What our love for superheroes can tell us about ourselves

It’s turning into another summer of superhero domination, with Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman strongly leading the fearless pack out of the gates. With superheroes on the brain, I find myself returning to a question I have long pondered: Why do superhero movies outperform almost all other film genres, and on a consistent basis too? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is rooted in one of mankind’s most elemental desires.
“I’ve been feeling this underlying sense of anxiety for a couple of weeks now,” I shared with my wife, Shifra, one recent evening. “And, I think I just realized what it is.”
“I’ve realized that… I can’t change the world.”
As a person who entered into the rabbinate, and specifically the world of Jewish outreach, with the express purpose and hope of changing the world for the better, this newfound but long-brewing recognition of my limitations was incredibly painful and left me with an uneasy sense of hopelessness and underlying feelings of disquiet.
You should know that I am at my core a hopeful and optimistic person. I often find myself drawing inspiration from those individuals in human history, both Jewish and Gentile, who impacted the world in positive ways, forced society to reckon with its demons and, if so blessed, even changed the moral trajectory of the world.
That being said, I don’t know of anyone who fundamentally changed the world.
Here’s what I mean:
When I think of what a changed world might look like, the closest thing I can compare it to is the Messianic Age, that future time in which the messiah will reign and bring universal peace and brotherhood, without crime, war and poverty. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. And here’s the kicker — it remains that way forever.
Although I enthusiastically believe that we can all make this world a better place, each in our own way, I also reckon with the reality that even when our hopes are realized they are almost always a muted version of our dreams — smaller in their impactful scope, limited to specific geographic areas or demographic groups, and, most painful of all, confined to a singular window in time.
Even the president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, often finds his signature legislative achievements rolled back or modified by the next man who fills his seat.
At our core, we wrestle with the painful realities that we are limited, we are mortal and, yes, we are human.
This, I believe, is where our deeper fascination with superheroes comes from. With their superhuman powers, superheroes do what we all wish we could do in real life — actually change the world! In the world of Batman, Superman and the Incredible Hulk the good guys always win in the end and the world is always safe from harm. Their impact is globally felt and because they do not age or are virtually impossible to kill, they ensure that the winds of time will not roll back what they have put in place. In other words, we live vicariously through them.
So, what are we non-superheroes to do with our very real inclinations to change the world?
After a week of mulling over this question, an answer came to me as I prayed the afternoon Mincha service of Shabbat. My thoughts were of a Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin (4:5) that details the scare tactics of the Jewish court in capital cases. Warning the witnesses of the disastrous impact of false testimony, the court proclaims these words (among others):
“It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”
Up until this point in time I had never considered the significant ramifications of this mishna’s teaching outside of the extreme and rarely encountered scenarios mentioned within it: Destroy a life, destroy the world. Save a life, save the world. The underlying message, however, is much more expansive in its instruction. Every person is an olam katan, a “small world”; therefore, every impact felt upon an individual is an impact made upon an entire world!
It is worth noting that our Mishna takes it one crucial step further:
“Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake ‘the world was created.’ ”
We cannot forget that we too are micro-worlds that need fixing and fine-tuning. Our personal development is no less valuable than the impact we may make on others. In fact, it is often through the process of self-betterment that we become the kinds of people who can impact others around us.
I came to realize that in reality there is no “world” that needs changing. It’s the numerous individuals, each one a single unit, who make up our planet and need our help and guidance.
And it is specifically through this enterprise of caring for the individual that we find expression for our let’s-go-save-the-world superhero yearnings.
Perhaps this is the lesson we are meant to learn from the life of Moses, the closest thing to a superhero this world has ever seen. If even he couldn’t bring the Jews into the promised land and herald in what would have been a Messianic Age, we too should worry less about the construction of a new world order and instead focus our gaze on the needs of the people around us.
We can change their worlds. We can be their superheroes, too!
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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