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Moses, Dr. Strange and the Heroism of Humility

I often ask myself, ‘Why is our culture so obsessed with movies about heroes and villains?’ And ‘What is the defining characteristic that underlies the difference between heroes and villains?’ Our Biblical narratives, particularly in Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah that we will soon conclude, are saturated with both positive and negative models of larger than life personalities.

Morah Yehudis Fishman

For those of you who have seen the hit film of 2016, “Dr. Strange,” it might seem strange indeed for anyone to even think of comparing the main character to Moses, or Moshe as the Torah calls him. Moshe is the most outstanding and impeccable figure in all of Biblical literature. In sharp contrast, Dr. Strange starts out as a brilliant, but obnoxiously self-centered personality who resembles more of Moshe’s arch enemies such as Dathan and Abiram, Korach, or Bilam, or Zimri, all of whom appear in the book of Numbers. In various ways and to different degrees, these gentlemen cause Moshe no end of anguish.  Moshe himself, on the other hand, aside from some lapses of anger or impatience, seems like the paragon of greatness and virtue.

However, you may be surprised to hear that by birth, Moshe was not naturally righteous and saintly. There is a story that a king sent an artist into the desert to paint a portrait of Moshe. When he completed his task and reported back to the king, the king was horrified at what he saw. He was sure the artist depicted the wrong person and sent him back to try again. The results were the same. Upon inquiry, Moshe confessed that he had a dark side to his nature that took much time and effort to improve. On the other hand, when it comes to the bad guys, the Hassidic masters in particular, do attempt to unearth some saving grace even in the most egregious villains.

Dr. Strange too starts off as a villain but turns into a hero. And the movie gives us an intriguing look at the process of his transformation. Before we examine what led to this change, let’s look at how the Hebrew month we now pass through hints at these reversals of character. The month of Tammuz, represented by the crab and containing the day that is the beginning of the darkest time in the Jewish calendar, is especially conducive to this kind of turnabout.  Many sages examine the nature of the crab, called Sartan in Hebrew. Among its unique features are: moving backwards, developing a new shell, and re-growing a lost or injured limb!

The metaphor is rather obvious. There are times, energies, and circumstances that can move us in the direction of good or evil. The month of Tammuz should have been (and in the future will be) a time of great happiness, if the Israelites would have had the patience and faith to wait for Moshe to come down from Mount Sinai. Still the sin of the golden calf can be corrected through an opposite motion toward Teshuva, Return, not just of ourselves but also of the traits that may start off negative.

In Pirkei Avot we read: ‘Jealousy, desire, and honor drive a person from this world.’ However, the more mystically inclined sages insist that no built-in character trait is irredeemably evil. In fact, if properly nurtured and used for a worthy goal, these congenital weaknesses can elevate a person to heights of holiness. For example, jealousy of the righteous and the scholarly can propel one to go beyond one’s own comfort zone. So too desire for closeness to the divine, and acting for the honor of G-d rather than one’s own glory can lead to unimagined accomplishments.

In “Dr. Strange,” (spoiler, but available for viewing on Netflix) this outstanding and conceited surgeon gets into a horrible collision, which damages his whole body, especially his hands which are the expression of his expertise, fame, … and arrogance! He meets someone who seems to have been miraculously cured by a mysterious group and teacher living near Kathmandu. Carrying his skepticism and contemptuousness with him all the way, he nevertheless seeks out this place.

Aside from the usual themes of the cosmic battles between good vs evil and heroes vs villains, what stands out for me is the process of Dr. Strange’s transformation, especially through his encounter with the leader, called the ‘Ancient One.’ Through both continual dialogue and exposure to supernatural experiences, Dr. Strange becomes more and more open to non-material possibilities and is less and less focused on being the center of his world. These latter two qualities are the key to the similarity between Moshe and this Hollywood hero.

Dr. Strange resembles some of the most re-formed villains in Jewish history! His turning point occurs when he can no longer depend on his hands to reflect his greatness. He must pass through the gauntlet of realizing that life is more than material success or prowess. He must learn to accept the existence of forces in life that no hard science can explain. Then he must move beyond this point and recognize that nothing earth shaking can happen if the self-centered ego is in the way.

Regarding Moshe, we can now understand why over and above all of Moshe’s virtues, such as his wisdom and caring and prophetic ability and even unique closeness to G-d, the one quality of his that the Torah explicitly singles out is humility. Humility is a trait that is not synonymous with unworthiness or weakness. It is more like getting out of the way so that a grander reality can take over.

Though the Torah calls Moshe ‘the most humble person who ever lived,’ he did manage to encounter many challenges to his humility. As rebbe Nachman puts it, ‘people are often confronted by those who accuse them of the opposite of their actual characters,’ – what some moderns might call, ‘projection’. Some examples, particularly in the book of Numbers: The spies say he is sending them into ‘a land that consumes its inhabitants’. Korach proclaims: ‘why do you raise yourself over everyone?’ and, like the villain Dormammu in “Dr. Strange,” Bilam the gentile prophet, asserts that his own power is even greater than Moshe’s. Also Zimri defies Moshe’s critique of his intimacy with the Midyanite princess with the attack-’who allowed you to take a Midyanite woman?’ Furthermore, the sages write of an ongoing collective insult against Moshe: When Moshe would leave his tent early, the Israelites would suspect that he fought with his wife…and if he left late, that he was probably plotting against them!! No wonder the Talmud quips: ‘Woe is to leadership for it buries its constituents.’ So how can a leader be protected and successful?

Here’s where the film, “Dr. Strange,” can enlighten us. The following lines uttered by the ‘ancient one’ to Dr. Strange give us helpful clues, both for the dynamics of Teshuva, repentance, in general, and the qualities of a good leader in particular.  First let’s look at some of the obstacles to his progress: He is still furious after the crash; instead of being grateful to being alive after the successful surgery, he protests to the doctors who assisted: ‘I could have done better. You ruined me. Life without my work is a disaster’…

Thus his first step in rehab cannot be merely physical, but rather must involve a change in attitude. As Strange eventually realizes: ok, ‘I have to forget everything I think I know.’ This is the Bitul, the humility, which is a prerequisite for growth and healing. Then can emerge the openness to new ideas: Some of the possibilities that the Ancient One suggests: ‘What if I told you your body could be convinced to put itself back together in all sorts of ways?  I know how to reorient the spirit to better heal the body…each one of those maps (of rational medicine) were drawn up by someone who could see in part but not in whole. You look at the world through a keyhole and you’ve spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole….and now on hearing that it can be widened in ways you can’t imagine, you reject the possibility….you think too little of yourself….you think you know how the world works? That this material world is all there is…at the root of all existence matter and mind meet…Thoughts shape reality. Many worlds; some benevolent, others dark. Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange? ‘

After flooding him with these profound ideas, the Ancient One kicks him out- sends him to ‘time out’ as it were. He remains outside the door for hours, but still hasn’t let go of his baggage yet, she feels. As she expresses to her close disciple: ’stubbornness arrogance, ambition…we never lose our demons Mordo; we only learn to live above them…’

Finally Strange is ready. He asks, ‘how do I get from here to there?’ She replies, ‘how did you get to attach severed nerves?’ He responds, ‘study and practice; years of it.’ She adds, ‘You can’t beat a river into submission; you have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own. Your intellect has taken you far, but it will take you no further; silence your ego and your power will rise…. You have such a capacity for goodness…You always excelled but not because you craved success but because of your fear of failure.’

He still resists: ‘that’s what made me a great doctor.’ She counters:  ‘It’s precisely what kept you from greatness. Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.  ‘IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.’

Every month has a dominant trait, and that of Tammuz is the power of sight. In order to see most clearly, we have to become sensitized to the many universes we inhabit. This is precisely the message that the Torah is giving us by praising Moshe with the trait of humility, the trait that is bound up with his being called, ‘a luminous mirror’. When we can clear our internal screen of personal ego, we too can become a channel for the divine that is all around us. Dr. Strange has done a good job of showing us some of the challenges and the accomplishments of this process which comprises our lives. Villain or hero – your choice!

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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