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The Heroes Inside of Us – Erev Yom Kippur

Image result for superheroes


Any idea who said the following movie quotes:


Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? – Spider-Man


What about:

Some believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things. Everyday deeds by ordinary folks that keeps evil at bay – Gandolf




“All you need is faith and trust and a little pixie dust” – Peter Pan



Wouldn’t it be nice if those characters were real and could make all our problems disappear like pixie dust floating in the air?  Or what if Gandolf could magically appear and help us stop the dizzyingly fast changing pace of the world.  Or maybe if Spiderman was real and saved people from experiencing crime.


Unfortunately, we do not live in a Hollywood movie, we live in a world that is a little messier.  A world where crying and laughing can happen almost interchangeably.  Where we can feel as if we are overwhelmed and alone one minute and ecstatic the next.  A world where we wonder what else can happen?


One of the most exciting parts of movies is that we can image ourselves as if we are the super heroes.  We can pretend that we can jump off the building to save someone or stop a speeding train.  We can rescue a failing relationship with a kiss and a hug.  Or we can save the whole world with gun.

In the real world – true heroism can cost you not only your life, but the life of those you love.  Most people when faced with tough decisions will turn a blind eye to their problems rather than face it, until the moment when turning a blind eye causes more pain than dealing with the actual problem.  Even when we deal with the problem at times we try and resist.


But the heroes in Hollywood never back down.  I am not sure if it is because they are free of specific faults or simply they are stubborn. How real is that approach to life?  Perhaps by looking elsewhere we find a more realistic approach to problem solving.  The Bible offers several examples and they are different from today.


We don’t find the biblical heroes to be free of fault. All of them had fears and were at times reluctant to do the right thing.  Even the quintessential Jewish hero, our prophets, didn’t always do the right thing. The prophetic power did not allow them to predict the future rather they saw a more nuanced present. They saw all and heard all the bells and whistles where we might only see or hear part of the picture.


When we look closely at the Bible it is not physical strength, or even being a great orator, which made somebody a hero. It was not their beauty or charm.  There is only one Sampson after all.  Rather for Jews, the greatest biblical heroes were the ones who were driven by personal concern and acted to the highest ethical standards.  This expression of heroism was carried later into the middle ages.


The Shulchan Aruch, a classical medieval book of Jewish law, opens by declaring that one should arise every morning “as a hero” by preparing to do God’s will.  Heroism, in Judaism, occurs when we are faced with life’s challenging situations and choose to do the right and good.  Even in the most challenging moments of trauma or feeling threatened, being able to reach for the best – those individuals are true heroes.  Those who strive to improve the world incrementally every day – they are the ones who deserve in Judaism the title tzaddik or righteous one.


Are there heroes around today?  In many senses we are living out in society what Martin Buber described best as an “I-It” relationship.  There is a utilitarian approach to life were individuals and objects are used almost interchangeably.  It is amazing that we can be surrounded by other people and yet feel totally alone. We are surrounded by social media and other ways to amuse ourselves and depersonalize our lives.

I bet that when I’m lying on a bed preparing to die I’m not going ask myself how many hours of Netflix did I livestream? Or how many games of candy crush did I play?  I have a feeling that my thoughts will be directed toward something else entirely.


Recently a congregant came into my office following Rosh Hashanah to discuss my sermon on anti-Semitism among other things. She shared with me that she spoke with her family and that she knows that most rabbis spoke about anti-Semitism across the country. She also shared with me that she is very fearful of North Korea, climate change, her life moving and marching faster than she ever imagined it would among other things. I realized in listening to her that what she was describing was a feeling of loss of control. She felt like the world was happening to her. She is just like you and me. How many of us feel that the world happens to them here in this room tonight?


What she was asking was how, recognizing the fragility of life, can she find the correct grasp to grip life knowing that it will not be enough to hold on.

The great Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear it all.”

I think the question though is how do we walk one foot in front of the other? How can we be our own hero?

Can we rescue ourselves and still acknowledge,

We are afraid at times.

We are crying out.

And we, at times feel alone.


I want to share with you the story of Hagar and ask that we think about things from her perspective.


Hagar was an obedient and kind servant who served her mistress faithfully.  When asked to do an extreme thing – to be a surrogate mother – she agreed to do so.  Yet Sarah became distrustful and jealous.  She then started to abuse Hagar.  Eventually she convinced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert with a bottle of water and some bread.  Her pain is almost palpable to us today as we imagine walking in her shoes and being cast off, facing death. Yet the Bible did not offer her voice up to us expressing fear or doubt. We are only clued in when all the water in the bottle is used up, and she places her son under one of the desert shrubs and moves away so that she cannot hear him cry.


We read: “she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.” (Genesis 21:16).


We can almost see and hear her crying out.  She asks only that she not hear her child suffer, knowing that she cannot control the situation.

What a powerful cry!


Similarly, we can look into the psalms and hear the existential pain of human existence contained within the text itself.


“My God, my God, you have forsaken me, but why?

When I cry out to you, why are you so far away from me?

I cry my grief, my pain, my loss throughout the day;

but no one comes to answer me.

All night I cry out longing to be heard

but you’re not there.”

Psalm 22:1-2


There are times when we all experience feeling as if we are cast out from family, community, our job or perhaps as being the victim of a natural disaster or a crime.  The feelings of alienation and loneliness can almost swallow us up.  Again, Psalm 22 offers a vision: “but I’m a worm, less than human; scorned by men, despised by people. (Psalm 22:7) and I have to admit, it is in those moments, having a superhero would just be fantastic.  But, what I have learned more than anything is that we are our own superhero.


What the psalmist does next is almost breathtaking.   The psalmist shares that there is a shift, a moment when he moves from crying out in pain, to reaching toward God.


“But You, O LORD, be not far off; my strength, hasten to my aid.

Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog.

Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me.” (Psalm 22:20-23)


There is a moment when the psalmist asks God for help.  There is a moment when Hagar reaches out asking for help.  There was a moment when my congregant reached out.  What does it mean to reach out to God in 2017 and ask for help?

For me the answer is clear to this question is found in your faces looking back at me.  One of the most powerful images that Rabbi Kushner has shared with us, is found on the pages of Mishkan Tefilah in the Friday night service.   He shares with us is that at any moment we can be an angel.

“…we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High.  They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often even unknown to themselves.  Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now.  We would not be the way we are now.  Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger.  Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes.”[1]

There are times when I am an angel for you and you are an angel for me.  There are moments when you are a hero for someone and you may not even be aware of it.  We bring light and hope to those around us simply by being present.

By reaching out for help in engaging in the difficult process of teshuvah, we can better repair the relationships around us.  Or by reaching out for help when we feel overwhelmed by life’s circumstances, we can find heroes.  No person is an island and no real hero can function on their own.  For us to be the heroes of our own life’s story, that story must include the lives of those we love around us, helping us to grow and become stronger.


In Superman on the Couch, Danny Fingeroth states that we are all heroes. He writes:

“A hero can be said to be someone who rises above his or her fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary. In the real world, firemen who race into burning buildings, soldiers who advance in the face of enemy fire, astronauts who launch into space despite the high odds of lethal outcome, are often the standard by which heroism is measured.

On another level, a teacher who, day after day, attempts to educate under adverse circumstances, an accident victim who, despite pain and enormous difficulty, persists in relearning lost skills, or a physician who ministers to AIDS patients in plague-stricken, third world nation can all be considered heroes. They fight the odds, and sometimes beat them.

Indeed, do we not all, at one time or another, as the alarm clock rings and we steel ourselves to face another day in the struggle that life can be, regard ourselves – even as we laugh at the assessment – as the heroes of our own lives? There are days when simply taking the subway to work and getting through the day seems like the triumph of Gilgamesh, or the Green Lantern, for that matter.”[2]


That moment under the bush, Hagar was a hero.  Hagar reached out.  God responded to her cry and helped her:


We read: “God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” (Genesis 21:17)


We can all be hero fighting to do great things or simply good things or simply make a good choice.  Superman fought for integrity, Batman justice, Spiderman responsibility.  They chose to fight for something that was meaningful to them.  Reaching out is a heroic thing.  Responding to others cry is a heroic thing. Making good choices is a heroic thing.


We are not like the heroes from Hollywood in the sense that we cannot change the world on our own.  But we can change who we are by engaging in the challenging process of teshuvah and welcoming other people to participate with us in that process.  When we humble ourselves enough to ask for help we are a hero.  At that moment we are like a biblical hero.  We are Moses receiving help from Jethro to make a functioning justice system or Abraham receiving help from Sarah to be hospitable.


Together, through the process of teshuvah and humility, we can be heroes.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that belief in God is an antidote to narcissism. “Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is… When we place the self at the centre of our universe, we eventually turn everyone and everything into a means to our ends… (but) when God is at the centre of our lives, we open ourselves up to the glory of creation and the beauty of other people. The smaller the self, the wider the radius of our world.” Shoftim, Sep 2016


May we recognize that we can be the hero not just of our story, but the supporting hero of someone else.  Both roles are essential and both roles ennoble us and those around us to a better life. May this year be full of heroic moments in all of our lives!



[1] Mishkan Tefilah, p. 143

[2] Superman on the Couch, p. 14.