Forever Young (1992), directed by Steve Miner

forever young posterFailure to make decisions is a decision itself. Let me share a silly story from my early childhood. My mother took me to see a Bob Hope comedy. Near the beginning of the movie, I asked if I could go out and buy some candy, and my mother said yes. I had trouble making up my mind and when I returned to the movie, I found that it was at the same scene when I exited. I was gone for over an hour and I missed the entire movie.

Indecision is the catalyst of what transpires in Forever Young, a romance with a science-fiction twist. Daniel McCormick, an air force test pilot, has trouble making up his mind. He wants to ask his girlfriend, Helen, to marry him; but he cannot summon the courage to pop the question. While he debates within himself, fate intervenes and Daniel loses the opportunity to ask Helen to be his wife. His indecision is fatal. He misses his entire life with Helen.

Daniel’s story begins in 1939 when he is courting his beloved Helen. After a brief encounter at a local diner, Helen is involved in an accident, which leaves her in a long-lasting coma. The doctors think she will never recover; so after six months, Daniel volunteers for a cryonic freezing experiment in which he will be placed in suspended animation for a year. Thus, he will be spared the pain of witnessing Helen’s death.

He wakes up 53 years later to a new world with voice mail and planes that he only dreamt about many years earlier. Daniel attempts to find his old friend, Finley, who initiated the freezing experiment. He learns that he has died, but his daughter gives Daniel her father’s journals, which detail her father’s experiment and indicate that, once unfrozen, the aging process will kick in at an accelerated rate.

Things get tense when Daniel sees his body aging quickly and, at the same time, discovers that Helen is still alive. It is a race against time to find her before he succumbs to his inexorable aging process. Love, however, conquers all in this romantic fantasy, and it is gratifying to watch what transpires when Daniel and Helen, lovers from their youth, now reunite as seniors recognizing the deep soul connection that bound them together so many years ago.

As a teenager, I once heard a joke that kept me laughing for many days afterward. Here’s the joke: a man asked someone if he was a man of decision. The answer: “Well, yes and no.” The assumption behind the punch line was that while people outwardly want to be decisive, inwardly they often equivocate and don’t make up their minds.

Judaism discourages indecision. The rabbis of the Talmud grow to great lengths to get clarity, to pursue truth, to find the answers to difficult questions. They encourage clear decision-making, and often devise a calculus to arrive at a decision. For example, when faced with questions of Torah law, the Sages instruct us to choose the more stringent path; when faced with questions of Rabbinic law, they instruct us to take the more lenient position. To remain in a state of doubt when decisions need to be made is fraught with peril, for doubt will surely lead to inaction, equivocation, bad life choices, and a host of missed opportunities in life.

If one is still unsure about what decision to make, our Sages recommend speaking to someone older and wiser and getting his perspective on a situation. Judaism accepts the notion of a hierarchy of intellect and holiness. Once you identify the holy man of wisdom who represents the values in which you believe, you then ask him your query. Whatever the answer, you can feel confident that you are making the best decision possible since you have consulted the best and the brightest of men.

Forever Young is a stark reminder of the negative consequences of not being able to make a decision, and encourages us make the most of time we are allotted on this earth.

 

 

A Perfect World (1993), directed by Clint Eastwood

perfect world posterA story to share about my father. When I was 12 years old, I attended a religious camp in the Catskill Mountains in New York. On visiting day, my parents came up to see me. It was the first time I went to a sleepaway camp and my parents and I were looking forward to the meeting. During the visit, a rabbi approached my father and asked him to travel over two hours to pick up Rabbi Aharon Cutler, the founder of the esteemed Lakewood Yeshiva who would come to the camp to address the campers. My father readily accepted the mission; but when he arrived at the destination, he was told that someone else had picked up the rabbi. This was way before cell phones so there was no way to contact my father to cancel the mission. I remember distinctly that my father did not utter one word of complaint. He just did what he felt was right and did not complain when things did not go as planned. His response implicitly taught me that when given a task, your job is to do it with the realization that you are not in control of the outcome. Only God is. Jewish law reflects this approach when it tells us that we receive a reward for traveling to synagogue, even if we discover when we arrive there that there is no quorum for communal prayer.

Another story. My father, after many years of driving used cars, finally bought a new car. Soon after the purchase, I borrowed it and drove carelessly down a street where a garbage truck was making a stop. Instead of waiting patiently for the truck to move, I accelerated and scraped the side of the car, ruining the exterior. When I returned home, my dad simply asked me if I was okay. There was not a word of criticism about my thoughtless driving. I felt guilty for what I had done and incredibly stupid, but I realized that my father trusted me to grasp the folly of my foolish behavior without any reminder from him. I learned from him that sometimes you can learn more from what a parent does not say than from what he says.

All these recollections are a preamble to the subject matter of A Perfect World, a film in which the nature of fatherhood is explored. It is a story about two sons who see the world differently because neither has a father to teach him how to be successful in life.

The narrative unfolds in Texas in 1963 when two convicts, Butch Haynes and Jerry Pugh, escape from a state penitentiary and kidnap eight-year old Phillip Perry to use as a hostage against pursuing police. During the course of their flight, Butch, who himself was an abused child, becomes a protector of Phillip and relates to him as a father, offering insights and life lessons that forge a friendship between the two. Butch becomes the surrogate father that Phillip never had.

On the run with Butch, Phillip, only eight years old, experiences an independence that is exhilarating and frightening at the same time. He shoplifts a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, yet feels incredibly guilty for breaking the moral code that he has learned from his mother. In the course of their picaresque journey, Phillip confronts moral ambiguities for the first time, and begins to make moral choices.

What does being a father mean? As a father myself, I know it means more than a biological connection. It implies a teaching task as well. The Bible states this clearly when it says “You shall teach your children.” Fatherhood means more than paying the bills for your child. It also means guiding your children, teaching them to make wise decisions so they can navigate life successfully. A Perfect World reminds us of the profound influence of fathers on children, who mentor by example as well as by explicit instruction.

 Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Bucket List (2007), directed by Rob Reiner

bucket list posterIn the 1966-7 academic year, I was studying in a yeshiva in Israel and in the spring I had to have a hernia operation at Hadassah Hospital. I have vivid memories of the night before the operation. My roommate was scheduled for serious surgery and he said to me: “I wish I had what you have.” It was a statement that reverberated in my mind for many years. We never realize how blessed we are until we hear of the trials and travails of others.

People who are staying in a hospital tend to commiserate with one another simply because being ill in a health care facility can be a lonely experience. This is the opening scenario of The Bucket List, a touching narrative of two men from opposite sides of the track who share a common malady that brings them together in friendship.

Car mechanic Carter Chambers and billionaire hospital tycoon Edward Cole initially meet in the hospital after both have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As they undergo their treatment, they share in brief their respective life stories and come to like one another. Carter is a family man, devoted to wife and children; Edward has been divorced four times and is estranged from his only daughter.

As they become increasingly aware of their mortality, Carter begins penning a “bucket list,” a list of things to do before the inevitable end. When he shares it with Edward, Edward offers to finance a trip for both of them that will enable Carter to do all the things on his bucket list and more. In spite of his wife’s protest, Carter agrees and they begin their around the world adventure, visiting tourist sites in China, India, and France among other places.

Towards the end of their trip, Carter realizes how much he misses his wife and decides to return home. Back in the States, we see Carter surrounded by a loving wife and children, and Edward alone in his luxurious apartment. It is clear that Carter’s life is more blessed because of his loving family.

Throughout the film, Carter expresses the wisdom of the ages. Early on in his relationship with Edward, he tells him of the two questions that a person is asked at the gateway to Heaven: Have you found joy in your life and has your life brought joy to others? He encourages Edward to find the joy in his life before it is too late.

Furthermore, Carter reminds Edward that “You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.” The Ethics of the Fathers echo this idea when it tells us the right course for a man to follow is to choose a path that is a credit to him and that earns him respect from his fellow man.

These messages of healthy living resonate in Judaism. The Bible and the Talmudic Sages tell us to love other people, for when we love others we bring joy to our own lives. It makes us less self-centered and enables us to feel happiness in the accomplishments of others. God is overflowing with kindness and so should we be. The patriarch Abraham is the exemplar of the attribute of loving-kindness in Jewish tradition. When guests came to his home, he went to extraordinary efforts to make them feel important and welcome. He gave them a sumptuous meal even when he himself was recovering from his own circumcision in the heat of the day. The Ethics of the Fathers bluntly state: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” It is part of man’s mission to be concerned about all of God’s creatures. The Bucket List reminds us to live life to the fullest, to count our minutes, and to be generous to all men.

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The Great Escape (1963), directed by John Sturges

great escape posterMany years ago, a friend of mine enrolled in a master’s degree program in Social Work. He had great people skills which he felt would insure his success as a social worker and thought the program would be a breeze to navigate. He never envisioned that the program would be academically rigorous, requiring lots of research and lots of homework. But, in truth, it was; and after two semesters, he gave up and dropped out. He was not prepared for adversity, and so the slightest problem became a mountain which he did not want to climb.

The Great Escape tells the dramatic story of a cohort of men who did not give up in the face of adversity, who were focused and committed to their mission even when the road they travelled was bumpy and full of detours. It is based on a true story of a group of prisoners of war for whom the Germans had constructed a special prison camp. Their motivation? All the inmates were prisoners who made repeated escape attempts. The goal of the Germans was to place all these rotten eggs in one basket so they more effectively could control their activities, which distracted and undermined Germany’s focus on the war effort.

The prisoners, however, had different plans, which the ranking officer Ramsey clearly articulates to the German Commandant, reminding him that it was the sworn duty of the prisoners to confound the German military as much as possible in order to tie up German war resources.

The prisoners do this by building a tunnel underneath the camp barracks that extends to a no man’s land outside the barbed wire gates of the camp, thus enabling a cohort of 250 prisoners to attempt an escape to freedom. It is a task fraught with danger and plagued with many setbacks along the way. Squadron Leader Bartlet coordinates the effort, assigns team leaders, and begins to gather the necessary materials to implement the plan.

Many problems have to be addressed. How to get rid of the dirt that they dig out of the tunnels? How to maintain the structural integrity of the tunnel so that dirt does not fall and bury the ones who are building it? How to create forged passports and identity papers? How to determine what dangers lay outside the woods beyond the camp? How to dress like ordinary people so that they are not immediately picked up by the authorities after their escape? It is a gargantuan task and not everything goes smoothly.

What is notable is the response of the men when things go awry. When one of the three tunnels that the men are constructing is discovered, they do not give up. Instead, they devote all their efforts to completing another tunnel. When they find out that the end of tunnel leaves them outside the camp but twenty feet shy of the protective woods, they do not give up. They just accept the new reality and devise a way to signal the men to make a dash for the woods when the guards are not looking in that direction. It is this positive attitude than enables them to succeed. It is a commitment to the mission in spite of obstacles.

This approach to life is a Jewish sensibility. King Solomon in his magnificent book of Proverbs, states that “seven times the righteous fall and yet they rise again.” Life is full of challenges and disappointments. We cannot avoid them. But we do not have to succumb to them. The Great Escape informs us that where there is a will, where there is a focused desire to get something done, there usually will be a way. Things ultimately may not turn out exactly the way we want, but our primary goals can still be accomplished.

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Ruby Sparks (2012), directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

ruuby sparks imageI know some single men who are very self-absorbed. They are successful professionals but cannot seem to take their female relationships to the next level: marriage. They see the world through their own eyes and the older they get, the more rigid they become, increasingly unwilling to understand that women also have needs, which do not always revolve around men. For example, a 50 year-old friend has finally decided to get married because he wants children. He assumes that a 35 year old woman will want to marry him and have kids. He does not comprehend that a 35 year old woman generally is not interested in a 50 year old guy, yet he persists in his quest to find a young bride.

I thought of this unrealistic mindset of my friend as I watched Ruby Sparks, a clever, funny, profanity-laden, and very insightful film about relationships in which the male partner always sees things from his perspective and fails to understand the needs of significant others in his life.

Calvin Weir-Fields, a young J.D. Salinger, has writer’s block after his first wildly successful novel. Visits to his therapist are helpful, but his inability to write persists, until something amazing happens. A girl, about whom he has been dreaming, becomes a real person and he falls in love with her. Improbable as it may seem, they date, dance together, and get to know one another as lovers and friends.

The conceit that informs the movie is that Calvin can control Ruby by writing about her. She is both real and a figment of his imagination. It takes a while for him to process this conundrum, but he does when other real people such as his brother and his parents are able to actually see her and talk to her. There is no rational explanation for what happens, but the film manages to say some wise things about relationships between men and women.

Consider these interchanges in the story. When Calvin, a loner, confides to Ruby that she is all he needs, Ruby responds “That’s a lot of pressure.” When Calvin feels depressed after Ruby leaves him for short time, he retires to his study and types that Ruby is miserable.  Sure enough, she immediately phones to tell him how much she misses him. When Ruby desires to stay close to Calvin and physically cling to him, barely allowing him to breathe, Calvin again goes to his typewriter and types that Ruby is “filled with effervescent joy.” This makes Ruby perpetually bubbly and unresponsive to the nuances in Calvin’s behavior.

The relationship reaches a dramatic crescendo when Calvin exerts his power to control Ruby in an almost diabolical way, mercilessly informing her of his power to control her. It is an extraordinary scene pitting the controlling male against the defenseless female. How this problem is ultimately resolved is the stuff of fancy, but along the way we glean wisdom about what the relationship of a man and woman should be.

Jewish tradition has much to say about the relationship between men and woman. Every Friday night, the traditional Jew sings an ode to the “woman of valor” described in King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs. She is independent, wise, and the key to passing down tradition to her children. In a Talmud class, a student once asked the teacher: “How can I get my wife to treat me as a king?” The answer from the teacher: “Treat your wife like a queen and she will treat you as a king.” The answer reveals the mutual respect that husband and wife should have towards one another. The issue is not one of control. Rather the relationship should be characterized by each partner giving to the other. The goal of marriage is not to control or change the other; rather it is to lovingly accept the divinity within each other so that there will be mutual respect for one another’s uniqueness.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg

minority report posterSeveral years ago, I went to a wedding of a friend in the Midwest. There I met a number of teachers who taught in the local day school. One introduced himself and reminded me that he was once a student at Yeshiva High School of Atlanta and had actually dormed at my home for half a year. I did not immediately recognize him, but when he told me his name, a flood of memories rushed through my head. I remembered that he came from a small Southern town and that his parents wanted him to take advantage of high school Jewish education and so they enrolled him at my school. Although he did well academically, he never subscribed to the ethos of the school and regularly challenged authority. Upon graduation, I felt sure that he would abandon whatever Judaism he possessed.

But my prediction was all wrong. At some point, he was “born again” and blossomed as a student of Torah. Never would I have guessed that he would eventually make his career Jewish education. The entire encounter reminded me that one snapshot in time is not a reliable indicator of one’s future success or failure. The future is ultimately unknowable.

Minority Report, a dark and very tense science fiction thriller, suggests the opposite, that you actually can know the future of person and can even intervene to prevent him from committing a crime. In the year 2054, there is a “PreCrime” program that is operational in the nation’s capital In Washington, D.C.  John Anderton and his team of “PreCrime” police officers are able to act on information obtained from “precogs,” three mutated humans who can see into the future. They can predict the time and date of the crime, the culprit, and the intended victim. Once this is known, the data is forwarded to the police who proactively intervene to prevent the crime.
Because the country is poised to take the program nationally, the United States Justice Department sends its own investigator, Danny Witwer, to evaluate the program. Danny discovers some internal inconsistencies in the program and determines that PreCrime is flawed and subject to human manipulation. At first he sees John Anderton as the prime suspect, but eventually his attention turns elsewhere as he doggedly pursues his leads. The film raises the provocative question of whether one should take action against people you view as criminals, even if they have yet to commit the crime.

Interestingly, the Bible speaks of a pre-crime scenario in which capital punishment theoretically is meted out to one who will commit a crime in the future even though in the present he may be guiltless. This is the instance of the “wayward and rebellious son” who is brought to the court by his parents for capital punishment. Although his behavior at present is gluttonous and he is guilty of thievery, he has not yet murdered anyone. Yet the Bible prescribes the death penalty.

The Talmud, however, in the final analysis is inconclusive on this matter, stating that the case of the “wayward and rebellious son” never actually occurred and, indeed, will never happen. Then why, ask the Sages, do we have the law on the books?  One answer is that the passage teaches us lessons about parenting and serves as a warning to children to listen to parents and to voices of authority in general. Minority Report, which explores the notion of pre-crime punishment, concludes that no one can truly know the future; and, therefore, we can only respond to infractions in the here and now, not future ones. This, indeed, affirms the Torah value of judging people as they are now, not as the villains they may become.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross

hunger games posterIn the high school English class I teach, we often read the celebrated short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. It is about a yearly ritual in a small town which everyone comes to watch. The surprise ending reveals that the ritual is the stoning of one of the town’s residents that is chosen by lottery. The class discussion considers how society often has rituals or practices that are immoral but still persist because of long standing customs or traditions. No one present really understands why they still exist. The story resurfaced in my mind as I watched The Hunger Games, the grim narrative of a nation that every year sacrifices a cohort of young people as part of its national ritual of consecration and rededication to its founding ideology.

The country of Panem, created from a post-apocalyptic North America, is made up of a rich governmental region surrounded by 12 districts less wealthy than the Capital. To commemorate its history, which is obliquely referenced in the movie, the government sponsors a yearly competition in which each of the 12 districts, through a lottery, must submit a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games. Here the contestants, or “tributes” as they are known, fight to the death until there is only one survivor.

Things become very tense when 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose, who is selected to participate in the Games. The Games are televised nationally, evoking the kind of Olympic sports coverage that we see in the media today. Katness trains diligently and creatively, evoking the attention and praise of sponsors who will provide her with extra survival tools such as matches, knives, and medicine should she need them. The contests, brutal and unpredictable in execution, test Katness’s skill, intelligence, and courage. However, it is ultimately an act of personal rebellion that places her in a precarious situation in spite of her fighting prowess. Katness implicitly questions the legitimacy of the ritual that requires so many sacrifices; to the state, her controversial act of protest makes her a threat to the nation’s stability.

Judaism has many customs and rituals, but they are not arbitrary. They all have Biblical roots in Divine commands. Jews are even cautioned in the Bible not to add to existing laws, for the addition of laws or customs may ultimately water down or corrupt the original decree or custom.

I recall as a child going to the synagogue for the afternoon prayer service and finding a man praying while wearing a raincoat in the heat of the summer. When someone asked him to remove the coat, he loudly protested saying it was his tradition to always wear a long raincoat while praying and he refused the request. It was really weird and I couldn’t understand his rationale.  As I grew up, I began to understand that smart people sometimes hang on to old customs, not because it is the right thing to do but because that is what they have been doing for many, many years. Habit has replaced reason, potentially undermining the very divine foundations of the law.

The Hunger Games is a cautionary tale reminding us to examine our traditions and customs and to consider their true origins. We are wise when we do not blindly observe ancient customs, especially when it may lead to loss of life and when it contradicts common sense. Common sense should not be uncommon when it comes to the pursuit of truth.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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