Even Higher - A Tribute to Stan Lee©

Even Higher - A Tribute to Stan Lee© - Parashat Vayetze 2018
Rabbi David Baum

This week, the Jewish world lost one of it’s greatest heroes, his name was Stan Lieber.  You may have never heard of this name, so I’ll give you his superhero name, Stan Lee.  If you’re still confused than obviously, you aren’t a nerd like me.  Stan Lee was the creator of many of the comic book heroes you have probably seen in the movies:  Spider-Man and Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and my personal favorite, Ant-Man.

As Leil Leibovitz wrote last week: “So entrenched is Lee’s legacy that he was credited, when receiving the National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008, for creating nothing short of a new American mythology, a universe rich not only with thrilling characters but also with timeless moral lessons. “His complex plots and humane superheroes,” read the medal’s citation, “celebrate courage, honesty, and the importance of helping the less fortunate, reflecting America’s inherent goodness.”’

His creations have made an estimated 22 billion dollars, although he hasn’t seen much of that. 

But as we look at Stan’s life, I cannot help but think that his Jewish tradition, our tradition, played a big part in not only Stan but also, his creations. 

In many ways, our ancestors were the first comic Marvel superheroes. Superman was created by Jewish men as well, but Superman was different. Superman was a literal alien who came from another planet to be a god-like figure among men.  One can look at Superman the same way that you can look at Greek mythology, some heroes were gods, some of the human and divine, but it was clear that the heroes weren’t human.  What set Stan and his creations apart was that his heroes were human beings with special abilities.  Their complicated personalities were a part of their identities. 

One can say that our biblical fathers were like Stan’s heroes – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But today, I want to focus on the hero of this week’s parashah, Jacob.  What is remarkable in this short narrative at the beginning of this week's parashah, when Jacob lies down and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder, is the following: 

-       This is the first time God speaks to Jacob directly.
-       He has doubts about God (he makes a vow in verse 20) which shows something obvious, but interesting - Jacob is not perfect, he had doubts, just like us. 
-       He places a stone under his head – later on, he shows his superpowers by moving the stone for Rachel in verse 10. 
-       His hero’s journey begins with Vayisa Yakov Raglav – verse 29.  He lifted his feet – it’s almost like the text is saying that he is flying. 

To be a hero, you have to have an origin story – What’s your origin story?  What transformative experience started you on the path that you are on today?  Our origin story is Jacob, later named Israel.  He’s the only father whose name switches back and forth – Jacob, the heel, Israel, the being who strives with beings both divine and human.  Back and forth – from villain to hero, hero to villain. 

We learned from Stan Lee that heroes aren’t perfect…and villains aren’t totally evil.
Arguably his greatest villain was Magneto, born Max Eisenhardt in Germany to a Jewish family, Magneto hated humanity mainly because of his experience as a Jew in Auschwitz.  As a villain, he tries to destroy humanity, and although he doesn’t excuse Magneto’s behavior, Stan Lee and the writers of X-Men help us understand him – and that he could be redeemed.  Wolverine is another version of the dark hero – he is only a hero because someone else redeems him. 

Kislev, and its holiday of Hanukah is a month of light after darkness – we often think of them as opposite forces, fighting one another, but the two actually kind of meld together.

I want to share something I read from Rabbi David Seidenberg:

“The menorah teaches us about the unity of the light and the dark. Darkness is not opposition to light—it is what allows light to appear, to shine. More than this, it is the darkness which enables us to see the faint light of the candles, the light of redemption. At the same time, the candles are revealing the holiness that is inside darkness. Chanukah then is an invitation to embrace darkness and light together, and to see both as filled with God's presence, as Psalm 18 says, Vayeshet choshekh sitro...Ki atah neri YHVH, yagiah chosh'khi "God makes darkness his secret place...For you will light my candle YHVH, my God will make my darkness glow." (vv.12, 29)”

We see here that light and darkness complement each other – that there’s a piece of it in both.  It’s complicated – but it’s true. 

But Stan Lee did believe that all of us, no matter how flawed, must fight for the light. 

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob weren’t gods; they were normal people who did extraordinary things.  They were righteous, and also not so righteous.  Perfect at times, and deeply flawed at other times.  But, ultimately, their light far outweighed their darkness.

My son has a project in school – they said, choose an occupation and create the uniform for next week, and tell the class about their ‘job’.  So what did my son pick?  Rabbi.  Of course, Rabbis do a lot of things, but I thought about a larger question, what do Jews ‘do’?  What’s our job?  I want to share a story of another student who asked their rabbi about what Jews ‘do’ in the world, what our job is. 

One day, a student asked the rabbi: Rabbi, I know that to be Jewish is to have a special role, a special job in the world. Rabbi, what is my job as a Jew in the world?

The rabbi, never one to answer directly, looked at her students and said: Friends, what is the most important job in the world?

President of the United States! Someone shouted. Prime Minister of Israel, said another. Someone even said: Rabbi! Clearly, he was trying for a good grade. Firefighter! Doctor! Teacher! Artist! Teacher! Parent! The answers came from all corners of the room.

The student looked at the rabbi and said: But Rabbi—what is the right answer? What is my job as a Jew in the world?

And she said: Once upon a time, long before iPads and iPhones, before TV and streaming, even before there was electricity—there was a person in every town who was responsible for lighting up the streets. On the street corners, lamps sat—ready to be lit each night as the sun began to set. And there was one person whose job it was to walk from street to street, from lamp to lamp, with a flame he carried at the end of a long pole. Each evening, the rabbi said, this person would walk her route, lighting each and every lamp—no matter how cold it was, or how hard it was to reach.

But, what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness, far from everything and everyone, one of the students asked? The rabbi answered: Then, too, it must be lit. And what, asked one of the students, if the lamp is in the middle of an OCEAN!! The rabbi smiled and said: The one must put on a bathing suit, jump into the water, and light it there. Without it, she said, there would be no light.

The student looked again at the rabbi and said: Rabbi, I still don’t know the right answer. What is my job as a Jew in the world??

The rabbi looked at her students and said: You can be anything that you want to be. But no matter what you decide to do with your life, you must be a lamplighter on the streets of the world.

Stan Lieber, or Lee, looked at what he did as greater than just making comics. At the end of his comics, he had a little dialogue box called Stan’s Soap Box.  I want to share just one of his short essays: 

“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen — people he’s never known — with equal intensity — with equal venom.

“Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race — to despise an entire nation — to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God ― a God who calls us ALL ― His children.
“Pax et Justitia, Stan.”

Hope for the future, striving toward a better and more perfected world, is as integral to superhero stories as it is for Judaism.  Whenever we pray in a minyan, twice a day, Jews say “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” during the Amidah, “holy, holy, holy.”  There’s a custom to lift up your feet with each successive word.  Stan Lee’s catchphrase was “Excelsior!” — ever higher — something that was said often last week. 

During Kislev, as we approach the holiday of Hanukah, the words of Hillel and Shammai and how we light the Hanukiah are very much a part of who we are.  Shammai said, let’s light eight candles on the first day, seven the next day, etc.  On the last, we’ll have one candle.  Hillel said, no, let’s do it the other way around – 1 on the first day, and on the last day, we’ll have eight.  The reason – Ma’alin B’Kodesh, V’ein Moridin – we raise up in holiness, we never diminish.  And so I say to all of us, heroes and those striving to be, Excelsior – Ma’alin – go higher and higher. 


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