Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783
September 26/27, 2022
What’s Your Superpower?
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
“An individual ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of unknown wonder. Fabulous forces are encountered there, and a decisive victory is won. The individual emerges from the mysterious adventure with the power to bestow great gifts and blessings upon other individuals.” This description, a slight paraphrase of the “hero’s journey” motif laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work on mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, could be used to describe a number of well-known characters who have entered our consciousness through books or other media. But if we take time to parse Campbell’s matrix, we find that it particularly applies to one of the earliest heroes of Judaism, a figure who occupies our Torah portion today. Abraham leaves behind the home he has always known. He encounters an unseen, benevolent force which he calls God, and overcomes obstacles and challenges to become one who is widely known and respected within his lifetime. Abraham in this framework, meets the textbook definition of a hero.
To be sure, much as Abraham has stood the test of time as a pivotal character in our tradition, his demeanor also challenges us at times. The infamous story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, which is our Torah reading for today, shows a disturbing side of Abraham that we would never set out to emulate. Some argue that it is such flaws that make Abraham more relatable and more worthy of adulation. But this morning, I’d like to focus on the strength of another character from the Akedah story, one who does not appear by name in the narrative, but who is nonetheless impacted by it and shows heroism in the face of adversity. I’m referring, of course, to Sarah.
Sarah, wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac, is thrust into this story even though the p’shat– the plain reading of the text—makes no mention of her. But how could she not be impacted by the troubling events unfolding in Genesis chapter 22, as the child whom she was able to bear only after great struggle is now being prepared for sacrifice? In fact, the Midrash, noting that the very next parsha in the ordinary weekly lectionary cycle, Chayei Sarah, begins with the mention of Sarah’s death, imagines that she passes away from shock and grief when she learns the true intent behind Abraham and Isaac’s early morning journey. Yet prior to her passing, Sarah—like so many biblical women, some known to us and others anonymous—exemplifies a heroic stance. It was famously said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything her dance partner Fred Astaire did, except “backwards and in high heels.” The biblical Sarah may have eschewed the formal attire, but she and her compatriots certainly had important accomplishments similar to those of their male counterparts, though they have often been less heralded.
A few weeks ago, without her even knowing that I was working on this sermon, our six-year-old daughter Eden asked me if I believed in superheroes. I responded that while I didn’t think that there were really people in this world who could fly or turn invisible or things like that, I believed that there are people who always work hard to do good things, who fight for truth and fairness. That answer satisfied her. But the more I thought about it, the more I considered that many of the non-physical attributes ascribed to superheroes in comic books and movies—beyond radioactive spider bites or having been born on another planet or having been injected with super serum—the qualities that make the heroes pursue evildoers and save the day, these are the same qualities that our tradition defines as menschlikeit. It’s generally understood to be a gender-neutral term. Menschlikeit is the art of being a fine, upstanding person even when others around you are not behaving in such a fashion. Rabbi Hillel taught, “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish—in a place in which no one is acting like a decent human being, one must nevertheless strive to be human.” Each of us has the ability to act like a mensch. In other words, that’s our superpower!
Among other qualities, the mensch-y heroines of the Tanakh persevere, they are strong, and they stand by their convictions. These biblical women display character traits that we would each do well to try to emulate, regardless of our personal gender identifications.
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, their knowledge of Jewish culture and history informed them to some degree. Superman debuted in 1938, meaning that the mythos of the character was being shaped in the shadow of World War II and the Shoah. The world, and Jews in particular, needed a hero they could look up to, one who had the strength and the moral fortitude to subdue any enemy who might prove to be a threat to justice and freedom. That Superman himself was presented as an outsider, a foreigner undoubtedly resonated with those who had been displaced from their European homes and found themselves rebuilding and seeking new fortunes in America.
But there’s another very Jewish feature that distinguishes Superman from other comic book heroes who would later arise. Figures such as Batman or Spiderman go through the bulk of their lives in their human form—Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker or whomever. Their masked and caped personae are their secret identities, alter-egos they adopt in the pursuit of upholding justice. For Superman, however, the core of his identity is that he is a being from another world who possesses the ability to fly, extraordinary strength, x-ray vision, and so-forth. His human guise of Clark Kent is the costume he wears in order to exist in contemporary society.
This echoes the experience of Jewish immigrants, many of whom sought to fit in to American society by doing their best to drop or disguise accents, shift modes of dress, and perhaps even change names as a means of being more like their neighbors. But it also mirrors the narrative of a number of Biblical women, who courageously lived relatively quiet existences while the men in their lives received the bulk of the attention. In a cultural milieu in which females rarely were given agency, the Biblical women who nevertheless acted to protect their own interests, to provide for their families, or even to defend their entire nation, are deserving of our respect.
The daughters of Zelophechad– Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, advocated for a fairer manner of determining inheritance rights, rather than tying property ownership only to males. Miriam watched over the baby Moses as he floated in the Nile, ensuring that Pharaoh’s daughter would see the infant and rescue him. Yael trapped the Canaanite general Sisera in her tent and murdered him so that he would no longer be a threat to the Israelites. Shiphra and Pua’ah continued to deliver male Israelite babies and ensure that they survived, contravening the Pharaoh’s decree. Hannah, about whom we read in [today’s/ yesterday’s] Haftarah, veered from accepted modes of worship to offer her own silent prayer. And Sarah? Sarah laughed.
In mentioning Sarah’s laughter, I do not mean to denigrate or trivialize Sarah’s role in her narrative. Each of these women shows courage and resilience when a situation seems not to be in their favor. Each of them, particularly Sarah, acts contrary to the norms that we have been led to understand regarding biblical society, and despite the odds seemingly being against them, they prevail. Sarah’s laughter underscores her perseverance; her laughter upon hearing the Divine oracle promise a late-in-life pregnancy is but one instance of her persisting in a narrative in which she not always treated fairly. Twice, Abraham forces her to pretend that she is his sister rather than his wife, placing her in situations that imperil her dignity. She endures a rivalry with Hagar for Abraham’s affection and attention because she fears she will not be able to provide her husband with an heir. But rather than retreat into the passivity that we are told was the typical stance for women of that era, Sarah finds ways to defy these expectations and be an active player in her narrative. For having the perseverance to move beyond the accepted norms, we can recognize Sarah and these other Biblical women as heroes.
In a recent essay, author Dara Horn posed the question, “What impossibilities might be open to us right at this moment, if we were to stop limiting our imaginations? What might happen if we had the courage to approach people different from us and discover how they did it — whether those people were our neighbors, people across the world, or our own ancestors? What might it be possible to hope for? What would we even want to want?” These are the questions Sarah and her fellow Biblical women dare to ask.
Horn illustrates her point with the story of Bontsha Shveig, Bontsha the Silent, by the Yiddish author I.L. Peretz. Bontsha, a poor man, dies and is brought before the heavenly court to be judged. He is found to have been so suffering and so humble that the divine court declines to pass judgment upon him, declaring, “It is not for us to determine your portion of paradise. Take what you want!” And Bontsha, having been granted the opportunity to request anything for his eternal reward, simply requests a roll with fresh butter each morning. As Horn notes, he has been left literally with crumbs.
The story is often held up as a sweet example of humility. But Horn argues that this is an inappropriate way to read the text. She writes, “Self-abnegation is not a virtue. We are entitled to want more than crumbs; the ability to desire more is the most humane act of respect for ourselves and others.”
When we, like Sarah, persevere and fight for what we deserve, when we are insistent upon being treated with dignity and justice, we show our heroic qualities.
The women of the Bible are also strong. They may not possess the supernatural strength of one born on a distant planet, or bitten by a radioactive insect, or trained in martial arts, but they show themselves to be mighty in heart, mind, and character.
Sarah enters into the experiment of monotheism with her husband, Abraham, leaving behind all she has known to forge this new path. We never hear about her personal experience of the Lech Lecha moment, the urge to go forth and seek new adventures. What did she leave behind? What fortitude did she possess which enabled her to endure this upheaval?
And what strength did it take for Sarah to stand at Abraham’s side through various trials and tests, to parent Isaac in her old age, to watch her husband and child wake early one morning and go off on the journey to what would come to be known as the Akedah? The Torah is largely silent on Sarah’s emotional reaction to many of these moments, but we may imagine that, when faced with challenges and adversity, Sarah laughed just as she had at that other important juncture in her life. We can picture Sarah refusing to fold under these stresses and pressures, but standing firm and resolute and facing the moments with good humor and determination.
And other women in our storied past show admirable strength as well. Judith, whose eponymous book is found in the Apocrypha, single-handedly slew the Assyrian general Holofernes. Deborah guided the Israelite community as a judge, providing spiritual and political leadership in the days when there was no king over Israel and every person did as they pleased. Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, performs an emergency circumcision when Moses is endangered in the wilderness. While one need not act in as dramatic a manner as the women whom I have lifted up, their stories of personal fortitude come to reinforce the great things one can accomplish if one maintains the discipline of inner and outer strength.
How do we show our strength in our time? If we are strong and firmly rooted, we have the ability to be a means of support for others who may be in need. When we serve our community—upholding the fallen, caring for the sick, sustaining those who are downtrodden—we work in partnership with God, we show our strength, and we exhibit our heroic nature.
Sarah and her biblical sisters display a quality that is essential to heroism and to menschlikeit—they maintain their convictions even in the face of adversity. Sarah, for instance, insists that Abraham’s estate, and the legacy of ideas and ideals contained therein, will pass on through Isaac. She does everything in her power—sometimes at the expense of others in the household such as Hagar and Ishmael—to achieve this end. While we might disagree at times with her tactics, we can appreciate that her motives are informed by her love for her family, and her conviction that the new monotheistic enterprise that Abraham has discovered should not disappear after only one generation.
Ruth is another figure who stands by the courage of her convictions. When her sister-in-law Orpah returns home to pursue a future that feels more secure and certain for her, Ruth determines that her destiny lies within Judaism and with her mother-in-law. Her proclamation, “Entreat me not to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” is recognized as the first outward expression of conversion to Judaism. She is steadfast in her faith that God will provide, that a future among the Israelite community holds the greatest promise for her.
And Esther, who has the ability to be quite comfortable in the Persian palace, living incognito, calls upon the strength of her convictions in order to stand up for her people against Haman’s wicked plot. As Mordecai reminds her, “Perhaps you were put here for a moment such as this.”
In our own day, we are called to act in a menschlikeit manner. As I noted on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the pandemic lifestyle of the past few years has perhaps caused some of us to curtail our interactions with others a bit. But as we each begin to find our own comfort in group gatherings, we begin to recognize the holiness of community and our sacred obligations toward one another. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opined, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” We show our heroic side when we learn to behave as mensches and act in consonance with our convictions.
The moments of inspiration granted to us by these Biblical heroines are numerous. Doubtless, we could find contemporary examples of Jewish women who are also forging important pathways for truth and justice and human rights. Our own gender identifications, and the gender of those who blaze the important trails on our behalf, ultimately is not entirely relevant for this particular discussion. The significant message is that one can perform heroic acts simply be striving to realize one’s greatest potential. By being courageous, strong and resolute, and true to one’s convictions, one can be noticed and celebrated as a mensch.
As we enter this New Year 5783, may we each find a way to work in partnership with God and with one another to use our strengths for good, to strive for the betterment of the world in which we live. May we follow the examples laid before us by Sarah and her biblical sisters. May we each stand tall and proudly proclaim, “I’m a mensch! What’s your superpower?”
 Paraphrased from Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949)
 See, for instance, Midrash Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31
 Attributed to Rogers herself, but she denied coining it. She credited cartoonist Bob Thaves with popularizing the idea.
 Mishnah Pirke Avot 2:6
 cf Judges 21:25
 cf Exodus 4:24-26
 Ruth 1:16
 Esther 4:14
 First said to an audience in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, and repeated with occasional modifications in wording several times in his life.