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Shema Israel/Shemot Israel: Hear O Israel/Hero Israel - D'var Torah by Jeff Pekar, January 6, 2018

13/02/2018 11:30:10 AM


Good shabbes!

Today we open the second Book of Moses and read Parasha Shemot – the story of a baby boy whose parents, fearing his certain death, launched him in a tiny vessel to a far-off land in the hope of safety and survival. This boy, a stranger in a strange land, living a dual identity, would grow to be one of the most powerful people on Earth, fighting for truth and justice. Yes, today’s parasha is the story of… Superman!

And the story of Superman is the story of the Jewish people. Let me explain:

My teenage daughter Melanie recently asked me whether Superman was Jewish. She had noticed some parallels between the Superman story and the story of Moses. We explored that further, and today I’m going to try to answer her question by looking into two areas: the biblical references that may have shaped the story of Superman, and the modern day influences of the Superman story itself.

Let’s start with the bible:

Moses was born at a time when the Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Israelite boys be killed, because he was afraid the Hebrew slaves were becoming too numerous and one day may overpower their Egyptian masters. So Moses’s mother, Yocheved, wrapped her baby in a prayer shawl to keep him warm and safe, and placed him in a basket to float down the river to a new land, in the hopes of escaping certain death. His sister, Miriam, was sent to watch over the basket, to help ensure it sailed to safety.

Like Moses, Superman – originally named Kal-El – was born at a time when his people were facing a certain death. The planet Krypton was about to be destroyed, so his parents, Jor-El and Lara, wrapped him in a red blanket (that would one day become his talis – I mean, cape) and placed him in a rocket ship for a new world. Like Miriam, Superman’s female cousin, Kara Zor-El, followed baby Kal-El to watch over him, but due to a time warp, only landed on Earth years later. Kara Zor-El would later become better known as Supergirl.

Under Miriam’s “supervision” (excuse the pun), Moses was found by Bithia, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Bithia raised him as her child, since she was not able to have children of her own.

Moses grew to become one of the most powerful men in Egypt; and with those powers came great responsibilities. He eventually learned of his Israelite identity, which he had to hide from everyone. He soon came to terms with who he really was, and led the Hebrew slaves to freedom. He became known as the “giver of law” as he sought the truth while he led his people to back to Israel.

Kal-El, on the other hand, was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, a Midwest couple who also longed for a child of their own. They named him Clark, who soon discovered he had supernatural powers. He kept his true identity a secret from everyone, but as Superman, became a fighter for truth, justice and the American way.

The Moses slash Superman story has many parallels. But why is Superman called Superman? To understand that, you first must understand the time when he was created.

Superman’s first appearance was in Action Comics #1, issued in June 1938. This was the same year that the Nazis under Hitler annexed Austria, occupied Czechoslovakia, and launched Kristallnacht, the notorious riots and violence against Jewish shops across Germany.

At the time, Hitler was obsessed with creating the master race. He was a fan of the German philosopher Nietzsche’s work, die Ubermensch… or in English, the super man. Mensch is also a Yiddish word, but is used to describe a person of noble character, with integrity and honour.

As if saying “neh neh neh neh neh” to Hitler, two Jewish boys living Cleveland, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, created the first superhero and called him Superman.

Shuster was actually born in Toronto. At that time, antisemitism was so high, some claim signs in public places here said things like “no dogs or Jews allowed.” There were quotas on the number of Jews who could go to university or become professionals. As a reminder, I’m talking about Canada, not Nazi Germany!

So many Jews at the time lived their own secret identity. They practiced their religion and culture within their small community, but generally tried to assimilate with society at large. Often seen as meek and mild mannered, like Superman’s Clark Kent and Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, Jews were easy targets for bullying, discrimination, and beatings.

But on the inside, there may have been a sense of superiority by some – rightly or wrongly – perhaps perpetuated by the belief of many pre-Reconstructionist era Jews as being the “Chosen People.” Throughout Europe, there were so many restrictions of how a Jew could earn a living, so they came to rely on their brains instead of their brawn to get ahead. Furthering their education and studying the Torah were highly valued and were an encouraged part of the culture.

One of my earliest, and fondest, memories as a young child is of my grandmother singing Oyfin Pripetchik to me as a lullaby. Although I did not understand Yiddish, I did understand what the Yiddish lyrics meant to her, which was to “Use your brain to learn the alphabet, so that you could learn to read the words of the Torah. When you are older, you will understand the many tears that were shed for these words. But as exhausted as you’ll be, you will derive strength from these words.”

In coming to North America, the New World, Jews were full of hope that they were fleeing for a better land for their families. The Statue of Liberty beckoned them, saying, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But as exhausted as they were, these immigrants derived a newfound strength from these words. You can say that’s the same kind of hope that Yocheved held for Moses and Jor-El and Lara had for Kal-El.

Today’s parashat, Shemot, means “names,” as the Torah portion starts off listing the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt. This is the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, which is also known as sefer shemot.

And what about God’s name? In Exodus Chapter 3 verse 13, when Moses is talking to the burning bush, he asks “What shall I say is your name”? God answers in verse 14 saying “I am what I am.” It turns out that quote didn’t originate with Popeye after all!

But, as Juliet says to Romeo: “What’s in a name?” … Let’s find out. Name me some of the comic book characters you enjoyed as a child, or perhaps still do today.

Spiderman? Batman? Richie Rich? Captain America? Archie, Betty and Veronica? … all these characters were created by Jews.

In Exodus 2:22, it was Moses who said “I am a stranger in a strange land.” And that’s precisely what these Jews and superheroes must have felt like in the early and mid-20th Century.

And as strangers in strange lands, Jews were often forced to assimilate… sometimes upon the threat of death. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition half a millennium ago, Jews were offered the choice to convert to Catholicism, or face death. Many of the Jews who chose to convert continued practicing Jewish rituals in hiding. Similarly, in the former Soviet Union and other repressive regimes, Jews who wished to practice their religion did so secret. These are known as “crypto-Jews”, from the Greek word for hiding, or as I prefer to call them, Kryptonians.

In 20th Century North America, to try and “fit in” in an attempt to be more accepted by the larger society, Jews would often change their names… but this time, it was usually by choice. For example, Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, was born Stan Lieber. Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, was a Jew originally named Robert Khan. And Jacob Kurtzberg, changed his name to Jack Kirby before he created Captain America.

Even Clark Kent had one of the most WASPy new names imaginable!

But what about Clark’s original name, Kal-El? Kal, is like “Kol”, meaning “whole” or “all” in Hebrew. And most names that end in “el” are biblical in nature, as the word itself means “of God” in Hebrew, from the same root as might and power. For example, Daniel means judged by God, Samuel means the name of God, and Gabriel means the man of God. Combine Kol with El and you get an all-powerful name.

There’s an old joke that says something like “if a person’s name ends in “man”, they are either Jewish, like Goldman, Feldman, and Lipman; or they are superheroes, like Superman, Spiderman, and Batman.

But it’s no joke that these superheroes, all with secret identities, led tormented lives. They were usually orphans with very few links to their past… like many of the Jews of the time who fled persecution from both Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany to start new lives without their families.

But times, I hope, have changed. My kids are fourth generation Canadians, and have not experienced the hate, mistrust and fear faced by many immigrants today and of years past. So when my daughter asked me if Superman was Jewish, I said no. But his morals, ethics, culture and way of being are steeped in Jewish folklore and tradition.

And most importantly, I tell my kids to be like Super Girl and Superman: to be people of noble character, with integrity and honour who are smart, caring and compassionate on the inside, while being strong, beautiful and confident on the outside; in other words, to be a mensch … uber or not.

One of my closest friends grew up in rural Nova Scotia, where he was the only Jew. He experienced bullying and beatings from other kids, simply because of his religion. He once confided in me that comic books, especially Mad Magazine, had a certain Jewish essence to them that helped him feel connected to others. A highlight of his childhood, he told me, was seeing a Mad Magazine story with a tv camera displaying the station’s call letters as F.E.H.T.V. (or Feh TV). He saw this as a wink from the Jewish writers and artists to let kids like him know “they are not alone.”

And that’s an important lesson: we are not alone. And it has nothing to do with being Jewish. It has to do with being a mensch. We, like Superman, were put on this planet to do good, to help out the less fortunate, and to put an end to injustices.

And we do have great powers. We might not have Superman’s x-ray vision, but we can have a vision of how to make this world a better place. Our fortunes might not be as valuable as Richie Rich’s, but we are fortunate if we live our values by enriching the world. We might not have Batman’s strength, but we must have an inner strength to take positive action.

In other words, our real power is our ability to empower ourselves to act on the changes we want to see in the world. As Spider-man’s Uncle Ben famously said, “With great power come great responsibility.” … for Spider-man, for Superman, for Super Girl, for you, and for me.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784