The Amazing Spider-Man.
Do you have to solve your own problems before helping others with theirs?
“I don’t want to be responsible. Whenever anything goes wrong, someone always asks, ‘Who’s responsible?’”
– Anonymous, of course
When Peter Parker got bitten by a spider 50 years ago, and then again ten years ago, and then again recently, in the new film, Amazing Spider-Man, his Uncle Ben told him that with great power comes great responsibility. But not automatically. Apparently, it’s something you have to work on.
“If you can do good things for other people, you have a moral obligation to do those things.” – Uncle Ben
And we’re not talking about the kind of responsibility where you make sure to clean up all the webs you’ve left hanging around the city before someone walks into one and goes into a mad panic of brushing and grimacing while everyone around him wonders what he’s doing. As Ben clarifies, in this movie, “If you can do good things for other people, you have a moral obligation to do those things.”
When Peter first starts to develop the ability to stick to walls, his reaction is not, “I should totally be a superhero!” It’s more along the lines of, “This will be great for my parkour!” But even when his uncle is killed because Peter decided it was not his job to stop a burglar, he doesn’t say, “I guess I should become a superhero NOW, right? So this doesn’t happen to other people.” No, he hunts down the specific muggers and car thieves who bear the description of his uncle’s killer. But revenge against appropriate people is still not heroism. He’s not helping others, except maybe inadvertently.
Inadvertently? Just because your brother managed not to kill himself while you were babysitting does not mean that you’re responsible.
Basically, Peter does what we would do if we had powers. We wouldn’t immediately run out and be a superhero, even if had a decent moral compass. We would deal with our own issues first. People say things like, “If my car could fly, I’d go right over this traffic.” How about, “If my car could fly, I’d go help flood victims”?
Spider-Man has always been the most relatable superhero. Sure, Batman has no powers, unless you count being indescribably wealthy as a superpower. But Spider-Man is relatable in that he has normal, everyday problems that you and I can relate to. Sure, The Hulk has problems too. He has anger issues, and the military is always after him. But if you can relate to the military always chasing you for your anger issues, you’re probably not someone the rest of us can relate to either.
Spider-Man has normal problems. He can’t pay his rent, his aunt worries, he blames himself for his uncle’s death, he gets beat up at school, he keeps showing up late to class through no fault of his own, he’s messing up his GPA, and he keeps having to ditch his clothing in alleys (though the new Spider-Man solves this problem by wearing a knapsack). And socially, he’s not even on the debate team. He’s the guy who takes pictures of the debate team. And we can relate to those things. But can we relate to the part about putting aside those problems and being a hero?
We look at people who help others, and we say, “Of course that guy helps people. He has no problems in his own life.” But this isn’t true. There’s an old Jewish saying that says, “Everyone has his own pekeleh (candy bag).” If we think that this person has no problems, it’s because he puts a mask on over his own life, puts on a happy face, and goes to help others. The mask is the brave face that lets him forget his own problems and become a different person – the guy who helps people. People look at Spider-Man and go, “Look at him, he has no problems. Well, besides for the tights.”
But when he takes off his mask (way too many times, in this movie), you can see that underneath, he is moping. With great responsibility come great amounts of teen angst.
If the only people who gave charity were the ones with no money problems of their own, there would be no charity.
Our forefather, Abraham, has always been the classic example of responsibility toward others, which we know primarily from the story of the three strangers that he invited in for a heavy lunch. But why is this the story that lasts, and the one that the Torah stresses? The man was alive for 175 years; I’m sure there were plenty of stories. But it’s because Abraham had his own issues. He was 99 years old, his wife couldn’t have kids, he just gave himself a bris, it’s a million degrees outside with no AC, and the one son that he does have is showing Arab tendencies. But look, there’s some guests! So he hobbles over to introduce himself. If you have to wait until your own problems are gone before you start helping others, you’re going to be waiting until you’re 100. Because apparently, you’ll still have problems at 99.
In this movie in particular, Peter’s biggest problems are his lingering questions: He wants to know what happened to his parents, and he wants to find his uncle’s killer. Those questions are still lingering by the end of the movie, because he gets sidetracked rescuing the city. Responsibly. You can always deal with your own problems in the sequel.
Particularly, he has to fight The Lizard -- a 9-foot creature who travels through the sewers and gets into buildings by ripping toilets off their moors. (I was thankful that I didn’t bring my two-year-old to see this movie. We’re toilet training this week.) It’s not clear if “The Lizard” is his official name, or if people just call him “The Lizard” because he’s a lizard. Either way, there’s only one. But his plan is to turn everyone into lizards, so this will no longer be an issue.
Like Spider-Man, the lizard wants to help humanity. His powers make him “better” (his alter ego, Dr. Connors, was missing an arm, and the lizard DNA helped him grow it back), and he wants everyone else to become “better” too, so his plan is to release his serum over New York City.
But whereas the lizard has to force people to be like him, Spider-Man, throughout the movie, inspires people to be like him -- to help others, and to work with him. His actions as Spider-Man inspire the school bully, a bunch of construction workers, and the police captain, who spends most of the movie chasing him despite the fact that you’re not supposed to kill spiders because they help you catch the worse creatures. Like lizards. And even his own girlfriend steps up and helps him, rather than waiting around to be saved, like Mary Jane did in all the other movies, often more than once per movie.
Every group of people feels like they’re the best. (This may sound elitist, but the truth is you are the way you are because you feel it’s the best way to be.) But not everyone is like you, and the question is how you deal with that. The Nazis wanted to eliminate everyone else. The Spanish Inquisition, the Greeks of the Chanukah story, and tons of others throughout the ages wanted to convert us by force, like The Lizard does. But the Jewish way has never been to go out converting people. Our goal has been to inspire people to act like us. (Not necessarily to become spider-people, but to act like us, as far as morals and responsibility.)
We’ve always had our own issues. But the Jews, throughout history, have made a lot of contributions to society -- through technology, medicine, and more -- especially when you consider how much time we’ve spent running for our lives.
You can’t wait for your own issues to be gone before you start helping others, or else you’ll always be waiting. But maybe, if you do start helping others, you’ll inspire them to do the same, and maybe someone in that chain will help you solve your own problems.