Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Find Your Inner Ant-Man© - Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5776/2015

Find Your Inner Ant-Man© - Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5776/2015
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Have you ever had a moment when you felt really small and alone? 

Take yourself back to that time...

I want to share with you the first moment that I felt really small and alone.  The year was 1992, it was the first day of school when I began the 7th grade, and my first year in public school, leaving the shelter of my Jewish Day School. 

Until that point, I thought the whole world was Jewish, and I thought that I was of ‘average’ height!  But that all changed the day I stepped into the halls of my new middle school. Suddenly, I was the shortest guy there, I felt like a grasshopper surrounded by giants! 

But it wasn’t just my height that made me feel small.  There were few Jews in my school, and it seemed like none of them would admit they were Jewish.  Not only was I short, but I was the only person who cared about anything Jewish.  I had a Jewish day school education, but even my Jewish friends didn’t care.  

I was a stranger in a strange land, and I felt tiny.

We all have these moments – moments of feeling small, of feeling alone, of feeling inadequate. 

It was at that time that I immersed myself in comic books.  In many ways, it was my escape from being small – I could imagine myself as bigger than I was. 

I went through so many comic books looking for a hero, someone who I could pretend to be, someone who would make me feel big.  Finally, I found an old comic book series at the store:  Ant-Man. 



I started reading them vociferously, issue after issue, and the great thing about them was, they were cheap, no one cared about Ant-Man! 

Ant Man was created by two Jews from Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, and his younger brother Larry, and they also created the heroes many of us know and love:  Spiderman, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, amongst many others.  But Ant Man was Stan’s favorite.  Ant Man’s power was pretty simple – he could shrink to the size of an ant. 

Kind of underwhelming right?  But wait, there’s more!  Like an ant, he could lift 8 times his own weight, and he could communicate with ants whose unity is unparalleled amongst living things – together, they could work together to do amazing things that no one being could do alone.  

So I started reading issue after issue, until I reached one issue, and my heart broke:  they gave Ant-Man a serum to become Giant Man.  I had finally found my David, someone like me, someone small, and alone, but with a potential to be powerful, to be a hero…but they couldn’t accept him…and they turned him into Goliath.



Stan Lee still talks about the failure of Ant-Man as one of his biggest regrets because Ant-Man was his favorite superhero, but he never fully caught on.  Lee blamed the medium of the comic book itself for the failure of Ant-Man.  The artists could not truly could not show how small he was, and the 
massive odds that Ant-Man was really up against – the comic book reader had no perspective. 



In other words, people didn’t pay attention to him because they could not see what he overcame. 

Everyone has their day in the sun, and finally, Ant-Man became the hero he was meant to be – this summer, he was the star of a big budget film that ruled the box offices – and yes, there will be a sequel. 




I’m sure you all had different examples of when you felt small, insignificant, even powerless. 

Today, I want us to confront this idea, together, to give us some hope as to how we can better confront the things in our lives that make us feel tiny, and to give us the courage to have strength and realize how mighty we actually can be. 

It’s on this holiday, Rosh Hashanah, that we confront this idea head on – today is the anniversary of the creation of the world, Yom Harat HaOlam, but it’s not just the world, it’s the universe. 

As human beings, we are the only being on earth that realizes how small and insignificant we truly are in relation to the universe. 

What can we do?  How can we live like this knowing that we are this small and insignificant?  Do we ignore it?  Pretend it doesn’t exist? 

There is a famous rabbinic teaching that you might have heard before:  each person must live with two pieces of paper in our pockets – one that says, “I am just dust and ashes” and the other says “the world was created just for me.” 

I think it’s really a choice of how we choose to see ourselves – as nothing, or as something. 

During this holiday, the rabbis insisted that we read a different story, the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. 

There’s an amazing moment that happens to Abraham, before he became the great Abraham we know, and his name was even different at the time.

At a time in his life, Avram was old, in his 90’s, and his wife way beyond child bearing years, but God promises him a child.  God comes to Avram in a vision and says, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”  But Avram is facing something that makes him feel tiny – the reality of having no offspring.  Avram says to God, “O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless!”  So God takes him outside and says to him, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” 

Now, let’s get back to how we feel when we look up at the stars – they are beautiful, but doesn’t it make you feel insignificant and tiny?!? 

But God adds “So shall your offspring be.” The text continues and says, “And he (Avram) believed in the Lord.”  And God rewarded Abraham for his faith.

The word used for believed is He’emin – he trusted in the Lord – it’s the same thing we say when we say Amen. 

What did Avram trust?  He trusted that he mattered – he is significant. 

He trusted that even though he is small – he is not alone – God is with him, and if he believes in God, then perhaps he can be great, perhaps he will have a great future. 

What I find interesting is that we do not read this story on Rosh Hashanah, rather, we read a story where almost the same words were used, and the same promises given, but to another person:  Hagar. 

Hagar is Sarah’s handmaiden, and in the ancient world, this meant that Hagar could give birth to a child from her master’s husband, and this child would be like Sarah’s.  In other words, this was the ancient world’s concept of surrogacy. 

Sarah asks if Abraham will have a child with Hagar.  He agrees and almost immediately, Hagar becomes pregnant.  It’s from that moment that Sarah starts hating Hagar. Sarah begins to mistreat Hagar, and so she runs away.  Hagar doesn’t know where she’s going, she’s lost, and alone, and I bet she felt tiny, and powerless. 
But in the wilderness, she has an awesome experience.  God appears to Hagar, and promises her two things. The first is: that you will have a child, and this child will be very strong.

To a woman who feels so helpless and unprotected, so tiny, that must have been a great blessing. She is going to have a child who will be strong enough and brave enough to protect her. 

And the second promise that God makes to Hagar is: “Harbey arbeh et zaraych, yisafeer meyrov”—I will greatly increase your offspring; they shall be too numerous to count.

And armed with these two blessings, Hagar goes back to the house of Abraham and Sarah, to have her child.

Here God promises Hagar the very same thing that God promises Avraham when he feels alone, tiny, and scared for his future. 

As we read today, things get worse for Hagar.  She has her child, Ishmael, and Sarah demands that they both leave.  Abraham agrees, reluctantly, and God promises Abraham that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation, he won’t die, trust Me.

Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with some bread and a skin of water, that’s it.  When the skin of water and bread are gone, Hagar is beside herself.  She says, “Let me not look on as the child dies.”  She can’t even say his name, and the text tells us, she bursts into tears. 

God hears the cry of the boy and God asks Hagar, “Mah Lach Hagar?”  We usually translate this phrase as, what troubles you, but it literally means, “what’s with you Hagar!?!  Don’t remember what I promised you?!?” Did you lose faith that easy?  It’s at that point that an angel opens up her eyes, and she sees the fountain of water which was just up ahead of her.

This isn’t a miracle – God doesn’t create a fountain out of thin air – it was there the whole time, but Hagar couldn’t see it.  She gave up hope – she let those feelings of being  tiny, alone, powerless overtake her.  And because she felt powerless, she could not see that salvation and blessing was right in front of her. 

I recently saw a movie called the Long Way Home about what happened to survivors of the Shoah after liberation.  Do you know what most survivors did, almost immediately?  They got married, within days, and babies came soon after.  I know this because both of sets of my grandparents, all survivors of the Shoah, met each other and within one week, they were married, and pregnant soon after.

In the face of hopelessness, they had children.  Why bring Jewish children into this cruel world?  Remember, they didn’t know the future, they didn’t know that there would be a state of Israel, or that they could come to America.  They were homeless, their family, friends, neighbors, everyone they knew, were gone – they thought they were the last Jews left on earth – they felt tiny.   

Why did they have children?  Because it made them feel big and great again. 

When a Jewish boy is born, we go through a ceremony called a Brit Milah. The Brit Milah is a circumcision, but it is bigger than that – it is entering our boys into a covenant.  Now, we enter girls in to our covenant through a new ceremony called a Brit Bat or Simchat Bat.

Part of the Brit Milah ceremony is placing the baby on a chair called the Kisei Shel Eliyahu – Elijah’s chair.  Elijah is the only prophet whose death is never recorded, in fact, God brings him to God’s realm and that is the last we see of him, so Elijah’s return to earth is thought to be the beginning of the coming of the messiah. 

Why do we place a child on the kisei shel eliyahu? 
 
Because each child has the potential of becoming the messiah. 

Is there anything more fitting for a Jewish parent to begin their child’s lives? 

We Jews have great expectations for our children.  Not only do we expect them to get a great education, become a doctor or a lawyer, but Jews expect their children to be the messiah! 

Whenever I attend a brit milah, the parents give speeches telling the story of their child’s name, and the story of who they were named after.  From that moment on, that child is SOMEONE to their family, their community, and our people.  In an instant, this small nameless child turns into a SOMEBODY. 

And as you see this child, placed on this special chair, it gives everyone in the room a sense of hope – this child can change the world, and if this child, who is just 8 days old can change the world, why not me? 

When I see these 8 year old boys, or a infant girl at a baby naming or a Simchat Bat, I think about our own congregation’s children, our teens, as they sat in a room one Shabbat at Shaarei Kodesh with one of the most special people I’ve ever met, Scott Fried.  

 

I first met Scott when I was 15 years old at USY Encampment.  Scott was the first openly gay man I’d had ever met, and the first person I had ever known with HIV.  Back then, HIV was not a manageable disease like it is today – it was a death sentence.  Scott shared his story to us, 400 teens, and it changed our lives.  I was able to bring Scott to teach our teens at Shaarei Kodesh two years ago.  Thankfully, Scott is not only alive, but thriving.  He’s a motivational speaker and sex educator.  Since I last saw him 21 years ago, Scott has lost hundreds of friends to AIDS all under 40. 

At one point during the weekend, Scott held a question and answer session with just our teens.  I knew that a question was coming, it was only a matter of time. 

 “Why do you think you are still alive when so many of your friends are dead?” 
He answered this difficult question with great courage:  He said, ‘this is difficult to say, but I felt I needed to live.  It’s not that my friends who died didn’t, but it has helped me live longer.”  He looked down, paused, and continue, “And…because I needed to speak to each one of you.”

Scott ends each session by saying three words, “You Are Enough” and he looks each person in the eyes.  With his eyes, he is telling you what he tells so many others – You Are Enough.  You are special, you are unique, you can change the world, because I have changed the world.  Scott’s life could have ended years ago, but 27 years after becoming HIV positive, he’s still here – educating, inspiring, and connecting.  

Can you imagine if you looked at everyone like Scott looked at you? 

Can you imagine if you looked at everyone the way you look at the baby boy on the Elijah’s chair? 

Can you imagine if you looked at yourself in the mirror the way that God looks at you everyday?  Can you imagine how different the world would be? 

Do you know why I loved Ant-Man, and why my heart broke when they turned him into Giant Man?  Because even though he’s tiny, but he’s powerful, and it’s because he’s tiny that he’s a great hero. 

All of us are confronted by seemingly insurmountable problems in our lives. 

Maybe it’s a diagnosis, like HIV, Cancer, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s.

Maybe you are told by your doctor, you’ll never be able to have children. 

Maybe your doctor tells you, your child has sever autism, he or she will never be like other children. 

Maybe you were fired from your job, told you that you don’t matter, that you weren’t good enough anymore in this new economy. 

It’s these moments when we are tested, when we feel tiny, insignificant, when we feel, we can’t possibly get up from this.  Maybe I’m not so special.  Maybe I don’t matter.

But it’s during those times when we look up to God who will show us the stars and say to us what he told Abraham so many years ago – this could be your future, you could be great, if you just have faith.

You, little you, are enough.  You can change the world. 

This year, I ask you to think of yourself as a partner in creation with God –to make a difference in someone else’s life.  To look someone in the eyes and tell them– YOU ARE ENOUGH
When you are faced with adversity, go outside, look at the stars, come back in and look at yourself in the mirror, truly open your eyes, and say, “I AM ENOUGH” – let’s say it together – I AM ENOUGH. 

Perhaps we can see what could already be in front of us that maybe we missed, like that fountain that Hagar couldn’t see, because sometimes, blessing and salvation all around us, but sometimes, we cannot see them until we open our eyes.

This year, my blessing for you is that you embrace your inner Ant-Man, and realize the power and might that you have in your little body.