As a rabbi, as an educator, and as a parent, I have been asked many times for advice when friends and loved ones are going through stressful times. Sometimes I can help them, and sometimes their situation is so complex that I do not have a suggestion or answer that works for them. I want to help, but there are situations where my counsel is inadequate. I see the oncoming train wreck and I am powerless to change things or to prevent the damage from occurring.
Watching The Hurt Locker gave me a visceral understanding of this feeling. It is a stomach-churning war movie filled with profanity, extreme tension, and violence that deals with soldiers trained to disarm improvised explosive devices such as roadside bombs. The film vividly details the enormous risk they take on a daily basis to do their job. In one particular scene, Sergeant William James is called to a public square where a man is strapped in an explosive vest. The vest was placed on him against his will, and the man desperately wants someone to save him by removing the vest. The problem is that the vest is attached to his body with numerous locks. The crisis is compounded by a timing device on the man, which indicates that the bomb will explode in a matter of minutes. What to do? Sergeant James does his best but he cannot remove the locks in time. We are left to watch the bomb detonate and the man disappear into dust.
The film drives home in a graphic way the dilemma we all face at one time or another. We do our best and yet it still is not enough to make things right. Judaism recognizes this human dilemma, and the Sages give us guidance. The Ethics of the Fathers tell us that we should not run away from a difficult task; rather, we should begin it, do our best, and pray for the help of Heaven. We are only responsible for input. God is in charge of the outcome.
There is another life lesson embedded in The Hurt Locker. James is part of a three-man team. When he places himself in danger, his cohorts Sanborn and Eldridge automatically are placed at risk as well. James decides on one mission to take off his radio communication device to enable him to diffuse a bomb while unencumbered. The inability of his team to communicate with him in a hostile setting creates extreme uncertainty, and their straightforward mission is in danger of aborting. James also decides to hunt down terrorists on his own and invites his team to join him on this non-authorized mission, again needlessly placing his men at risk.
This failure to consider the fate of others when one makes decisions that affect other people is irresponsible and selfish. Indeed, James’ pursuit of his own adrenaline rush creates havoc for his partners. This self-centeredness is contrary to the Judaic maxim that we are all responsible for another. As the famous poet Donne said: “No man is an island.” We are all connected and the death of one man diminishes every man. Therefore, we are bound to consider the welfare of all when we make decisions, not just what’s in it for us.
The implications for how we conduct our own lives are clear. When faced with a daunting task, don’t take a pass. Just do your best and leave the rest to God. Furthermore, when making important decisions in life, think about your loved ones and how they will be affected by your decisions. Our decisions create ripple effects in the lives of others.