decisions, and suffer for them. They hurt people they love, they fail to protect people they should have, they use their powers unwisely or refuse to use their powers at all. That makes them a little more interesting than other comic book characters.

But there is one way in which the characters are somewhat two dimensional. They are always good guys, and the people they are fighting are always bad guys. There are some complexities. People think the Incredible Hulk is a bad guy, but we, the readers, know he is really a good guy. Spiderman was taken over by an entity from outer space and became a bad guy, but it wasn't his fault.

Children see the world as divided by good guys and bad guys, and children's literature tends to reinforce this belief. Children want to think of themselves as good guys, and therefore anyone who is against them must be a bad guy. They feel for the Hulk when he is mistaken for a bad guy. They know what that is like.

But we are adults, and we know that the world cannot be easily divided into good guys and bad guys. Yes, there are some people who seem to be pure evil, as there are some people who seem to be pure good. And if Hitler, y'mach sh'mo, may his name be erased, was a vegetarian and kind to his dog, that does not ameliorate his wickedness. And if we find flaws in the characters of Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, that does not change the fact that they were incredible forces for good in this world. We find it difficult to understand someone who is so very good, or so very evil, because the vast majority of us are somewhere in between. We want to be good guys. We think of ourselves as good guys. When we do something bad, when we fall short of our own expectations, we usually find some way to justify it to others, or to ourselves. And yet, there are times when the curtain of justification is a little too thin, when the light of honesty shines through. Sometimes that is because the thing we have done is worse than usual. It stands out. We would like to justify it, but we can't.

Sometimes it is because we are being more honest with ourselves than usual. This day of Rosh Hashanah is one of those times.

The נוראים ימים, the Days of Awe, are awesome because we confront what is holy in the world, what is important. They are awesome also because we confront ourselves at this time. If you ask a person what is really important in her life, she might say something like "family, increasing joy and decreasing pain for others, making this a better world, becoming a better person." Perhaps even "getting closer to Gd," which is to say appreciating the sacred nature of existence. But when we look at our actions, how often have we fallen short of our goals? How often have we done things for other reasons, not for what is important?

Of course we have to work, to support ourselves and our families. We also need to relax, to recharge our batteries so we can go back to work renewed. What we do for pleasure, physical and spiritual, is also holy.

But sometimes we have increased pain in the world, not decreased it. Sometimes we have done things to advance ourselves to the detriment of others. Sometimes we have put people down

because we were not having a good day, or because we did not take the trouble to see the other as a human being made in the image of Gd. Sometimes we were not the good guy. If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give us a little bit of a hard time, if they shine the light of honesty a little too brightly on our flaws, they also give us an opportunity to correct those flaws. They give us an opportunity to but those mistakes behind us and to recommit to being the good guy we want to be.

Not by saying we were taken over by a space creature, not by saying we were misunderstood, but by admitting our guilt. By facing our mistakes. The month of Elul has given us a chance to examine our hearts. We have gone to our friends and our family, our co-workers and acquaintances, and we have apologized for the mistakes we have made, for the hurt we have caused them over the past year. And if you have not yet, there is still time. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, but it is not sealed until Yom Kippur. If there is something on your mind, some time when you were not the superhero you want to be, go to the person you have hurt. Tell him you remember what you did, and you regret it, and you will not do it again. Tell her you are sorry. And if there are sins against Gd, if you have ignored the beauty and the glory and the holiness of this world, if you have neglected the Torah and treated your thousand year heritage lightly, if you have not tried to make yourself a better person this year, there is hope for you as well. Our tradition tells us that if you allow yourself to be guided by our liturgy, if you come to Gd with a contrite heart, you will be forgiven. If you commit to abandoning your faults of the past, if you truly want to be a better person, a holier person, you will be forgiven. Our tradition is built to help you accomplish that goal. All you need is a sincere desire to change. One of my favorite High Holiday parables is the story of a king and his son. They have a falling out, and it seems best that the son leaves the kingdom. Some time passes. The king misses his son and the son misses his father. The king sends his son a letter, and tells him "If you return, I will take you back. All is forgiven." The son responds, "I want to come back. But I am no longer a prince. I don't have the money to travel."

The king sends another letter: "You come halfway and I will come halfway. We will meet in the middle, and I will take you home again." The son responds "Due to poverty and hard work, I am not as healthy as I once was. I don't think I could even come halfway." The king sends another letter: "You come as far as you can, even if it is only one step, and I will come the rest of the way. I will meet you no matter how far you can come towards me, and I will take you home again from that place."

Gd loves us as a mother loves a child, and will support our every effort to return. To return to the person we could have been, the person we wanted to be.

There are no superheroes in the real world. We cannot be divided into good guys and bad guys. We hope to be good people. We want to be good people. But in the real world good people make mistakes. We will not always live up to our potential. That is why we have these High Holy Days. To push us as far as we can go in the right direction. To make us as much of a superhero as we can be. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi were only human. Even they were not always good guys. But they tried much harder. The good they did vastly outweighed the bad, and we can strive to be heroes as they were. Not Captain America. Not the Human Torch. But human beings who fight to right wrongs, who champion the weak, who are devoted to others.

Maybe that is what makes the Marvel heroes so interesting. Not so much their special powers, but that they are constantly struggling to be good people. To be better people. Sometimes against great odds. I have a feeling that Spiderman would feel at home in our Rosh Hashanah service.

May 5776 be a year in which we all take that one step towards forgiveness, that one step towards repentance, that one step towards redemption. May we all be more consistently good. May we all be a little bit more the superheroes that we could be. Imperfect. Flawed. But always trying to do our best. L'shanah Tovah.

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