For a number of years as a synagogue rabbi, I officiated at funerals and gave thoughtful and comforting eulogies. But it wasn’t until my mother passed away that I really understood what loss meant. I had spoken to her on a Thursday night right after Passover in 1976; the next morning I received a call from my father who was crying, telling me at the same time that Mommy had died. I felt an emptiness within; and at the funeral service the following Sunday in Mt. Vernon, New York, I was speechless and could not sing her praises. I could only share with the officiating rabbi my strongest memories of my mother, and the rabbi in his eulogy gave voice to my thoughts.
After that seismic event in my life, my sensitivity towards mourners who had just suffered a loss was more heartfelt. Loss was not just a sermon topic; it was something that changed my perception of death, which made me more empathetic, and more understanding of what it means to be a loved one left behind.
There is a line in Good Will Hunting uttered by Will Hunting’s therapist, Sean, which expresses the difference between just learning or hearing about tragedy and experiencing it. Sean tells Will, an arrogant, cocky, but brilliant, young man, that “You’re just a kid. You don’t have the faintest idea of what you are talking about.” Furthermore, he doesn’t know about art, about love, about war. All he possesses is book knowledge, not wisdom that emerges from the crucible of life experience. Sean has lost his beloved wife to cancer, and Will casually presumes to know everything about Sean because of a painting he saw in Sean’s office. Sean responds to his facile remarks stridently: “You don’t know about real loss because it only occurs when you’ve loved someone more than yourself,” and clearly Will is self-absorbed. To sharpen his observation of Will, Sean, aware that Will is an orphan, declares honestly: “You think I know how hard your life has been because I read Oliver Twist?”
In the book of Exodus, we are told that Moses went out to see the suffering of his brethren. Until that time, he was isolated from them and did not comprehend their pain. Witnessing first-hand the beatings they were receiving at the hands of the Egyptians gave him a different perspective. He identified with them and so began his odyssey of redemption. Seeing things from the balcony may be academically satisfying, but it is only through the shared life experience that one learns to understand human tragedy and become more empathetic.
There is another challenge Will has to overcome: low self-esteem. This is nurtured by a cohort of friends who spend all their free time drinking beer, carousing, and engaging in the language of the gutter. Will is unable to see beyond his lowly origins. Only through his friendship with Sean, who does not abandon him in a time of crisis, does Will begin to see his future differently.
The Ethics of the Fathers states that sitting among the gatherings of the ignorant remove a man from the world. Association with the philistines of society makes you one of them. It is only when you separate from them that you can begin to create your own independent identity and soar.
Good Will Hunting implicitly suggests to us that a life of meaning is based on shared human relationships. It also reminds us that sometimes we have to make a clean break with the past to have a bright future.