I was in the middle of my afternoon prayers when the doorbell rang. My guests had arrived and I was faced with a dilemma: continue to pray or interrupt my prayers to welcome guests? I took my cue from the great patriarch Abraham, who stopped his conversation with God to tend to his guests. The Sages comment that this was a good thing, for Abraham was setting a paradigm for how we should welcome the stranger. The Codes of Jewish Law express this concept succinctly: if we are busy with one commandment, we are exempt from the other. Ideally, we should do both if at all possible. But if we cannot, then we have to prioritize and perform the time sensitive or more important one.
The best cinematic example of this dilemma of facing two tasks at the same time and having to choose between them occurs in The Untouchables, a violent crime drama about the war between Eliot Ness, an FBI agent, and Al Capone, the king of the Chicago mobsters during the Prohibition Era. Capone’s street-wise philosophy reveals a ruthless approach to anyone who stands in his way. In a stunning opening scene that reveals a bevy of lackeys surrounding Capone as he gets a shave, he tells them: “I live in a tough neighborhood, and we used to say you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.”
Ness is portrayed as a family man, honest, and morally untouchable. He lives by a code of personal integrity. But he faces an enemy who lives by corruption and brute force. It is a classic confrontation between good and evil. In this often brutal story is a scene that encapsulates more than any other the quandary of Eliot Ness: can I retain my humanity in the face of an overwhelming evil that wants to break the law and murder innocent people?
The critical scene takes place in a train station where Ness has gone to intercept Al Capone’s bookkeeper, who possesses information that could send Capone to prison for tax evasion. Suspense builds as the train is due to arrive momentarily. Before the train arrives, a young mother burdened with two suitcases attempts to negotiate a baby carriage with a crying infant up a steep flight of stairs. Ness, ever the family man, decides to help her. The young mother is appreciative and tells Ness “You’re such a gentleman, so kind.” At that moment, the accountant finally appears with an escort of armed thugs. Here is Ness’s challenge: he wants to help the mother and child up the stairs and get them out of harm’s way. However, any delay could cause him to lose his prey. Putting Capone behind bars has been his all-consuming mission for months and this is his only chance for success. Ness tries to do both; and, in an amazingly choreographed scene, he loses control of the carriage and guns begin to fire all around him. Will the baby be another innocent casualty in the war against Capone or will Ness apprehend the accountant with no harm to the child or its mother?
The movie does not provide clarity or solutions to his dilemma; rather it illustrates in a dramatic way the dilemma we all face at different times in our lives. We have two worthwhile things to do, and we have time for only one of them. Jewish law mandates that a preoccupation with one deed exempts us from the other. Although we should try to do both, we recognize that this is not always possible. Therefore, the lesson is to stay focused and prioritize our choices.