Thursday, 09 May 2024

Written by Matt Turchin, LBC rabbinical student

In 2008, one film came to the big screen which set the foundation for an entire cinematic universe. Before you accuse me of giving spoilers, it’s been 16 years, so this one really isn’t on me.

This movie broke all the rules, flipping the genre on its head. We had grown accustomed to the masked superhero, living two separate lives, as both a private citizen and a public entity, larger than life – a legend. The trope of the secret identity has become so ingrained in the genre as to become canonical, and here we watch a billionaire arms manufacturer forced to make a terrible weapon for evil people, only to make a better version so that he might rectify his mistakes. In the process he invents an alternate persona: Iron Man – anti-terrorist hero, crime fighter, human weapon – developed by Tony Stark, a man no one would ever suspect of heroism.

As the movie ends, Tony stands before a crowd of reporters following a destructive battle, but of course, that was Iron Man. And just as he’s prepared to deny his involvement, he pauses to reflect. Tony is flawed and “just not the hero type,” yet with one phrase he erases a division between his two personas, stating “The truth is: I am Iron Man.”

These words do more than merely indicate his ability to become a hero, they are a declaration of identity. They say: ‘You can know me in more than one capacity, you may have known me by other names, you may think you know me, but this is also who I am.’ The weapons manufacturer is the billionaire is the weapon is the hero. While not the first crime fighter to self-identify in this way, his innovation lay in this unified public identity. Tony Stark will act as the hero, and through this, all will know that he is Iron Man.

Doubling down on this identity in the second film, Tony refuses to hand the suit over to the government, saying: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself.”

In the third film, after his home, his lab and all of his creations are destroyed, Tony emerges as an entirely different kind of hero. “My armor was never a distraction or a hobby, it was a cocoon, and now I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away – I am Iron Man.” Spoilers, I know.

The final time this exact phrase is used is at the moment of ultimate sacrifice. With an option to separate the identities no longer on the table, either the unified being lives or dies, and neither part may continue on without the other. “I am Iron Man.” (SNAP)

In the Torah, there is a unifying statement of identity which appears about 78 times, one-quarter of these in our parashah – Kedoshim.

It begins as a revelation of identity in Genesis, when God assures Avram that his journey has a purpose, asserting “I am Adonai.” Later this is reiterated to Jacob as he lies dreaming, having barely escaped with his life after usurping his older brother’s blessing. “I am Adonai” God says, expressing a link to Jacob’s father and grandfather. With this statement, God sets up a dynasty, ensuring that the divine identity is known as a promise of connection and heritage. God existed before and will exist afterwards. God keeps promises.

In Exodus, God uses this phrase 16 times to self-identify. As God moulds Moses and Aaron into leaders who will confront Pharoah, we see the beginning of the fulfilment of that ancient promise, ramping up the undeniable proofs of power through plagues, all to ensure that the Egyptians know the true source of this punishment while redeeming the enslaved people: “And the Egyptians will know that I am Adonai.” Throughout Exodus the self-identifying statement is used when God claims to be a healer and provider of food, one who dwells among the people, ordains leaders, and gives us the Shabbat – all of this punctuated by the words “I am Adonai.”

By this point, the phrase has become a metonym. When self-identifying, God is no longer merely establishing an identity, but rather fortifying that long-established identity through association. Upon hearing “I am Adonai”,  the Israelites recall the promises made to their ancestors, the bitterness of slavery, the joy of emancipation, and the call to serve, all rolled up neatly into that identity. When we come to our parashah, the 20 declarative instances of the divine identity serve an entirely different purpose. Here they become an epistrophic refrain, punctuating a text that few would call poetic, all to drive home the emphatic nature of the decrees of holiness.

Be holy, for I am holy – I am Adonai

Honour those who made you and keep Shabbat – I am Adonai

Protect the unfortunate and take no advantage – I am Adonai

Make no idols – I am Adonai

Provide for the poor and the stranger – I am Adonai

Respect My Name – I am Adonai

Protect the vulnerable – I am Adonai

Deal with integrity – I am Adonai

Be patient with your harvest – I am Adonai

Love each other – I am Adonai

Respect your body – I am Adonai

Keep Shabbat and holy spaces – I am Adonai

Seek not answers from beyond the grave – I am Adonai

Honour your elders – I am Adonai

Love the stranger – I am Adonai

Be honest in commerce – I am Adonai

Keep My laws – I am Adonai

Sanctify yourselves – I am Adonai

Separate clean from unclean – I am Adonai

Be holy, for I am holy – I am Adonai

Through this repetition, God points back to each instance of revelation, each appearance at a time of need, each promise and each fulfilment. It is a unification of identity across all time, a promise and a fulfilment of promises. It is the denial of dualism in the same way that we begin the Shema by declaring God’s unity and complete the third paragraph with the words “I, Adonai, am God.”

In what ways do we verbally attest to the unification of our own identities, stating that we can be many things in one vessel?

For some, it is an acknowledgement of sexual orientation, despite too-often weaponised verses, or of gender identity. For others, it is coming to terms with a mental, physical or emotional condition which is an essential part of our unique identity yet can be used to set us apart. Essentially, it is a core expression of place, purpose and personhood. People like the journalist Daniel Perl died by the very words “I am Jewish.” Look at our varied communities and you will see those who strive to be able to self-identify with those words. Above all, we are holy, for Adonai is holy, and are we not formed in that very image? We are composite beings, for one single word can carry so very much of who we are and who we hope to be in the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Matt Turchin, LBC rabbinical student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.