Clark Kent’s transformation from mild-mannered reporter to superhero used to take place in a phone booth. The “reporter” would see or sense danger, enter the booth, and reemerge as Superman, ready to protect the people and save the planet. In more recent Superman movies, in which cell phones rule the day, this transformation lacks the old-school finesse of a phone booth. Nevertheless, the need for a place where we can change from our private selves into our public selves, ready to transform the world, remains.
Where is that physical space in our Jewish lives today? Perhaps it’s the doorway to our homes, marked by the mezuzah that we place there, two-thirds of the way up, at a jaunty halakhic angle, to be touched, kissed, and noticed each morning as we go out into the public sphere and each evening as we return to our private space. The mezuzah, holding the words of the Sh’ma, is the marker that helps us to transition from who we are at home to who we become in the public square. But what is that transformation happening at our doorways? Can we be one person inside our home and another outside? And what animates the differences between our private and public selves, even if we don no cape and wear no superhero costume under our clothes?
While the two alter egos, Superman and Clark Kent, look and act quite differently (the reporter is shy, clumsy, and reserved, while Superman is bold, brave, and charming), the unchanging shared feature “they” possess is integrity; Superman and Kent hold the same values. Both believe in helping people, acting with kindness, and standing up for what is right. Both before and after entering the phone booth, Kent/Superman’s identity as a mensch is consistent — and that should guide us as we consider our own identities in public and private. While we must be the same person inside our homes and outside of them, our expectations and experiences with the world are, indeed, transformed as our fingertips graze the mezuzah.
As a rabbi and community organizer, I’d like to aim my lens specifically at people who engage in public relationships in order to heal human suffering, people who work in the field of justice in the public square — activists, organizers, and citizens. In our private lives, every human being deserves to be liked and loved by those who share our space — our parents, children, partners, and friends. We may make mistakes, burn the dinner, or snore, but those who love us will continue to do so (and maybe wear ear plugs). And we are called to love those people back. We require no protective gear, because our private selves’ success is measured by emotional presence, love, and intimacy.
But when we enter the public square, we begin to measure success differently. Ideally, people who pursue systemic justice use their power and engage in “public relationships” to repair brokenness and heal suffering. And that job calls for a different kind of relationship. Being respected, rather than being loved or liked, is a sacred aspect of justice work — and a more appropriate currency in the public square. Those working in the public sphere cannot confuse the spheres they are operating in, because, even though our values must remain constant in each sphere, public and private space each demand a different set of expectations. Seeking inappropriate validation in our public relationships will render us far less effective in our work. It matters, therefore, that we discern between and ultimately honor these different ways of interacting with the world. To return to our superhero, Clark Kent would never lie beneath a train to save it from disaster. That is a job for Superman.
We must be clear, therefore, about the needs of our private self and the interests of our public self. Living with this distinction makes having a healthy, warm, and love-filled private life — in which we can stumble, cry, be held, and hold our loved ones close — so much more important. Seeking love in the public square — for example, looking for adulation from supporters — can render a person working for change unable to tolerate the tension of public disagreement, and that is something that is often a necessary part of changing the world. But, in the company of those whom we trust implicitly and with whom we share our deepest hopes and fears, we can be fed and restored before the next time we step through our doorway as public figures, raise our fingertips to the mezuzah, and think about the words of the Sh’ma inside.
As we pass through the doorway of this ancient phone booth, we imagine those sacred words shooting through our arms and into our chests and settling in our hearts, where we find strength in their teachings. The first line of the Sh’ma ends with the word “echad,” a word related to the word “yichud” — meaning unified. Each time we pass from public to private and back to public, we are reminded of God’s integrated, unified whole; we must strive to live so, to carry with us from realm to realm our values of kindness, honesty, respect, and compassion. And, in this moment of transition, perhaps we can also ready ourselves for the sacred moment at hand — be it inside our private walls, being present for those we love, or in the public square, ready to act powerfully to change the world.email print