Apollo 11 (2019), directed by Todd Douglas Miller

To achieve any lofty goal requires great attention to detail. When I first became a principal, the school of which I was the head was in survival mode. It barely had the funds for payroll and enrollment was low. It was the first Jewish day high school in the city and did not have much community support. My job in part was to keep it afloat and help it grow. Thank God, the school grew numerically and financially and fulfilled our dreams.

There was another level of excellence that the school experienced. To compete with an array of exemplary private high schools, we had to go through an accreditation process. All the details of the school’s operation were scrutinized. Visiting members of the accreditation committee looked at our mission statement, our course descriptions, our teacher profiles, our student acceptance rate into college, and sundry other items.

After a thorough examination, we became accredited by our regional accreditation agency, which helped with our recruitment of new students. The overall results were very good, and we accomplished our goal because we buttressed all of our observations and reports with details that far exceeded what was required.

It is this kind of attention to detail that characterized the work of those laboring on the “man on the moon” project in 1969, which enabled the United States to successfully place a man on the moon. This event is celebrated in the fascinating documentary Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 tells the story of NASA’s historic lunar landing mission. Produced from newly discovered film footage, it depicts the days leading up to the launch, the launch itself, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in which he declared that, by placing one small step on the moon, he was making a giant leap for mankind. The movie concludes with the return of the lunar module to earth’s atmosphere, and its landing in the ocean.

The central characters are the three astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. But the supporting players at Mission Control also play a key role in the achievement. These employees provided the detailed information necessary for the astronauts to be successful.

The film devotes equal time to them sitting behind their computer monitors, analyzing real-time data, and relaying radio transmissions. The detail is mind-boggling. In order for the lunar module to reach the moon, it requires 7.6 million pounds of thrust to leave the earth and it has to attain a speed of 23,000 mph to break free of the orbit around the earth. These numbers are impossible to comprehend.

This commitment to an overall goal and to the details required to achieve it evoke comparisons to Judaism’s approach to leading a holy life. For example, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld discusses the admonition “you shall be holy” that appears in the Bible. Wolkenfeld remarks: “It is a brief statement that can fit on a billboard, that can even fit on a bumper-sticker.” That succinct line is the mission statement of the Jewish people.

But what does it mean? The Sages tell us that to be holy requires observance of a whole host of commandments that touch every aspect of human life: determining what we can eat, how we pray, performing an array of rituals related to the Jewish holidays, and carefully evaluating how to interact with our fellow man. In all, there are 613 commandments, not just ten. God is truly in the details of how we lead our lives.

Apollo 11 reminds us that to achieve a worthy goal requires more than just sincere resolve. Rather, it involves a commitment to details and using them to support a worthy goal, bringing it from idea to reality.

 

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Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006), directed by Doug Atchison

In 1970, I had to make a choice. Do I want to launch my career as a rabbi on my own serving as a pulpit rabbi or do I want to be an assistant rabbi and learn from a skilled and wise mentor? I chose the latter, and, in retrospect, it was a good decision.

In making the decision, I recognized my limitations and thought I would be a better rabbi in the long run if I had someone from whom I could learn. In Akeelah and the Bee, eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson makes a decision to acquire a mentor as she prepares for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, and that makes all the difference in her performance on game day.

African-American Akeelah Anderson resides in South Los Angeles, a tough neighborhood with poor schools. She is bored with being in an unchallenging academic environment. However, in spite of her surroundings, she has developed a talent for spelling. Principal Welch notices this and encourages Akeelah to enter the school’s spelling bee, which is the first step towards qualifying for the National Spelling Bee competition.

Akeelah, feeling that participation in the academic competition will brand her as a nerd, is reluctant to participate. In the face of consistent encouragement by the administration of the school, however, she relents and competes in the school’s contest and easily wins. This is the first step on the road to the national competition.

Along the way, she becomes friends with Javier Mendez, a spelling bee competitor from another school district consisting mostly of white middle class and wealthy families. Unlike her preconceptions of such students from affluent homes, Javier is friendly, supportive, and always has a smile on his face. In her conversations with him, she begins to see the world differently, becomes willing to step outside of her comfort zone, and starts to enjoy the challenge of competing in the national contest.

At first, Akeelah thinks she can win purely on the strength of her ability to master rote spelling skills. But as she competes in local contests, she realizes she will need a coach who will teach her about word roots and how to figure out how to spell complex words with obscure language origins. Serendipitously, Dr. Joshua Larabee, former chair of the UCLA English Department, becomes her mentor and coach. He is a harsh taskmaster, but ultimately Akeelah recognizes the value of his advice and follows his recommendations.

What Akeelah does conceptually is follow the advice of The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, which states “make for yourself a teacher (1:6).” The Sages interpret this to mean to get yourself a mentor, someone who will give you good advice as you navigate life.

Yaakov Astor, writer and Jewish educator, explains this aphorism. To get the most benefit from a mentor, you first have to acknowledge your own limitations and lack of perspective on certain issues. Once that is done, then you can seek out someone with wisdom and life experience to assist you. The mentor does not have to know everything, but he possesses more knowledge than you and can offer you perspective on your problems. He is objective where you are subjective.

Akeelah and the Bee demonstrates the positive effect that a mentor can have on your life. First, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Second, you can learn much and overcome challenges in life if you open to the perspective of an older and wiser person whom you respect and trust. It is then more likely that you will achieve success in life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), directed by Sidney Lumet

 Somewhere I remember a teacher saying the following line: “If you think education is experience, try ignorance.” I thought of this maxim as I watched Dog Day Afternoon, a true story about two men who attempt to rob a small bank in Brooklyn. Neither of them has any criminal record. One of them needs a few thousand dollars to help a friend; the other comes along for the ride. Both have some street smarts but are incredibly ignorant and naïve when it comes to understanding the dire consequences of their unrealistic plan.

Their ignorance is dramatically brought home when they are arranging for a plane to fly them to a foreign country. Sonny wants to fly to Algeria but is clueless about what would await him there. Sal confesses he has never flown on a plane before and wants to fly to Wyoming. To this New Yorker, Wyoming is a foreign country, and it is this kind of ignorance that dooms these would-be robbers from the outset.

Sonny and Sal, two down-and-outers, attempt to rob a bank, but things fall apart very soon after they realize that the cash for the day has already been picked up. Only about $1000 remains in the till. When Sonny tries to burn some traveler’s checks to prevent them from being traced, the business across the street sees the smoke coming from the bank and soon policemen surround the building. In a panic, the robbers decide to go ahead with the robbery and hold the employees hostage. Sonny tells the police detective in charge that he will kill the hostages if anyone tries to enter the bank.

Things get very complicated as TV cameramen and bystanders crowd around the bank, where Sonny has become a minor celebrity in his stand-off with the police. Realizing his situation is deteriorating, he requests a jet and safe passage to a foreign country in return for the lives of the hostages. A limousine arrives taking everyone to Kennedy Airport and it is here where the story ends sadly and violently.

As we watch events unfold, it is clear that Sonny will not kill anyone. Life’s challenges have simply overwhelmed him and his bank robbery is a desperate act. In the midst of the robbery, he refers to his Catholic faith that still sustains him and is solicitous about the condition of his hostages. Before leaving for the airport, he even dictates his last will and testament to a bank employee, revealing the simplicity of his motives. He is not robbing the bank to get money for himself. He wants the money so that he can help another person in distress. When he departs, he does not want to leave a mess.

Jewish tradition reveres education and acquiring knowledge. The commandment to teach one’s children goes back to Biblical times and is set forth in the first paragraph of the credo of the Jewish faith, the Shma. Moreover, the concern for transmitting wisdom throughout subsequent generations is echoed in various books of the Bible including Proverbs, written by the wise King Solomon. Although the verses primarily relate to religious education, they have a ripple effect in secular learning as well.

The great sage Maimonides, who excelled not only in Torah learning but in medicine as well, maintained that wisdom comes not only from holy text, but from careful observation of nature as well. Learning is a supreme value, and not to learn puts one at great disadvantage. Dog Day Afternoon, a gritty, profanity-laced, New York story of two small men in the big city, dramatically reminds us of the perils of ignorance.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Far From the Tree (2018), directed by Rachel Dretzin

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an aphorism often quoted to praise the accomplishments of a child whose exemplary behavior or achievements mirror the accomplishments of the parent. In Rachel Dretzin’s documentary, Far From the Tree, inspired by Andrew Solomon’s best-selling book, she profiles several families in which the children do not at all mirror the situation of their parents.

The first subject is a man who disappointed his parents when he came out as gay. His mother’s initial response: “Now I will never have any grandchildren.”

The second subject is Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome. Here the mother clearly loves him, but she recognizes the reality that intellectually he will always have severe limitations. Jason is obsessed with the character of Elsa in the movie Frozen. He even wants to travel to Norway in spite of his knowledge that Elsa does not really exist.

The third case involves an autistic teenager, who can only speak with the aid of a computer. The mother wonders whether she did anything during her pregnancy that brought about this disability.

Fourth is the story of Loini, who is a dwarf. She laments the fact that she cannot drive a car because her family cannot afford to buy a specially equipped car that would enable her to drive. Her life takes on excitement when she attends a Little People of America convention where she meets other people her size and comes out of her emotional shell.

Fifth is the case of 16-year old Trevor, who, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly slit the throat of an 8-year old boy and was given a life sentence in prison. Here we see normal parents raising their son in a conventional, loving way yet the son commits a horrific crime. The psychotherapist tells them their son is “broken,” and the parents can do nothing about it.

In each narrative, parents are compelled to deal with the reality that the expectations they had for their children will never be fulfilled. The question then becomes how should a parent relate to that child. The film suggests that in the face of situations that cannot be easily remedied, parents need to be accepting, tolerant, and loving.

That response to a painful reality is echoed in Judaic sources. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) speaks of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and notes that, in the midst of this catastrophe, God does not totally abandon the Jewish people. Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, a Jewish educator, writes: “God loves His children even in the midst of unbearable destruction. It is this knowledge that God will never forsake us that gives us the strength to endure all the trials and tribulations of life. God has unconditional love for his children.”

The model for how a parent should treat a child that does not meet his expectations is God Himself. Rabbi Safran observes: “God has shows us the way to respond to a child that does not fulfill our hopes and dreams.  It is love and acceptance.”  Even when a child falls very far from the parental tree, you must still love him, just as God loves us, no matter what our state of being.

In Far From the Tree, there are children who ideologically are distant from their parents, there are children who physically are very different from their parents, and there are children who are intellectually different from their parents. But in all these cases, there still exists the enduring bond of a parent to a child, which transcends the moment, which overcomes the present crisis and enables parents to continue to love and cherish their children in spite of any unpleasant and challenging reality. Parental love may not solve the problem, but it enables the relationship to continue and, from the aspect of eternity, good things may still come.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Triple Frontier (2019), directed by J.C. Chandor (a Netflix film)

One of the important lessons I transmitted to my children over the years was never to make the acquisition of money the sole reason for one’s actions. Make important decisions in life based on Torah wisdom, not based on acquiring more stuff. Stuff has limited shelf life. Good character does not.

Another related life lesson for my children is based on an aphorism in the Talmud: “Attempting to grab too much will lead to grabbing nothing (Yoma 80a).” The expression is found seven times in the Babylonian Talmud.

The consequences of making money the main motivation behind one’s decision-making and the consequences of grabbing more than you need is depicted in the thriller Triple Frontier, a heist film with a message about the perils of compromising one’s integrity to acquire more riches. Five ex-special forces soldiers are tested both physically and morally when they decide to raid the compound of a Columbian drug lord, Gabriel Martin Lorea, whose cartel is responsible for the destruction of many individuals and families.

The film opens with an assault by a private military outfit on the Lorea cartel. Santiago “Pope” Garcia, an ex-special forces soldier, is employed by the company to help stop the flow of drugs into America. While on his mission, Yovanna, an informant, gives him a tip about Lorea’s whereabouts and the amount of money he has stashed away in his home. In return, she wants Santiago to smuggle her brother, whose life is in danger, out of the country.

Santiago travels to the United States to recruit his old Delta Force friends to join him in a job to steal the money from Lorea. The cash prize will be more than 75 million. His buddies include Tom “Redfly” Davis, a realtor; William “Ironhead” Miller, a motivational speaker; his brother Ben Miller, a mixed martial arts fighter; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales, a former pilot.

Redfly is regarded as the leader since he was the one who successfully led them on missions in the military. Initially, he is only willing to do reconnaissance and is reluctant to participate in the venture. However, once he learns how much potential reward there is, he decides to join.

At the initial meeting of the group, he emphasizes that what they will do is illegal and they have no military support. The job is only for personal gain. Everyone understands the ground rules and Redfly’s plan is put into action.

When scouting Lorea’s compound, they learn that Lorea goes to church every Sunday with his family, leaving his home with only minimal security for about an hour. This is the maximum time for Redfly and his companions to steal the loot and disappear into the surrounding jungle.

Things begin well, but then there are complications when they discover close to 250 million dollars hidden in the walls of the house. Greed overwhelms Redfly’s normally cautious approach, and precious seconds are lost with dire consequences.

Moreover, their troubles mount when their plane, weighted down by the excess money, has trouble flying over the Andes Mountains. Additionally, they are confronted with unforeseen moral dilemmas when they have to decide to continue with their original mission when it involves the killing of innocents.

Alan Morinis, a Jewish ethicist, in his book, Everyday Holiness, discusses the importance of leading a life of simplicity not based on acquiring more money. He writes: “The mindset of acquisition can leave us constantly feeling great pangs of need. Of desire, the Talmud says, Satisfy it and it becomes ravenous; Starve it and it becomes satiated.”

The Talmud tells us in several places to be happy with what one already possesses: Ben Zoma says: ”Who is happy? He who is content with his lot.” Morinis amplifies this: “No matter how many or few your possessions, you will actually feel the reality of your riches only if you have an inner contentment with what you have. To devote ourselves exclusively to the stuff of the world is to be left with nothing.”

The heroes of Triple Frontier are not initially greedy men. They have served their country admirably and are now in civilian life leading ordinary lives. But they have little financial security. The attraction of being in a better situation economically appeals to them and they rationalize their heist of a drug lord’s wealth to be a good thing, a boon for society as well as for them.

It is only in the crucible of real life experience that their lofty goals are compromised. Triple Frontier reminds us not to abandon our moral sensibilities no matter what the temptation.

Logan Lucky (2017), directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a school principal, I am sometimes faced with parents who, no matter the evidence, refuse to admit the shortcomings of a child. I recall one occasion when a student was caught plagiarizing a paper. At the subsequent meeting in which the teacher, the parents, and I were discussing what should be the consequences of this dishonesty, the boy’s father proclaimed: “My son never cheats.”

It was a troubling comment because it revealed an inability to accept truth and the consequences of lying. A similar inability to accept truth is evidenced by a prison warden in Logan Lucky, a humorous heist movie. No matter what the evidence, the warden denies he has a problematic prison population even when it is clear to the viewer that the prisoners are engaged in nefarious activities.

The narrative begins in a rural county in West Virginia when Jimmy Logan gets fired from his physically demanding job because he has a pronounced limp. The origin of his injury is a football injury sustained during his high school days when he was a star player. Now he is out of the limelight and working hard as a laborer to survive.

Desperate for cash, he enlists his brother, Clyde, and sister, Mellie, to assist him in robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. There is one problem: they need the help of a safecracker, Joe Bang, who is presently incarcerated. Jimmy’s plan is both crazy and straightforward, and it depends on lots of uncertainties. First, they have to get Joe Bang out of jail surreptitiously. Then they have to break into the racetrack vault. They then have to abscond with the cash. They then have to return Joe to prison without anyone realizing he was gone. Finally, Jimmy has to arrive at his daughter’s beauty pageant on time. How all this works out is the stuff of movie magic. It involves a very willing suspension of disbelief.

The conceit that enables the robbers to succeed is the fact that the local authorities who are charged with finding the culprits and recovering the stolen money are not willing to accept criticism. It is easier for them to plead ignorance or to lie outright than to recognize and accept the stark reality of the crime with all its attendant consequences. Because of this desire on the part of the establishment to cover up incompetence and to avoid public ridicule, they inform the news media that the money has been recovered when they actually do not know if it has been or not.

In contrast, Judaism accepts the reality of sin and requires man to atone for bad behavior. There are no excuses and there is accountability. Unlike my high school parent who refused to acknowledge his son’s cheating, and unlike the establishment authorities who see the robbery as only hurting the insurance companies, Jewish law mandates candor, sincere regret for past indiscretions, and teshuva, repentance.

Repentance involves several steps: regret, ceasing the harmful behavior, confessing to God, and resolving not to do it again. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a noted Jewish educator, shares a thoughtful analogy that illustrates how we should view the mistakes of a child: “Imagine a new child taking his first steps in front of the proud parents. He gets to his feet, takes a few steps ― and falls flat on his face. The parents clap with excitement and joy. But if you analyze the scenario, shouldn’t the parents be upset? After all, the child fell down! The answer is obvious. A parent doesn’t judge a child based on whether he walks or falls, but rather on whether he took a few steps in the right direction.” That mindset perhaps should have guided the parents in my school who, by protecting their son from the consequences of failure, taught him to avoid accountability at all costs.

Logan Lucky makes no moral pronouncements and the protagonists of the story do not necessarily walk in the right direction, but the film does provide an example of what can occur when people rationalize bad behavior.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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