By Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel
…A Jewish tale, told from one generation to the next…
One evening, the Baal Shem Tov, exhausted, quickly fell into a deep sleep. After what felt like no time, though, there was an angel right next to his bed, shouting, “Wake up! Get out of bed!” Although it was still evening, he followed the angel. As they went outside, the Baal Shem Tov saw a man walking carelessly across a narrow, rickety bridge. Below him, on either side were icy depths and a fiery furnace. Clearly, this man was in great danger, couldn’t seem to see his peril. The Baal Shem Tov tried to shout out to the man, but his lips had been sealed. Suddenly, there’s a great flash of lightening and the man can suddenly see the bridge, see the icy depths, see the fiery furnace. He panics, and starts to lose balance, teetering on the bridge, struggling not to fall. At that same moment, the Baal Shem Tov regains his speech and shouts to him, “Fly! You can fly!” And the man flew.
For generations, we’ve had tales of ordinary people who develop powers that they never dreamed of–who seemingly do the impossible. This story of the Baal Shem Tov, ambiguously told so that it could all be a dream, shows a seemingly ordinary man who suddenly is able to save his own life through flight. All it took was someone telling him that he could do it.
Stories of heroes are as old as stories themselves–and as new as this moment. Stories of people possessing power that they did not realize they had have always existed.
Take Superman, the prototype of the modern American superhero. Based in many ways on classic hero tales in many cultures, Superman was unique in the idea that superhuman powers could (and should) lead to a decision to increase justice in the world. Look at the very first page of Superman 1
While Superman’s origin story changed over the years, the essence has always remained of Clark Kent having a decisive moment to use his powers towards righting the wrongs around him (and, with the ability to go faster than a speeding bullet, around is a large space). I can’t think of a more Jewish idea. Once his abilities are realized, Superman goes forth on a mission of tikun olam—repairing the world. Superman embodies the answering of Isaiah’s call to us, to unlock the chains of wickedness, to loosen exploitation, to free all those oppressed, to break the yoke of servitude.
I’ve always had a thing for superheroes. What I love most is this idea that we each have unrealized powers. That we all have the potential to be super heroes. Yes. I’m telling you now: YOU ARE A SUPER HERO!
And, like Superman, it’s our responsibility to do something with our powers.
This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes, since hearing the sad news that Sam, the six-year-old son of my dear friends and colleagues, Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, had been diagnosed with Leukemia. His story, their story, is being shared here at Superman Sam. They’ve asked here for all of us to be superheroes for Sam, and show him that he has a whole team behind him. I encourage you all to take a picture and send it to him…let’s use our powers to show this little boy that he is not alone in his fight. Let’s all use our super powers to make a big difference in a seemingly small way.
After all, that’s what heroes do.
Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel’s current secret identity is as Associate Rabbi and Youth Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. You can read a slightly different version of this blog post on her blog: Off the REKord.