“Faster than a speeding bullet; leaping tall buildings at a single bound; it’s a bird—it’s a plane—no—it’s Superman!”
In the 1930’s, two American Jews, Jerry Siegel (the writer) and Joe Schuster (the illustrator), created the Superman comic strip character. The superhero made his first official appearance in Action Comics 1 in June of 1938, 80 years ago next month. I remember taking a group of our teenagers to the Jewish Museum one Shabbat afternoon, when there was an exhibit there of Jews and comic strip heroes. The exhibit demonstrated that in the dark shadow that was descending upon Europe during the 1930’s, particularly victimizing Jews, Siegel and Schuster, and many of their colleagues who created similar characters, needed some way to sublimate their feelings of powerlessness against the forces of evil in Europe. So they created superheroes, with superhuman strength, who would beat up the bad guys, and prevail in the end. Until I saw this exhibit, I had never thought of Superman and his counterparts in that way, but it makes perfect sense against the historical backdrop.
Superman came from the planet Krypton, and was capable of metabolizing solar energy, which enabled him to move planets, break the time barrier, see with X-Ray vision, and fly throughout our world, and from one world to the other. But he had one weakness—green Kryptonite—which made him vulnerable to evil mental powers and the forces of magic, and diminished his physical strength considerably.
I thought of Superman this week in reading over our Haftarah from the Book of Judges, about the birth of our very own Biblical superhero, Samson. Samson was born in Tzor’ah, which is located in the Judean desert, about a ½ hour outside of Jerusalem. (Just as an aside, Tzor’ah today has a kibbutz, with vineyards and a beautiful winery with a shop and tasting room.) Samson was a Nazirite—a member of a certain group of men who voluntarily took upon themselves vows of abstinence. The ritual of the Nazirites is described in our Torah portion, in the Book of Numbers. Nazirites were forbidden from drinking wine and other intoxicants, incurring the pollution that would come from contact with corpses, and also, cutting their hair.
Samson was a man of superhuman strength. Further on in the Book of Judges we read that he tore apart a roaring lion with his bare hands (Judges 14.6), and killed a thousand men from among the Philistines, who were the enemies of Israel (Judges, 15.15). But the Philistines bribed a beautiful woman named Delilah to seduce Samson into confiding to her the source of his strength: “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me and I should become as weak as an ordinary man (Judges 16.17).” Delilah cut his hair, and indeed, his strength left him. But one last time, God returned his strength just long enough to defeat the Philistines (Judges 16.30).
What these two figures have in common is superhuman strength, but also a point of vulnerability. Another familiar example is the Greek mythological superhero, Achilles. When he was a baby, Achilles’ mother Thetis took him to the River Styx, which was said to contain powers of invulnerability. But when she dipped his body into the water, she held him by the heel, and thus his heel did not receive the benefit of the power of the waters. Achilles grew up to be a notorious man of war. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him lodged itself in his heel, and he died as a result.
All three of these mythical figures seem to represent our own human desire to be stronger and more powerful than anyone or anything else around us. Yet, in their individual ways, all three of these superhuman figures remind us that even they have their points of vulnerability, and that complete imperviousness to the perils of life on this earth is impossible to achieve. That is a reality that may be difficult for us to accept at times. On the other hand, it might also be comforting to acknowledge that it is simply a reality of the human condition, and if we learn to accept it and work with it in constructive ways, we all will be much better off.
In terms of our physical strength, there is a certain irony in the fact that our calendar this year has us reading about Samson on the Shabbat of our Memorial Day Weekend. Our military strives to be bigger, and stronger, and more powerful than any other on Earth. Nevertheless, as we have gone to war repeatedly, we have never been able to escape the reality that our wish for unparalleled strength and imperviousness can never fully be realized. We remember this as we visit the graves and honor the memories of all the men and women who have been killed in those wars throughout our history as a nation.
In terms of our emotional strength, all of us have our own “Achilles’ Heels,” as it were, with regard to our own human vulnerabilities and possibilities for hurt in our personal lives. Sometimes our fear of exposing these points of vulnerability holds us back in life. Sometimes other people, attempting to overcompensate for their own Achilles’ Heels, will deliberately seek to attack those whom they know they can hurt, just in the spot that will hurt the most. Our vulnerabilities frighten us. Either they hold us back, or they cause us to engage in negative behavior.
Perhaps one goal for us to set for ourselves would be to temper the extremes, and more fully realize the potential for good in all of us. In truth, none of us can become Superman, Samson, Achilles, or any other mythical superhero. They are products of our fantasies. But we are human, with the potential for great strength, both physical and spiritual, even as we recognize our own points of vulnerability and accept our limitations. Our job is to realize the potential within all of us for good, and then develop it to its fullest potential, so that we can live happier and more fulfilled lives.