In the high school English class I teach, we often read the celebrated short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. It is about a yearly ritual in a small town which everyone comes to watch. The surprise ending reveals that the ritual is the stoning of one of the town’s residents that is chosen by lottery. The class discussion considers how society often has rituals or practices that are immoral but still persist because of long standing customs or traditions. No one present really understands why they still exist. The story resurfaced in my mind as I watched The Hunger Games, the grim narrative of a nation that every year sacrifices a cohort of young people as part of its national ritual of consecration and rededication to its founding ideology.
The country of Panem, created from a post-apocalyptic North America, is made up of a rich governmental region surrounded by 12 districts less wealthy than the Capital. To commemorate its history, which is obliquely referenced in the movie, the government sponsors a yearly competition in which each of the 12 districts, through a lottery, must submit a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games. Here the contestants, or “tributes” as they are known, fight to the death until there is only one survivor.
Things become very tense when 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose, who is selected to participate in the Games. The Games are televised nationally, evoking the kind of Olympic sports coverage that we see in the media today. Katness trains diligently and creatively, evoking the attention and praise of sponsors who will provide her with extra survival tools such as matches, knives, and medicine should she need them. The contests, brutal and unpredictable in execution, test Katness’s skill, intelligence, and courage. However, it is ultimately an act of personal rebellion that places her in a precarious situation in spite of her fighting prowess. Katness implicitly questions the legitimacy of the ritual that requires so many sacrifices; to the state, her controversial act of protest makes her a threat to the nation’s stability.
Judaism has many customs and rituals, but they are not arbitrary. They all have Biblical roots in Divine commands. Jews are even cautioned in the Bible not to add to existing laws, for the addition of laws or customs may ultimately water down or corrupt the original decree or custom.
I recall as a child going to the synagogue for the afternoon prayer service and finding a man praying while wearing a raincoat in the heat of the summer. When someone asked him to remove the coat, he loudly protested saying it was his tradition to always wear a long raincoat while praying and he refused the request. It was really weird and I couldn’t understand his rationale. As I grew up, I began to understand that smart people sometimes hang on to old customs, not because it is the right thing to do but because that is what they have been doing for many, many years. Habit has replaced reason, potentially undermining the very divine foundations of the law.
The Hunger Games is a cautionary tale reminding us to examine our traditions and customs and to consider their true origins. We are wise when we do not blindly observe ancient customs, especially when it may lead to loss of life and when it contradicts common sense. Common sense should not be uncommon when it comes to the pursuit of truth.