The recent passing of Leonard Nimoy z’l occurred at a fitting time in the Jewish calendar. Nimoy played the iconic character Spock in the hit series Star Trek, the most popular character in a franchise that spans decades. Nimoy’s death stirred me to consider Spock’s legacy. Indeed, this isn’t the first time that Spock died. In the second Star Trek film ‘The Wrath of Kahn,’ Spock died while saving his shipmates. He willingly subjected himself to deadly levels of radiation to save the starship Enterprise from exploding. Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) eulogized Spock in what is probably the most moving performance of Shatner’s career. He said “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…(choking up)…human.” Indeed, in each Star Trek series, there is always one character (Spock, Data, Odo, Seven of Nine, T’pol) that struggled with their (lack of) humanity, enabling the show to explore what it means – what it truly means – to be human. I therefore consider from Jewish tradition, as Nimoy was Jewish after all, what was it about Spock that Kirk believed made him so human?
The question of what it means to be human is highlighted in one particular rabbinic teaching. In Ethics of our Fathers (Pirke Abot 2:5) it states ‘Bimkom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish,’ which means ‘in a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.’ That this teaching is enigmatic is an understatement. What is it trying to say? What is the Jewish conception of what it means to be a person?
The most recognizable symbol of Star Trek, and of Spock, is of course the Vulcan hand greeting. It is well known that Nimoy learned it in his childhood Boston synagogue from watching the Kohanim/Priests bless the Congregation. Rashi (Shelomo Yitzhaki, 11th century France, Exodus 4:14) says that originally Moshe was supposed to become the High Priest. However, on account of the fact that he balked at appearing before Pharoah as God commanded, he lost the priesthood to his brother Aaron, who joyfully embraced the role. The Ba’al Haturim (Jacob ben Asher, 14th century Toledo, Exodus 27:20) therefore explains that this is the reason that Moshe’s name is, unusually, absent from this past week’s parashah of Tetzaveh, as it focuses of the vestments of the priesthood, lost to Moshe.
Similarly, one of the themes of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim is service to others. In the book of Esther (4:11-14), Esther demurs at going before the king to plead the case of her Jewish people. Mordehai, however, chastises her that perhaps it was for this purpose that she became queen. While dangerous to appear before the king unannounced, it is Esther’s responsibility to care more for her people’s safety than for her own.
Indeed, this is the unique quality of humanity. We have the ability to act beyond our survival instincts in pursuit of a greater good. In fact, that is the explanation that some give to the earlier enigmatic teaching in Ethics of our Fathers. What it means to be a ‘person’ is to act on behalf of others (la’asok betzarhei tzibbur – Kehati commentary). In fact, this is what Captain Kirk said in his eulogy concerning Spock – “He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one.” Spock understood the value of acting for the sake of others, and not only for oneself. What a fitting time it is then, when we think of Moshe and the priesthood, Esther, and the notion of self-sacrifice, that we also remember Leonard Nimoy and his alter ego Spock. It is a wonderful example to follow.
May Leonard Nimoy live long and prosper – Tehei Nafsho Tzerurah Bitzrur Hahaim (1 Samuel 25:29).