In the last decade, Marvel Studio’s Marvel Universe series of superhero films has broken box office records and redefined its genre with the adventures of Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk. Marvel’s competitor, DC Comics, with its own pantheon of equally famous characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, has not enjoyed nearly as much success.
Critics have suggested that historically, DC’s characters have only been successful to the extent that they have broken away from the happily-ever-after-style stories featuring flawless do-gooder heroes and one-off challenges and conflicts that are resolved before the end credits roll. Marvel’s stories, on the other hand, attract our interest because they are part of a larger, continuously unfolding epic story arc featuring characters that are good but have very human baggage, failings and sometimes dark challenges.
This explanation of Marvel’s appeal is relevant to how we relate to ourselves and our own growth.
The Torah portion begins with the commandment “You shall set up judges… in all of your gates (cities).” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993) cites a non-literal interpretation that this passage alludes to the need to judge ourselves — to engage in introspection. In this reading, the need to establish judges “in all of our gates” alludes to the necessity to judge ourselves with honesty — to close off all escape routes of rationalization and self-deception.
Moreover, we must look at the full picture, the good along with the not-so-good: “Each of us must split himself into two personae, into judge as well as defendant.” Introspection that turns a blind eye to our strengths can lead to desperation because our good qualities are the tools that help us overcome our shortcomings. On the other hand, dishonest introspection that rationalizes or glosses over the bad is worthless.
Just as plastic, shallow superheroes do not engage audiences, the self-judgment and introspection that the Torah calls for must not remain anodyne, prosaic and superficial. It cannot ignore the totality and depth of our lives and personas. As Rabbi Leib Chasman (1869–1936), Mashgiach of the Chevron Yeshiva in Hebron then Jerusalem once told his students in Yiddish, “az men macht a cheshben, darf gein fier!” — when one does introspection, a “fire” must emerge.
It is appropriate that this message of introspection comes as we begin the month of Elul, the last of our calendar year. Paralleling the 40 days that Moshe spent on Mount Sinai and received the second Tablets after the Almighty forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance that follow are our uniquely Jewish annual self-improvement seminar.
It is customary to sound the shofar in synagogue each morning in Elul. In the words of Maimonides, the shofar proclaims, “Awaken, you sleepers from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber: Search your actions and return in penitence.”
And just as our introspection must uncover our strengths in addition to our weaknesses, Elul is not just a time of solemn repentance in preparation for the Days of Awe. It is also a time of preparation for the joy of the following month of Tishrei.
The founder of Chabad Hassidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), said that since Divine favor and mercy are so dominant in this time, he is surprised that the entire period wasn’t established as a bona fide holiday. After living through several long months of a pandemic, some extra joy is certainly welcome, especially since our experience of the upcoming holidays will be all but typical.
May our month of Elul be infused with both real, fiery and realistic soul-searching that acknowledges our rough edges and the pride of being part of a people that has this opportunity carved into its annual calendar. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.