Posted on December 7th, 2015

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: D’var Torah on Parashat Lech L’cha

_83A5107Delivered at the ARJE Board Meeting on October 22, 2015

If you have even a passing interest in superheroes, then you know that with great power comes great responsibility. That’s what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker as Ben lays dying from a gunshot wound that Peter could have easily prevented if he’d been using his power for good at that point in his life. But he wasn’t, and as a consequence he loses his beloved Uncle Ben. It’s after Ben dies that Peter decides to put on the Spiderman mask and devote himself to Tikkun Olam.

This is what’s known as an origin story. It’s compelling, and it explains the motivation for everything that comes later.

Stan Lee was a master at origin stories, and I assume he developed that talent while nursing on the milk of midrash which is the motherlode of origin stories. And midrash exists because the Torah isn’t always very good about giving us origin stories. Which is particularly ironic this week because we’re reading Lech Lecha, our own origin story, and the Torah skips right past the critical scene of Abram cradling the head of his dying, if metaphorical, Uncle Ben and then vowing to do good in the world.

If you love the “great power, great responsibility” speech from Uncle Ben, then your favorite story about Abram might be the one where he smashes the idols in his father’s workshop and blames it on the biggest idol in the room. Or any of the other beautifully crafted stories from Abram’s childhood – none of which appear in the Torah. These stories exist only in the midrashim. The Abram in the Torah is a totally inscrutable character. So if we’re going to understand the Jewish conception of Abram, we need to go to midrash.

In the verses we just read, God offers Abram three blessings:
1. I will make of you a great nation.
2. I will bless you.
3. I will make your name great.

That alone would seem to be enough incentive for anyone to leave behind their homeland and embrace the unknown. But the midrash tells us that those blessings were not what tipped the scale for Abram. Abram was worried that he wouldn’t be able to introduce anyone to the Shechinah and usher them into God’s presence if people thought of him as someone willing to leave his father behind, so God had to first assure him that the people he left behind would ruin him if he stayed. Second, God offers these three blessings as an assurance against the three negative consequences that, according to the midrash, come with venturing into the unknown. It’s a top three list of Jewish worries:

  • An inability to grow one’s family – I will make of you a great nation.
  • The lessening of one’s substance – I will bless you.
  • The diminishment of the consideration one enjoys in the world – I will make your name great.

From my vantage point as a new Board member, it seems to me that we are in a similar moment to that of Abram – who is about to become Abraham before this portion is over. We’ve changed our name, we’ve changed our mission statement, and we’re all working in various ways to craft a more articulate origin story, a more specific midrash, for the renewed entity we’re becoming. A midrash that will guide us in all that we do. And we have the same worries that Abram had. Will our collective family grow? Will our substance increase? When we define our new voice and use it to speak, what consideration will we enjoy? How will that voice be received?

The midrash concludes by telling us that the first three blessings put Abram’s mind at ease about leaving his ancestral home, but it was the next blessing that actually clinched the deal. God saves the best for last. God tells Abram, “YOU will be a blessing.” The midrash understands this to mean that everyone who came in contact with Abram was better off for it, and this was the greatest of the blessings Abram ever received: You will be a blessing. You can make the world better. Knowing that, knowing he had that gift, was enough to push Abram out into the unknown because now he understood his mission. Now he knew that he could make a difference in the world.

This is a midrash that Stan Lee could love.

And it is, ultimately, the reason we do this work. If you’re a Jewish educator, then you have a superhero complex of some kind. You believe you can make the world better through teaching. You believe you can bring holiness into the world. You believe that YOU can be a blessing to others – which is the true work of the ARJE. Let’s take that midrash with us into our work today as we continue to write our renewed organization’s renewed midrashim.

Michael Greenfield, RJE currently serves as the Director of Education and Programming for Temple Har Shalom in Park City, Utah.