Thursday, October 10, 2013

Abraham & Superman: Taking a Piece of Home for the Journey Forward (Lech Lecha 5774)

Superman does not really come from Krypton or even Smallville.  Rather he comes from Cleveland where he was the invention of two Jewish kids, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They thought him up when they were at Glenville High School.  In those days, more than 75 years ago, Glenville High was more than 70% Jewish; theaters and newspapers were in English and Yiddish. Siegel and Shuster say they based Superman on the first Jewish super-hero ever: Samson. For more on Superman's Jewish roots:   Link to Larry Tye's "10 Reasons Superman is Really Jewish" from June 2013 in The Forward

Biblically speaking, however, it seems Superman is based more on Abraham than on Samson.  The first thing we learn about Superman is that he, just like the biblical Abraham in this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, leaves his home on the planet Krypton and journeys to a far away place. Superman’s origins echo those of Abraham:  “God said to Avram lech lecha (go forth) from your land, the place of your birth, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you, then through you all families of the world will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3.) 

There is an oddity about Superman’s departure from Krypton that echoes an oddity in the departure of Abraham (or Avram as he was called at that point in the narrative) from his homeland. That oddity is the precision with which the departure is described as compared to the broad generalities with which his destination is described.  It is odd there are so many details about the place Abraham is leaving and already knows but the place he is headed is cloaked in mystery.  

In that way, Torah seems to be telling us something more about Abraham as a hero than that he merely left home.  The Kotzker Rebbe (19th century, Poland) re-reads lech lecha to mean “go into yourself” -- discover in yourself your unique gifts, explore your highest potential.  That’s what is required of superhero.  When one does this, then the Torah seems to promise others will be blessed through you. In other words, the gifts we discover inside of ourselves are the ones we bring with us wherever we go.  If we observe them and honor them, these gifts will sustain us throughout the journey no matter the destination.  

Still, why so much dramatic narrative about where he was leaving?  God did not, in the words of my colleague Reuven Bulka, encourage Abraham to stay in his birthplace and grow monotheism there.  Rather he had to try that somewhere else.  From this we learn that Jewish way is not to make a confrontation. Often times the Jewish way forward is to discover a way around conflict, to pursue harmony.

This suggests a deep sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. Torah is teaching us that a superhero pursues her principles without reservation, but not at the expense of others.  It is teaching us that we cannot always fight against the reality of our current situation in order to subdue it; rather rather we may need to change our location or our perspective in order to move past the limitations and pain of our current situation.  To accomplish that requires the strength of a superman -- or an ordinary human with extraordinary sensitivity and determination.   

Yet leaving one's place of origin does not mean leaving everything behind. Just as Superman leaves Krypton as an infant robed in a blanket that later becomes his famous red cape, Abraham leave his birthplace carrying something valuable too.  Abraham left his birthplace carrying the experience of idol worship (as imagined by rabbinic legend) making him an even stronger advocate for and leader of monotheism.  

For both Superman and Abraham both there is a tension between leaving, which was necessary for each of them to grow, and taking remembrances for the journey, which is necessary for strength.  We carry that tension -- between growth and strength -- on every journey we take.  

One challenge for each of us is to discern that which we can take from our past -- from the places of our birth -- to make us stronger for the days ahead. When we are unable to do, then we risk being held forever in the gravitational bond that is anchoring us -- keeping us chained to -- our past.  Abraham, then Superman, and now us.  Encouraged by the resilience of those who came before us, may we be emboldened to the balance between growth and strength.  

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