Friday Night Fiftieth Anniversary Sermon

The organizers of the 50th anniversary celebration of our congregation asked that I connect my sermon tonight to the weekend’s central theme of “superheroes”.  Well, I am always up for a challenge.  The first images that popped into my head when I heard the word ‘ ‘superhero” were   Spider Man“  “Wonder Woman, “Batmanand “Captain America……… And of course, that       grandfather of all superheroes, Superman. These superheroes however fall in the category of fictional characters with extraordinary powers.

What do these fictional characters have in common? In addition to their physical prowess, they all display moral integrity, bravery, conviction, a sense of responsibility, compassion and a willingness to help and protect others.

Superheroes, both fictional and in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. An American tourist in Tel Aviv was about to enter the impressive Mann Auditorium to take in a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. He was admiring the unique architecture, the sweeping lines of the entrance, and the modern decor throughout the building. Finally he turned to his escort and asked if the building was named for Thomas Mann, the world-famous author.

“No,” his friend said, “it’s named for Fredric Mann, from Philadelphia.”

“Really? I never heard of him. What did he write?” the tourist asked.

“A check,” was the reply. 

Who doesn’t remember Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankee outfielder and perhaps the greatest switch hitter of all time. He finished his career with a prodigious 536 home runs and a .298 batting average.   As a little boy I treasured my Mickey Mantle baseball card depicting his hitting the longest home run in baseball history at the time, 643 feet to right field at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Mickey Mantle was one of baseball’s greats, but he was not a perfect human being. He, like all of us, had his flaws. But to me what made him a superhero was not his prodigious talent on the baseball diamond. What makes him a “superhero” and not just a “hero”, what elevates him, in my mind, to a higher status, is not THAT he played the game with such skill, but HOW he played the game of baseball. 

You probably have noticed that today when a player hits a home run he behaves in a certain way. Today many players flip their bat when they hit a home run.  Other players stay at the plate and watch their home run leave the ballpark.  We have all seen players jump up and down after hitting a home run or pump their arms while running around the bases. Yet all of these reactions are considered to be unsportsmanlike and “show-offy” in baseball culture.

But Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest home run hitters of all time, never did any of these things. Instead, when Mantle hit a home run he dropped his bat, ran around the bases, and quietly took his place in the dugout next to his teammates. He was once asked about this and here is how he answered:

“I don’t do that out of respect for the pitcher. Why should I humiliate him by celebrating that I got a homerun off him? After all, when he strikes me out, he doesn’t do a war dance. He doesn’t pound his fist into his glove. He doesn’t carry on like a banshee. So why should I embarrass him when he never embarrasses me?”

Mickey Mantle played the game of baseball like a mensch, and that is what elevates him, for me, to superhero status. He had respect for his opponent. He was concerned about the pitcher’s feelings. He did not raise himself higher by humiliating his adversary. 

 In our Jewish tradition we have many superheroes.  In this week’s parsha we read about one of them, Moses.  Moses has led the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to the border of the Promised Land. He has been their leader for forty years. But God tells him he cannot enter the Land. But Moses protests, he pleads with God for permission to go into the Land of Canaan with his people. We wonder why. After all, Moses by then had led a full life. He was 120 years old.  He is Moses, our greatest prophet. He is the only prophet to speak directly with God. All other prophets before and since communicated with God in a vision or a dream, but not Moses. No human being can “see” God and live, but Moses was privileged to see God’s “back”. So we ask, why did Moses want to enter the Land of Canaan? 

First we need to keep in mind that some of the mitzvot given at Sinai can only be performed in the Land of Israel. They are only possible when the Jewish people are settled in their own land. They could not be observed in the desert. Our rabbis teach that Moses wanted to enter the Land so that he could perform mitzvot in the Land of Israel that he was unable to observe in the wilderness of Sinai.  Even at 120 years of age Moses wanted to grow in his practice of Judaism. Even at 120 years old Moses feels the need to increase his knowledge of Judaism. Even at 120 years old there were new things that Moses wanted to learn. He wasn’t complacent. Even at his age he was not satisfied to bask in the light of his considerable accomplishments. This determination to continue to learn and to grow is one quality that makes Moses a superhero. 

There are many ways to be a superhero. One doesn’t have to be famous to be one. One does not necessarily have to accomplish extraordinary feats. Superheroes can be the teachers who gave us encouragement in school.  The friends who reached out to us or who stood by us when we needed them. The parent who supported us, the neighbor who lent us a hand, the stranger who came to our aid.  People who spoke up on our behalf, who made us feel appreciated, valued or special. Individuals whose stories inspire us. One does not need to endow a building, hit a home run or lead a nation to freedom to be a superhero. As we look around us tonight, we will recognize that we are surrounded by superheroes.

And if you are moved to write a check – that would be nice too!
Shabbat Shalom