When I was a synagogue rabbi in the early 70s, one of my most unsettling moments occurred when I had to officiate at the funeral of a teenage boy who died in a horrific accident. It was a rainy day, as if God Himself were weeping. What made it especially painful was the fact the father of the boy was a Holocaust survivor. I was amazed when I looked at the family during the eulogy. There was palpable, overwhelming sadness in the air; but the family’s faith in the face of terrible tragedy was manifest. A number of years later, this man’s wife was murdered in a random act of violence, and I could not help but wonder how the family could survive such a progression of tragedies, and yet they did. The Ethics of the Fathers tells us that man can never understand the ways of the infinite God, and so we move through life with unanswered questions all around us. The pain never goes away, but we find ways to cope.
Tender Mercies, a beautiful story of personal redemption in the face of adversity, reminds us that we can never know why things happen. All we can do is appreciate the tender mercies God grants to us in our lives which are filled with interludes of happiness and sadness.
Mac Sledge, played by Robert Duvall, is an over-the-hill country music star whose alcoholism has ruined his career. He awakens one morning in a forsaken Texas roadside motel and meets the owner, Rosa Lee, a young widow with a son named Sonny, who has lost her husband in Vietnam. She offers him room and board in exchange for his work at her motel and gas station on the condition that he does not drink while he is working for her. Over time, their feelings for one another grow and Mac eventually asks Rosa Lee to marry him. They attend church regularly and Mac finds that life is now full of promise. His emotional baptism ceremony represents his break with the past and his resolve to see life anew. Rosa Lee is largely responsible for his spiritual conversion. In a poignant scene, she tells Mac that “I say my prayers for you and when I thank the Lord for his tender mercies, you’re at the head of the list.”
With such love and encouragement, Mac’s life slowly turns around. His reputation as a songwriter inspires young musicians, and Mac decides to resurrect his career as a country music artist in a modest way. Secretly, however, he yearns to reconnect with his daughter, Sue Anne, whom he has not seen for many years. When the meeting occurs, it is filled with the hope of reconciliation; but tragically Sue Anne is killed in an automobile accident only days after they meet.
The trajectory of his life is a mystery to Mac and he wonders aloud to Rosa Lee: “I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s Daddy died in the war, my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why?”
In the final scene of the movie, Mac has an epiphany. While throwing a football with Sonny, he smiles. He finally comprehends that finite man cannot know the answers to the riddles of life. Mac has lost a daughter, but he can still be a father to Sonny. A feeling of purpose animates his life in spite of personal failures and family tragedies. His story echoes the adage from Proverbs, which says that “seven times the righteous will fall, and then they will rise again.” In the Jewish view, it is important to fail forward, to use failure as a way to stimulate emotional growth and understanding.