A story to share about my father. When I was 12 years old, I attended a religious camp in the Catskill Mountains in New York. On visiting day, my parents came up to see me. It was the first time I went to a sleepaway camp and my parents and I were looking forward to the meeting. During the visit, a rabbi approached my father and asked him to travel over two hours to pick up Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the founder of the esteemed Lakewood Yeshiva who would come to the camp to address the campers. My father readily accepted the mission; but when he arrived at the destination, he was told that someone else had picked up the rabbi. This was way before cell phones so there was no way to contact my father to cancel the mission. I remember distinctly that my father did not utter one word of complaint. He just did what he felt was right and did not complain when things did not go as planned. His response implicitly taught me that when given a task, your job is to do it with the realization that you are not in control of the outcome. Only God is. Jewish law reflects this approach when it tells us that we receive a reward for traveling to synagogue, even if we discover when we arrive there that there is no quorum for communal prayer.
Another story. My father, after many years of driving used cars, finally bought a new car. Soon after the purchase, I borrowed it and drove carelessly down a street where a garbage truck was making a stop. Instead of waiting patiently for the truck to move, I accelerated and scraped the side of the car, ruining the exterior. When I returned home, my dad simply asked me if I was okay. There was not a word of criticism about my thoughtless driving. I felt guilty for what I had done and incredibly stupid, but I realized that my father trusted me to grasp the folly of my foolish behavior without any reminder from him. I learned from him that sometimes you can learn more from what a parent does not say than from what he says.
All these recollections are a preamble to the subject matter of A Perfect World, a film in which the nature of fatherhood is explored. It is a story about two sons who see the world differently because neither has a father to teach him how to be successful in life.
The narrative unfolds in Texas in 1963 when two convicts, Butch Haynes and Jerry Pugh, escape from a state penitentiary and kidnap eight-year old Phillip Perry to use as a hostage against pursuing police. During the course of their flight, Butch, who himself was an abused child, becomes a protector of Phillip and relates to him as a father, offering insights and life lessons that forge a friendship between the two. Butch becomes the surrogate father that Phillip never had.
On the run with Butch, Phillip, only eight years old, experiences an independence that is exhilarating and frightening at the same time. He shoplifts a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, yet feels incredibly guilty for breaking the moral code that he has learned from his mother. In the course of their picaresque journey, Phillip confronts moral ambiguities for the first time, and begins to make moral choices.
What does being a father mean? As a father myself, I know it means more than a biological connection. It implies a teaching task as well. The Bible states this clearly when it says “You shall teach your children.” Fatherhood means more than paying the bills for your child. It also means guiding your children, teaching them to make wise decisions so they can navigate life successfully. A Perfect World reminds us of the profound influence of fathers on children, who mentor by example as well as by explicit instruction.