Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee

life of piI enjoy and respect the company of people of faith, as long as they are not functioning as missionaries. Let me give you an example. When I was principal of a Jewish high school, I learned that one of our very fine Jewish general studies instructors was living with someone other than his wife. It was a private matter until I discovered he was hiring our students as babysitters for his paramour. At that point, I asked myself: if I were a parent, would I want my child to be exposed to a situation which was contrary to my own value system by a teacher in a school that shared my value system. Flash forward to another teacher in the school, the Christian mother of five children who was an outstanding science teacher. In her spare time, she wrote poetry about the details of God’s creation and always emphasized the renewal of God’s sustaining powers on each day of a person’s life, a message very much consistent with the ethos of our Jewish day school.

I realized then as I do now that faith transcends religious boundaries. One can be a serious person of faith and that particular faith does not have to match yours. This is the thinking than permeates Pi Patel, the central character in The Life of Pi. Pi, an immigrant from India now living in Montreal, Canada, is approached by a local writer who has heard that Pi has an unusual life story that would make a great book, a story that will make him believe in God.

Pi’s religious faith is eclectic, developing over time. He begins life as a Hindu, then finds meaning in Christianity, and connects to Islam as a teenager. He even has an interest in the Jewish Kabbalah but has not yet embraced it as a personal doctrine. His religious faith is very much part of him as he moves through his unconventional childhood and adolescence.

We learn that his father owns a zoo, affording Pi an opportunity to feel comfortable with animals from early boyhood. In particular, he is fascinated with a tiger whose name is Richard Parker due to a clerical error when the animal was acquired. When his father decides to close the zoo and move to Canada where there are more financial opportunities, the family sets sail on a Japanese freighter. They bring the animals with them to sell them in North America. Tragically, they encounter a fierce storm which capsizes the ship and Pi’s family is killed.

Pi, who was on the deck when the storm erupted, is miraculously saved by being thrown into a lifeboat in which there is an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How Pi manages this situation is an arresting survivalist adventure in which Pi’s strength, intelligence, and emotions are tested.

After many days at sea, Pi is rescued and insurance agents visit to get his account of what happened. When his initial story is dismissed as too hard to believe, he offers a second, more plausible account. When at the close of the conversation with the novelist, he asks him which story he believes is true, the writer cites the story with the tiger because it is a better story. Pi cryptically responds: “And so it is with God.”

It is a fitting end to a narrative that defies reality. In a profound sense, Life of Pi is about accepting God in one’s life. The specific religion to which one subscribes is not important. What is relevant is the overall acceptance that things happen with a divine providential hand. Pi wisely tells the writer that “faith is a house with many rooms with doubt on every floor.” Furthermore, “doubt is useful; it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”

When all seems lost, Pi still senses that God is watching over him. Pi observes in retrospect that “even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching and when I was beyond all hope of saving, He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” Speaking as a sincere man of faith, he says in his moment of extremity: “God! I give myself to you. I am your vessel.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to try our best and then to acknowledge that the outcome is in God’s hands.

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The Accountant (2016), directed by Gavin O’Connor

accountant posterMy son-in-law is a special education educator focusing on autistic students. He helps kids and their families cope with a disability that manifests itself in different ways depending upon many idiosyncratic factors such as age and family background. Therapies that work in one situation may not work in another.

Although we don’t see the actual therapies that work in The Accountant, a thriller about an autistic man who cooks the books for a number of criminal elements, we do see him as a child manifesting autistic behaviors. At the beginning of the film, we visit Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire, a place where parents go for help with their autistic children. Christian Wolff, a young boy, is there with his parents to consult with a psychologist.

The father, a military man, sees the problem one way, his mother another. When the therapist discusses the boy’s sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, the father suggests exposing his son to more light and noise since this will better prepare him for a world that will not accommodate his son’s needs. The mother prefers to leave him at the institute where her son can learn how to cope with excessive light and noise and where he can be in calm environment, learn how to make eye contact with people, and make friends.

Flash forward to the present day in which Christian has a small accounting practice and derives his primary income from serving as an accountant for some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. Ray King, director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, launches an investigation to discover the identity of this man who enables the bad guys to avoid tax liability and to launder large amounts of cash.

It is fascinating to watch Christian behave as a high-functioning autistic. His home is devoid of luxury and there are no decorations. His behavior is strongly ritualized as we see him prepare dinner. He owns only one fork, one knife, and one spoon and every movement reveals an attention to detail. In a storage facility nearby, he has a trailer in which are valuable paintings, cash, multiple passports, and lots of weapons of all types.

Things change for Christian when he accepts a job for a company presumed to be legitimate. Having heard of Christian’s special accounting expertise, the CEO of Living Robotics, a high tech company specializing in advanced prosthetics, hires him to discover a huge financial discrepancy in the business. When he is on the verge of discovering that 61 million is unaccounted for, he is fired. But Christian cannot just abandon his work. His autistic sensibility drives him to finish the job, and the denouement involves lots of twists and turns before we find out the truth.

Although Christian Wolff is a fictional character, he still represents the general profile of a high-functioning autistic individual. His social interaction skills are weak, he has problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and is at times obsessive about his routines and interests. But he ultimately makes a valuable contribution to the world, albeit in an unconventional way.

Judaism regards the autistic person, or any disabled person, as created by God in His image. The Sages tell us that only one man was created to send a strong message that all men come from the same mold, yet each person is unique as God is unique. Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers observes that we should not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Everyone has something to contribute to the totality of society, even the disabled.

Tammy Ruggles, mother of an autistic child, observes that the Passover Seder is an evening of inclusion. There is a section in it known as “the four sons.” Here four different sons are described, one of which is the son who knows not how to ask. The son is emblematic of the autistic child who needs patience and love from a supportive family in order to function.

The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) shares the vignette of Rav Preida, a great sage, who repeated his lesson to his young student 800 times in order to be sure he understood the material. For that effort, God rewarded him with long life and life in the world to come. The story reminds us we have to be patient and be diligent in our efforts to help the autistic child and any child whose disability prevents them learning and integrating into the larger world.

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The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

incredibles posterMy oldest son, Rabbi Daniel, has recently written a book entitled What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Much of the book emerges from eulogies that he has delivered during the past 25 years as a synagogue rabbi. A consistent theme over the years is the good that people do anonymously, without any recognition or fanfare. Such good deeds done, below the societal radar, testify to the essential goodness of the deceased. Doing good without being recognized for it is at the heart of The Incredibles, an imaginative animated film that deals with superheroes who want to do good without receiving accolades. They just want to be helpful and do the right thing.

The main superheroes in the film are Mr. Incredible, who possesses super strength, Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like flexible rubber, and Frozone, who has the ability to create ice instantly. The opening scenes depict the heroes in a series of events where they are called upon to use their superpowers to catch criminals. They are almost entirely successful except in one case when they are foiled by Buddy, an enthusiastic fan of Mr. Incredible, who wants to be his ward like Batman’s Robin. It is his interruption that prevents Mr. Incredible from capturing the culprit.

After the excitement, the superheroes return to their alter egos and lead normal lives. Mr. Incredible is Robert Parr, Elastigirl is is Helen Parr, Robert’s wife, and Frozone is Lucius Best, Parr’s close friend.

Their lives are turned upside down when an avalanche of lawsuits are filed against the superheroes because of civilian injuries and collateral damage. Eventually, the superheroes conclude that they have to turn in their super suits and live normal lives away from the limelight, and assume their secret identities permanently. The Superhero Relocation Program provides ex-superheroes with new jobs and homes and amnesty for past actions.

The narrative continues 15 years later with Robert working for an insurance company, leading a life focused on his wife and children. However, he still dreams of his superhero years when he saved many people from disaster.

Soon an opportunity arises for him to return to his calling as a superhero. For a hefty sum, he is asked by Mirage, a mysterious woman, to destroy a rogue robot who is wreaking havoc on the residents of a remote island. However, Mr. Incredible soon discovers that his job is a ruse simply to get him to the island where Mirage’s anonymous employer terminates the lives of all the existing superheroes. The race to save himself and other superheroes makes for a tense and exciting denouement, in which Elastigirl, Frozone, and Mr. Incredible’s children play key roles.

A character trait that stands out among all three superheroes is their lack of interest in public acclaim. None of them is seeking recognition of any kind. They only want to help other people. This is a Jewish sensibility. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Jews are instructed to serve God, to do the right thing, without any intention of receiving reward. Moreover, Maimonides, in describing the eight levels of charity, writes that giving anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.

It is significant to note that Mr. Incredible’s adversary is motivated primarily by a strong desire for recognition. He purposely destabilizes the world so that he can arrive on the scene and put it back together again in front of a large audience. He is a villain who thrives on the aphrodisiac of fame. The Incredibles reminds us that doing good things is more enduring than transient fame.

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The Giver (2014), directed by Phillip Noyce

giver-posterIn one of the Israeli schools in which I taught, the students in one particular seventh grade class were mostly interested in parroting back information. The typical question I received was “can I read the next paragraph” or “what was my grade on the last test?” It was rare to hear a question that reflected a thinking, active intellect.

At one point I even told the students that unless they began asking thoughtful questions, the class would become boring for me to teach. I told the students I needed them to respond to the literature I taught. I did not want them only to behave; I wanted them to feel the power of the poetic image or verse. I wanted them to consider the meaning of the works we read. I wanted my students not only to think but to feel.

The Giver, a story set in some future time after a nuclear war, describes a society that wants its citizens to think and not to feel. What is paramount is living in tranquility without strong emotions that potentially can corrupt society. Therefore, citizens have their memories wiped out to insure a stable and peaceful world in the future.

The narrative follows the life of teenager Jonas who, after the completion of high school, is assigned a specific vocation in the community together with other teens in the city. The matching of student and vocation takes place in a public ceremony, and Jonas’s mission is saved for last. Unlike his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memories because he possesses the four attributes of intelligence, integrity, courage, and an ability to look beyond the present moment. The person charged with instructing Jonas about the past before the cataclysmic destruction of society is the Giver, an old man who is a living repository of all past memories.

Memories of the past both enlighten Jonas and frighten him. In dreams he sees visions of happy scenes and images of violence and destruction. The Giver explains that Jonas’ confused emotional state will create problems for himself and society. In spite of this, Jonas begins to appreciate the role of emotion, which makes life a richer experience.

He shares his newfound wisdom with friends, but the Elders are worried that his actions will destroy the tranquility of their society. The conflict between the Elders’ desire to preserve the status quo and Jonas’ desire to reinsert emotion into the lives of the citizens leads to tension and conflict. Finding balance between emotion and reason in society and in one’s personal life is the theme of The Giver.

Traditional Judaism promotes balance between emotion and reason. It is good to think and it is also good to feel. For example, the Sages tell us that prayer should not only be cerebrally understood and recited; it should also express the heartfelt sentiments of the supplicant. In reciting the daily prayers, Rabbi Shimon says that one should not make his prayers routine; rather they should express the deep emotion of the person praying. One should try to feel God’s presence.

Moreover, God reveals Himself in the Book of Genesis by two Hebrew names: Elokim and Hashem. Our Sages tell us that Elokim refers to God acting as a God of stern judgment and reason; Hashem refers to a God acting with mercy and compassion. For the world to exist, there most be a combination of justice and mercy. Just as God possesses both attributes, so too should humans. Reason without emotion is unnatural and potentially harmful.

Jonas arrives at this truth as he learns from the Giver, who we discover is not simply a repository of past memories, but a person of feeling who wants future generations to be human in the fullest sense of the word. He reminds us that life is richer and more complete if we experience the agonies and ecstasies of the human experience.

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Above and Beyond (2014), directed by Roberta Grossman

above-and-beyondA “lone soldier” home is located around the corner from me. What is a “lone soldier?” He is a volunteer who serves in the Israel Defense Forces even though he has no immediate family with him or her in Israel. Reliable sources tell us there are over 6000 of them serving in the army.

What makes someone volunteer for such service? One answer is given in the stirring documentary, Above and Beyond, which tells the story of a group of World War II pilots who, in 1948, volunteered to fight for Israel in its War of Independence. They knew that Israel was about to be attacked by its Arab neighbors and that the country might not survive the onslaught of so many powerful enemies unless it had help from others. They viewed themselves as being on the cusp of history and they were determined to do whatever they could to enable the new nation to survive. This diverse band of brothers fought in key battle theatres and laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.

The narrative begins with the United Nations resolution to divide Palestine and the British decision to leave, opening up the way for an Arab conquest of the land. Into that perilous situation steps a group of volunteer Jewish American former World War II pilots who help the Jews secure planes and fly them into the line of fire, preventing the Arabs from driving the Jews out of Palestine.

What gives the film authenticity is actual footage of the original aircraft and contemporary interviews with the pilots who flew them. What is remarkable is the fact that these soldiers who survived the hazards of World War II voluntarily placed their lives in danger to help the fledgling state of Israel.

Indeed, there is a rich tradition of volunteerism in Jewish history. The basic commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” sets the tone, encouraging all people to help one another in times of crisis. The commandment relates not just to requiring the rich to assist the poor, but includes all situations where people are in need of help. In truth, the notion of helping someone can relate to lifting his spirits as well as giving him charity. Furthermore, history records that such diverse causes as Jewish schools, burial societies, providing money for impoverished newlyweds so that they can establish their own homes, self- defense organizations, health and emergency medical centers all began under volunteer auspices.

The Talmud tractate of Sanhedrin tells us: “Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.” This mindset energizes the American pilots who want to prevent another Holocaust. They view their rescue mission as an opportunity to make a difference in the historic destiny of the Jewish people. For them, to save one life is to save the world.

Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers states: “If I am only for myself, what kind of person am I?” The pilots are idealistic, unselfish, and willing to take risks. This combination enables these men to defy logic and convention, to try the impossible and sometimes achieve it.

Above and Beyond provides a window into a little known but important part of Israel’s history. It informs us that most volunteers are motivated by wanting to do the right thing, not by visions of being recognized publicly or getting financial benefit. It is gratifying to watch ordinary people rise to the occasion and make mighty contributions to the Jewish people that ripple into the future. Above and Beyond reminds us that heroes are often ordinary people meeting extraordinary challenges.

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Unbroken (2014), directed by Angelina Jolie

unbroken posterFor the past several years, I have been teaching in a middle school and a high school in Israel. I have observed that in dealing with 7th and 8th graders, the students tend to be very self-absorbed, interested only in what they have to say and not paying attention to the comments of others. In the high school, I see students more respectful of each other, more willing to listen to the opinions of a peer. There I see more students sensitive to the Biblical notion of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Just as you would want to be heard, so too should you listen to the words of your neighbor and give his comments respect even when you disagree with him.

In Jewish jurisprudence, there is discussion as to what degree we should observe this commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Do we observe it even when, by doing so, we put ourselves and our interests at a disadvantage? Is there some balance between our needs and the needs of others that needs to be struck?

This moral dilemma is portrayed in a scene in Unbroken, the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, an airman who, during World War II, crashed into the Pacific Ocean on a rescue mission to locate a missing aircraft. Of the eight men aboard Louie’s plane, only three survive: Louie, Phil, and Mac. The three are able to inflate a life raft, and so begins their treacherous journey on the open sea.

They have limited food; and Louis, as the take-charge guy, tells his friends that they need to limit their consumption of food so that the meager food they have will enable them to survive until they are rescued. They have only one bar of chocolate and Louie tells them that they can eat one piece in the morning and one in the evening. Mac, however, decides to eat all the chocolate.

The Talmud (Baba Metzia 62a) discusses a similar case of “lifeboat ethics.” Two people are traveling in the desert and there is a jug with only enough water for one of them to survive. There is a difference of opinion as to what course should a person take in such a moral dilemma. One sage, Ben Petura, says that it is better if both of them drink rather than have one witness the death of the other. Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that your life should come first before the life of your friend. This moral calculus is analyzed in contemporary volumes of Jewish law that deal with the conduct of men in battle who have to make decisions that affect the health and safety of others. Unbroken does not provide simplistic answers; it only raises the question.

Louis Zamperini, a practical man, does not compromise his integrity. He does not blame Mac for taking all of the chocolate for himself. He accepts the reality of Mac’s feelings and actions and then moves on to think of new ways to acquire food in the middle of the ocean. Louie, an optimist, does not lose his focus in the face of a setback. He continues to try his best to keep everyone alive.

When he finally is rescued, only to find himself in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. he again expresses his independent spirit. He is unwilling to bend in the face of physical punishment and extreme torture designed to undermine his humanity.

Louis Zamperini survives incarceration and even forgives his enemies. Years later, we see the real Louis Zamperini as a senior citizen running with the Olympic flag. He counts his blessings and traces his survival and success in life to his faith in God, which sustained him throughout all his trials. When faced with moral conundrums, Louie chooses the high road and becomes a model for us all.

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All the Pretty Horses (2000), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

all the pretty horses posterOn rare occasions, I have been confronted with having to make a decision knowing that if I decide one way, I will hurt someone I care about; and if I decide differently, I will hurt someone else. Either way, I will wind up alienating a friend.

I recall that about 15 years ago, I was faced with such a dilemma and I decided to consult an older man with great knowledge of Torah and a deep understanding of human nature. He gave me a good perspective on my situation, enabling me to live with my decision without the burden of guilt. I continued to call him for advice until one fateful evening when I called his home, only to find out that his wife and family were in the midst of the week of mourning for my friend and mentor who had died only a few days before.

In the days that followed, I reflected on the time spent consulting with him. Although I could no longer speak with him, I learned much from the wisdom he shared with me, and I attempted to incorporate his perspectives in the way I viewed my own quandaries. Senior wisdom is priceless and I tried my utmost to take advantage of it whenever I could not come up with a satisfactory resolution to a problem. Such is what happens in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole finds himself burdened by guilt by making good decisions that, regrettably, did not turn out well. Ultimately, he turns to a senior to put his own problems into perspective.

The year is 1949. John Grady Cole, a young cowboy raised in the wide-open spaces of a Texas ranch, is forced to find new means of employment when his grandfather dies and his heirs sell the property that was in his family for many years.

Together with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they journey south of the border to Mexico to find work. Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a savvy but unpredictable teenager, who wants to ride with them. Later they find employment with a wealthy rancher who needs help managing his exceptional prize horses. John and Lacey enjoy their work, but things get complicated when John falls in live with Alejandra, the rancher’s daughter.

Things change dramatically when both John and Lacey are arrested by the Mexican police. In jail, they again meet Blevins who is incarcerated for horse stealing and murder, and they learn that they are viewed as his accomplices. John and Lacey are sent to prison where they are surrounded by cutthroat prisoners who threaten their lives. They languish there until Alejandra’s aunt arranges to free them on condition that John never sees Alejandra again.

When John returns to Texas, he is arrested for horse stealing and appears in court to explain his side of the story. Surprisingly, the judge believes John and tells him that he is free to go. Never having encountered such fair play before, John visits the judge at his home, perhaps seeing him as a wise man and father figure. He confesses that he killed a man in prison and did not do enough to save his friend Blevins from being murdered.

The judge listens patiently and gently tells John that he could not have done anything to avoid those tragedies. Moreover, what John should do now is simply move on with his life, knowing that those tragic moments will be sorted out over time. The judge understands that John needs to share these secrets to assuage feelings of guilt. The judge intuits the wisdom of Ethics of the Fathers, which states that a person should not consider himself evil. When a person lacks self-esteem and views himself as a bad person, he may become emotionally paralyzed and give up trying to improve.

All the Pretty Horses depicts a rite of passage for a young man trying to make sense out of a life filled with contradictions. What enables him to survive is senior wisdom coupled with an abiding belief in God, which animates him every day. This sentiment is openly articulated by John at the film’s close: “I believe that God does watch over us, if he didn’t, I don’t see how we could get through each day.”

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