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Yom Kippur: Embracing Our Inner Superhero Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Josh Lobel

Yom Kippur Morning—Saturday, September 14, 2013

If I asked you to name a Jewish hero, whom would you choose? Would it be a biblical figure like Abraham, who has the faith to leave behind everything he knows to chase a dream? Perhaps you would think of Moses, who stands up to an entire nation and leads a stiffnecked people through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Or how about King David, who conquers a giant and unites a people? If we were to gaze into the modern world to find a Jewish hero, we would be choosing from an embarrassment of riches. Great intellectuals like Brandeis, Salk, Einstein. Champions of Israel like Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin.

But often left out of the discussion is one of the greatest Jewish heroes of all.

He possesses many amazing attributes - he is faster than a speeding bullet. He is more powerful than a locomotive. He is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s not a bird, it’s not plane - it’s Superman!

Yes, Superman, the prototypical and perhaps most famous superhero ever to appear in a comic book. He has, by far, has influenced American pop culture like no other costumed crusader, appearing in virtually all media; early radio broadcasts, TV and movie adaptations, and popular music. Clean cut and heroic as can be, the legend of Superman has been woven into mainstream American life, but, mark my words, he is Jewish through and through.

Created by two nice Jewish boys from Cleveland by the names of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman is just one of the many superheroes to spring from the imagination of Jews. Spiderman, Iron-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and the X-Men - all created by the most famous Jewish comic book icon, the legendary Stan Lee. Another Jewish artist, Bob Kane, is the co-creator of Batman, while Jack Kirby came up with Captain America. On and on the list goes.

What is it about the superhero genre that spoke to the Jewish soul? If we think about it, the creation of a super-human being whose primary function is to fight the forces of evil and save innocent lives makes perfect sense for a people persecuted throughout the generations. After all, isn’t this the basis of the story of the golem of Prague? According to a famous Jewish legend, during a time of brutal oppression, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague created a monstrous figure out of clay, known as the golem, to protect the Jewish community. After he constructed this fearsome creature, Rabbi Judah brought the golem to life by inserting the word “emet”, “truth” into its forehead. The golem, with its superhuman strength, defended the Jews from all their adversaries. Let’s think about this - a not-quite human being with extraordinary might, literally animated by truth, who fights for justice and the Jewish way! Sounds awfully like a certain son of Krypton who fights for truth, justice, and the American way!

But it doesn’t stop at the comparison to the golem. No other superhero embodies the Jewish experience like Superman. In many ways, Superman is the archetypal Jewish immigrant. Let’s look at his history. Superman was created during a time when Jews were coming to America from the ashes of Eastern Europe, their future far from certain. Similarly, Superman comes from Krypton, a destroyed planet of which he is the only survivor. And how did Superman escape from Krypton? His parents put him in a tiny spaceship and sent him adrift - a high-tech version of Moses’ mother putting baby Moses in a basket and floating him down the Nile. Once Superman reaches earth, he is given a new name. No longer does he go by the name of his birth, Kal-El, but a more “Americanized” name - Clark Kent. How many of us have family members whose name was changed at Ellis Island? And finally, our Clark Kent is forced to assimilate into his new society. Much like the Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, Superman works hard to conceal who he truly is, hiding his uniqueness for fear of being persecuted by a world that does not understand him.

It is the through the guise of Clark Kent that we can truly perceive Superman’s Jewishness. Terrified of not being able to fit in, of being rejected by a world not ready for him, Superman is forced to hide. He puts on a disguise, consisting of not only glasses and a suit and tie, but actually adapts his personality and characteristics in order to become Clark Kent, to become more human. As Clark Kent, Superman is cowardly, invisible, one might say nebbishy. He spends his youth and even his adulthood hiding from who he is. He does not want the responsibility that destiny has bestowed upon him. He does not want the burden of being who he is meant to be. When framed in this context, Superman does not sound like a Jewish superhero at all. But he does sound very much like another biblical figure - Jonah the prophet.

Jonah is defined by fear. From the moment God calls upon him, he is terrified. God commands Jonah to undertake a very important mission - go to the city of Ninevah and proclaim to its inhabitants that unless they change their evil ways, they will be destroyed. Instead of leaping at the opportunity to prove his mettle as a prophet, Jonah decides to take an alternate approach - he runs the other way as fast as he can. He boards a ship going in the opposite direction, to Tarshish, fleeing from his responsibility. But God is not letting him off the hook that easy, as his shipmates toss him overboard, where he is summarily swallowed by a giant fish. And it is there, within the belly of the beast, in his makeshift “Fortress of Solitude,” that Jonah reflects on his obligations. After his three day time out, the fish spits him out onto dry land, and Jonah is ready to fulfill his appointed task.

Jonah, the reluctant prophet. Superman, the reluctant superhero. Both these stories come to teach us an important lesson. Fear can derail our lives. It can be overwhelming, stopping us in our tracks. Who among us has never felt the physical effects of fear - sweaty palms, the hair on our neck standing up, pulse racing, stomach churning. There are few feelings worse than that of sheer panic and terror.

Fear is not easy to acknowledge. No one likes to admit they are scared. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we find there is always something that terrifies us. For some, it is something specific, tangible - spiders, heights, confined spaces. But there is a second category - existential fears, fears connected to the human condition. Fear of commitment. Fear of rejection. Fear of loneliness. Fear of aging and death. These fears are difficult to surmount, as they take root deep within our subconscious, in the recesses of our minds. While an individual can surpass these fears, it takes much self exploration and soul searching. It is this latter, all-encompassing fear that Jonah possesses, a fear that takes over his life, that almost prevents him from performing his God-given task.

But what exactly is Jonah afraid of? Why does he run away from his responsibility? Was he afraid of failure? Of being killed by the Ninevites? Of helping such a dastardly people? Psychologist Abraham Maslow offers up a novel theory. In one of his most famous works, “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature”, Dr. Maslow explains that Jonah was afflicted with a fear of his own greatness. Jonah was content with anonymity, satisfied with being an unknown. He was terrified of becoming a great prophet, petrified about becoming who he is meant to be. When Jonah ran from God, he was not merely fleeing a difficult task. He was running from his idealized self.

Dr. Maslow believes that Jonah was not unique in his fear. He speaks of a condition he coined as the “Jonah Complex.” It is a fear of marshalling all of our talents, all of our capabilities and using them to transform ourselves into the people we ought to be. It is an evasion of one’s own growth, a terror of improving ourselves in a meaningful way. Maslow posits that we all aspire to greatness, but we are afraid of the responsibility that greatness entails. The Jonah Complex states that we are more comfortable with mediocrity than we are with excellence, with being “normal” as opposed to exceptional. Instead of chasing our dreams, instead of becoming the people we are meant to be, we run away from our destiny. Instead of becoming Superman, we are content to live our lives as Clark Kent.

So, on this day of repentance and self reflection, this day of honesty and introspection, we must ask ourselves, how much are we like Jonah? Are we fleeing from our own greatness? And, if so, how do we embrace our inner superhero?

Lying on his deathbed, Rabbi Zusya was surrounded by his devoted disciples. Suddenly, his eyes opened wide and a look of great anguish flickered on his face. His students cried out, “Rabbi, Rabbi, what is the matter?”. Zusya replied, “I dreamed I came before the throne of the Almighty. The Holy One did not say to me, Zusya, why were you not more like Moses? God did not ask why I was not more like Abraham, Jacob, or Isaiah”. Looking piercingly into the eyes of his students, Zusya whispered, “God asked me why were you not more like Zusya!”

This story strikes at the essence of what it means to be a Jewish superhero. We are not asked to have Abraham’s undying faith, Moses’ courage and fortitude, or King David’s strength and resourcefulness. For us, being a hero is simply about being the best version of ourselves. This is all that God demands of us.

At this time of year, we all carry around an uneasiness, a feeling of apprehension, stemming from a sense of spiritual disquiet, a feeling that we are no longer the right person in the right place at the right time. We look inward and ask, “Are we the person we ought to be?” We come before God on this Day of Atonement and we realize the simple truth - we can be better. We all have room for improvement. We all understand, even if we wish to ignore it, that we are flawed, we are broken. As we admit this unpleasant truth to ourselves, we come to a sudden realization - all of us are like Jonah, ready to flee, to run away from our flaws, rather than face the reality of who we are. And, even more threatening, the possibility that we could become different.

Spiritual activist Marianne Williamson once remarked, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”. Each of us is more powerful than we realize. Each of us understands that within ourselves lies something greater - a superhero waiting to be unleashed. Hidden beneath our fearful exteriors, there is limitless potential. Every single person has the push, the drive, the instinct to become better, to transform themselves into something greater. But it is our fear of this greatness that prevents us from becoming the person we hope to be, the perfected vision of ourselves we can only see in fleeting glimpses.

That we suffer from the Jonah Complex, the fear of our idealized self, is difficult to admit. Instead of conceding to ourselves that we are paralyzed by fear, we mask our terror in the guise of convenient excuses. We find ways to rationalize our faults, to justify why we cannot change ourselves for the better. We may delude ourselves into thinking we have no need to change, arrogantly believing we are fine the way we are. We go about our life cloaked in a facade of self satisfaction, shielding ourselves from criticism and reproach from those troubled by our behavior. Instead of being open to thoughtful critique, we shut up our ears and dig in our heels. Everyone has flaws, we tell ourselves. Why should I work to change myself? Perhaps we convince ourselves that we are too old, too set in our ways to change, as if youth were a precondition for personal growth. These flimsy pretexts are not worthy of us. All they do is allow us to hide from the truth, that we are afraid of being the person we are meant to be, terrified of the greatness that dwells within each of us.

In the words Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.... You must do the thing you think you cannot do”. We cannot, we must not allow fear to dictate our lives. It must not be our Kryptonite, weakening us, sapping our strength to do what must be done.

On Yom Kippur, God asks us, which direction will you turn? Like Jonah, will you escape to Tarshish, away from your destiny, away from the struggle of becoming a better person? Or will you take the trip to Ninevah; will you search deep into your flawed soul to try to mend your imperfections? Will you run from the challenge of this awesome day or will you stand, face your fears and move ever closer to realizing the vision of your idealized self? On this day, will you settle for mediocrity, or will you aspire for greatness? On this day, will you remain Clark Kent, or will you become super?

Fear is strong, but we are stronger. We may be afraid, but we all have the power to confront our fears. It is ok to be afraid, to fear the work, but it must not forever hinder us. It must not deter us from putting in the effort. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it. For when we act, we come that much closer to fulfilling our potential, realizing our promise, and achieving true greatness.

We pray: God, our Guardian and our Help, we come before You on this Day of Atonement realizing that we have not been the best that we can be. We understand there is so much more to us than we have shown. As we strive to realize our limitless potential, we ask You to grant us courage to overcome our fears and our doubts. Give us the strength that will enable us to transform our lives. Help us release the greatness bubbling up inside us, so we can be the heroes we know we can be. This year, help us to be super. Amen.

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