Whiplash (2014), directed by Damien Chazelle

whiplash posterIn a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the pros and cons of multitasking. My friend extolled the benefits of multitasking, but I maintained that while multitasking certainly has its benefits, there are times in life when you need all your attention focused on one thing only. I can recall the dedication to a single task that was required when I studied for my doctorate at Georgia State University. Without concentrated attention, I never would have completed the degree. The same holds true in Torah studies. There are many stories of great Sages like Rabbi Akiva, who achieved greatness only because Torah study became their only study.

I thought of the energy and focus needed to achieve greatness as I watched Whiplash, a profanity-laced film that makes a relevant point about the pursuit of excellence in any area of endeavor. Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neyman, a talented young drummer who enrolls as a student in a prestigious music school, where he is mentored by Terence Fletcher, an instructor who is totally committed to the pursuit of excellence as he conducts the school’s acclaimed jazz ensemble band. His pursuit of perfection brings with it both success in band competitions and psychological abuse to the talented charges under his influence.

When we first meet Terence, we quickly see how he intimidates students with unrelenting criticism, offered in the most profane terms, and with a mercurial temperament which leaves his students emotionally unhinged. Although Andrew works hard, he is almost driven to mental breakdown because of his desire to prove to Terence that he is the best drummer in the band. Whatever he does is not enough to please Terence and Andrew almost loses his life trying to be the best.

In a nuanced conversation between Terence and Andrew after a major confrontation between the two, Terence states: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” To him, excellence means going beyond the conventional understandings of what is a good performance. It means willing to take risks and go beyond one’s normal expectations. All this makes sense, but Andrew, wiser now because of his experience with Terence, questions whether the price for attaining perfection in some cases may be too high. If perfection is achieved at the expense of living a normal, healthy life, is it worth it?

The movie, in a startling finale, suggests that there is a middle ground. Both the music and the musicians matter. There must be a healthy synergy between the two. It is not an easy task to find the proper balance in life, but it is a goal worth pursuing. This pursuit for moderation is reflective of the Torah’s sensibility to live life by following the golden mean. Maimonides strongly recommends that a healthy life is a balanced life, and one needs to be wise to discover where the mid-point should be.

The Bible tells us that “Abraham and his family went to the land of Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.” The commentators ask: if every word of the Bible is significant, why do we need to be told that “they came to the land of Canaan?” Their arrival is implied. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin suggests that the Bible is teaching us that when we begin an important task, we should stay focused and complete it. Make sure we get where we wanted to go. It is easy to get sidetracked, so we have to make a special effort to expend all our efforts to accomplishing our goal. Whiplash reminds us of the total dedication needed to accomplish a worthwhile mission, but it also cautions us to be mindful of the human cost of achieving absolute excellence.

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