Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Moshe the Superhero (Vaera 5775)

Long-time readers of this blog (=those who remember the days when I would post three times per week) know that I am unable to get Moshe Rabbeinu out of my mind. I've written a lot about Moshe, from various perspectives. But this week I had a new thought - new for me, at any rate - which I have turned into a derashah/parshah article for Toronto Torah. I'd love your thoughts:

In 1951, a lawsuit by Detective Comics against Fawcett Publications, over copyright infringement with its Captain Marvel character, reached the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. In its decision, the court defined a superhero as having three key elements: Mission, Powers and Identity.

By this set of criteria, Moshe Rabbeinu was a superhero. His mission was to bring the Jews out of Egypt, to Sinai, and to their land. Moshe was given miraculous powers. And even without a codename and costume, Moshe did maintain a superhero’s secret identity, as seen in Parshat Vaera.

The secret identity
Scholars of comic books discuss the purpose of secret identities. Beyond protecting loved ones from harm, the secret identity is a tool:
· It is a mask, affording the hero a respite from being heroic;
· It is a divider, allowing her to develop multiple sides of herself independently;
· It is a shield, enabling her to avoid persecution for being different.

However, Danny Fingeroth, author of Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero, suggests that the secret identity may be the hero’s true nature. Isolating a part of himself from conflict, heroics and the public eye, keeps the hero’s personal character pure.

This privacy, which Michah 6:8 would name tzniut, may be at the heart of the second account of Moshe’s development, in Parshat Vaera.

Moshe 1.0 – Shemot 2:1-6:13
An anonymous Levite man and woman conceive a child. When the child is too old to remain hidden from the Egyptians, his mother puts him in a basket in a river, while his anonymous sister stands guard. The Pharaoh’s anonymous daughter saves the baby, and names him Moshe.

The baby is raised in the palace. One day, he intervenes to save an anonymous Jew from an equally anonymous Egyptian, killing the latter. On the following day he disrupts a fight between two anonymous Jews, but his identity as the killer of the Egyptian becomes known. Moshe flees to Midian, where he is identified as “an Egyptian.”

Decades later, Moshe encounters G-d at the Burning Bush, and G-d charges him to take the Jews out of Egypt. Despite his repeated refusals, Moshe goes to Pharaoh, armed with miracles and accompanied by his brother and prophet, Aharon. Pharaoh reacts with increased brutality to the Jews, and Moshe protests to G-d.

Moshe 2.0 – Shemot 6:14-7:13
Yaakov’s eldest son, Reuven, produced four sons, whom we name. We then name Shimon’s six sons. We then detail Levi’s sons and their families, ultimately yielding Moshe and his extended family.
G-d picks Moshe to take the Jews out of Egypt, and he refuses. G-d assigns Aharon to be his prophet, and empowers the pair to perform miracles to impress Pharaoh. They visit Pharaoh and perform the miracles, and Pharaoh rejects Moshe’s message.

The lesson of the two accounts
Perhaps the first account is Moshe’s public face, the heroic story which the Jews and Egyptians will know. This is the Moshe who will lead the Jews through religious ecstasy and distance from G-d, who will inspire them to brave hunger and war and fear and mutiny and Divine threats of eradication. He is larger than life, framed by miracles and heroism. And in this story, the other figures have no names; they are just part of the Moshe Story.

The second account is of a Jewish boy with a family that includes many people we will meet later in the Torah – Elazar, Korach, Nadav, Avihu, Eltzafan, Pinchas, etc. The legendary events of Moshe’s youth are played down; the story dedicates its space to the names of Moshe’s family, the people who raised him and surrounded him. Moshe is a human being, and even his conversation with G-d is humble and stripped of drama.

This second account is Moshe’s secret identity, which the world will not see. This is Moshe’s private life; it is tzanua, stored away to preserve the purity of Moshe’s roots and his character, untouched by the violence and conflict that absorb his public life. Unlike his identity as the killer of the Egyptian assailant, this identity will be kept private.

There are other ways to explain the two biblical accounts of Moshe’s origin, but I believe this lesson should carry special power in our day. Our world exposes our identities, on-line and off-line, at work and in shul and in school. Our most popular modes of on-line entertainment demand that we log in and share our names and identities, often with others we have never met in person. Perhaps it would be wise for us to ask ourselves: Can we keep something back? Do we have something tzanua, a secret identity that the world cannot touch and abrade and change? Should we?


  1. Superman was also cast away by his biological parents for the sake of his own survival, found as a baby among the grasses in a tiny ship with no explanation, and was immediately adopted.

    1. Yeah, but he never did get to go back and save his people.


      Actually, what I wrote was from someone's unintentionally-bad list of things to tell young adopted children. There are a number of adoptees in Tanakh: Lot (?), Moshe, Shemu'el, Esther....

      But the "lost hero" motif shared by Moshe and Superman is a literary cliche. It's similar to the long awaited prince, the only one who could rally the people to rebel against the despot, who is only found because of the identifying birthmark.

      The Torah, or the history is portrays, is going to be a natural source of reused literary devices.

      Xian mythology (Matt's gospel only) also plays on the riffs of Moshe's biography, by having Herod killing all the baby boys of the greater Bethlehem area.

    3. R' Micha-
      Indeed. And of course, much has been made of his Jewish creators.

      Don't remind me; I hate that part.

  2. Moshe may not have had a secret identity, but he did eventually gain a mask (OK, a veil).

    And I like that the US court system has an official legal definition of a superhero!

  3. Superman was different. As David Carradine noted in Kill Bill 2, he's the only superhero who puts on a mask to be ordinary. That fits with Moshe Rabeinu's veil.

  4. This post is among the many that have been included in Shiloh Musings: Havel Havelim, וָאֵרָא Va'era, And I Appeared.... this week's edition of the international Jewish bloggers carnival, a weekly round-up of interesting and varied posts.

    Please look at the other posts, too, comment and share. Also, you're invited to get more involved in our blogging community.

    Shavua Tov, Have a Wonderful Week!