The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that we should not judge a person by appearances. The classic text is “do not look at the container but at what is inside.” Yet this is what we often do.
I made a mistake many years ago when I initially judged a high school student to be a problem because his long hair flowed down to his shoulders and a scraggly beard adorned his young face. At the time, his appearance telegraphed a student who did not want to conform, a rebellious teenager who enjoyed breaking conventions and who was not interested in his studies.
In truth, I was 100 percent wrong. It turned out that once I engaged the young man in conversation, he emerged as sweet, witty, and academically serious.
The initial inability to see beyond surface appearances is at the core of Midnight Run, a buddy road comedy about a bounty hunter, Jack Walsh, played by Robert DeNiro, and an accountant, Jonathan Mardukas, played by Charles Grodin, who has embezzled 15 million dollars from the Mob.
Here is the set-up. Mardukas has jumped bail. His Los Angeles bail bondsman, Eddie Moscone, hires bounty hunter Jack Walsh to bring Mardukas back from New York, where he is hiding, to Los Angles by midnight Friday so that he will not forfeit $450,000 in bail money and face bankruptcy. To get the job done, he employs Walsh for $100,000 to bring him in on time.Competing with Walsh to bring in Mardukas is another bounty hunter and the FBI, led by Special Agent Alonzo Mosely. The FBI wants Mardukas because he can provide information about Jimmy Serrano, a mob boss involved in a plethora of illegal activities. Serrano also wants Mardukas, but he wants Mardukas dead so that he cannot testify against him.
Problems begin to occur after Walsh quickly captures Mardukas in Los Angeles. Mardukas is petrified of flying and causes a disturbance on the plane before take-off. The airline refuses to take him, leaving Walsh with the unenviable task of driving cross country with Mardukas to bring him into custody.
Their eventful trip, punctuated by constant life-threatening situations, brings the two adversaries together emotionally. Shared adversity breaks down barriers between them. The outcome: they become friends. Jonathan Mardukas learns why Walsh became a bounty hunter and why he left a post as a Chicago undercover policeman. Jack Walsh discovers why Mardukas stole the money from the mob and what he intended to do with it.
The Torah instructs us to judge our fellow man justly (Leviticus 19:15). This means giving other people the benefit of the doubt and interpreting their actions for the good. Moreover, the Talmud tells us: do not judge another man until we are in his position (Avot 2:4), until we understand the motive for their questionable actions. Jonathan and Jack ultimately do this. They give each other the benefit of the doubt and are not judgmental about the other.
Sara Yoheved Rigler, a Jewish educator, makes some helpful suggestions about how to judge people favorably taken from real-life situations: “Instead of faulting a friend for not calling you back when she said she would, you could think that she may have tried to call me back, but my line was busy, or she may have received an important call just when she was about to dial my number. Instead of faulting your spouse for being late (again!), you could think that I’m not time-challenged like he is. Instead of faulting a repairman for not coming when he said he would (leaving you sitting at home all afternoon waiting), you could think that his previous client may have had a more complicated job than expected, or that when he went to phone me that he’d be late, he couldn’t find my number or his cellphone battery was low.”
When we judge others fairly, Rigler continues, “We cultivate a positive, sympathetic attitude towards others. We do not jump to conclusions. We do not condemn people who may be suffering circumstances far beyond our ken.”
This epiphany of understanding comes to Jonathan and Jack who, through shared adversity, come to like and respect the other, foreshadowing a happy resolution that began as a tumultuous relationship. Midnight Run offers an example of people going beyond stereotypes and viewing people as they really are.