Category Archives: war

1917 (2019), directed by Sam Mendes

There was a time when I thought that if I spoke to someone in order to correct his behavior, he would see the wisdom of my remarks and improve his behavior. As I have gotten older, I realize that my speaking to someone rarely will effect change unless that person is ready to hear what I have to say.

My conversation may relieve me emotionally, but it does not move the other person to act differently, unless, of course, it is a matter of life and death. This is the dilemma that is at the core of 1917, a war film depicting the efforts of two British soldiers during World War I to deliver a message deep inside German territory to prevent 1600 Allied soldiers from walking into a deadly trap.

The narrative begins when General Erinmore briefs two young British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, about aerial surveillance revealing that the Germans are not in retreat as some generals think. Rather, the Germans are setting a trap for the British soldiers.

A message needs to be sent to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to call off their planned attack scheduled for the next day. It is a perilous mission for Schofield and Blake. In addition to the possibility of encountering enemy soldiers, there are trip wires and explosions along the way that jeopardize the soldiers’ mission.

An officer whom they meet in their journey gives them a piece of advice; namely, that when they transmit the message, they need to make sure there are witnesses because sometimes people just want to fight even in the face of conflicting evidence that one should retreat. This advice motivates the soldiers, entrusted with the task of telling a battle hungry commander to retreat, to make sure that the officer accepts their message and saves the lives of the soldiers. This will require the commander of the 2nd Battalion to abandon his own view and adopt his superior’s, which, as a good soldier, he will do in spite of his own objections.

The question is: will the soldiers deliver the message in time? Their tension-filled trek across a dangerous landscape forms the dramatic crux of the film.

The Torah informs us that we have to do whatever we can to prevent someone from making a clearly bad decision: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor “ (Leviticus 19:16). If a person knows that someone is in danger, he must try to prevent harm to that person. This especially applies when the failure to change someone’s mind will lead to certain loss of life. Schofield and Blake understand that the successful completion of their mission will save lives, and that is the catalyst for their supreme efforts to transmit the message.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons observes that the most effective way to convince someone to change his perceptions is through presenting him with obvious proof, not by rebuking him or arguing with him, or cleverly persuading him. Rabbi Simmons writes: “Nobody likes to be told what to do. Therefore, it is the act of self-realization that eliminates the defensive reaction… and produces effective change. For example, Joseph got the brothers to realize the internal contradiction of their own argument. He did not rebuke them. No doubt this is what King Solomon meant when he said, Give rebuke to a wise personand he’ll love you (Proverbs 9:8).” This, in essence, is what happens when the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion sees incontrovertible evidence that his troops are in mortal danger.

Indeed, we are all part of the family of man. If we have the ability to save others from harm, or to influence them positively, then we should try our best to do so. The Sages of old tell us that if a person has the ability to help others and does not help, then he is in part responsible for the outcome. We share responsibility for one another. The lesson is central to the emotions and thoughts of soldiers Schofield and Blake, who comprehend that the success of their mission will save the lives of others.

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Balibo (2009), directed by Robert Connolly

 In recent years, the concept of “fake news” has gained popular currency. People, generally, are less accepting of the word of mass media. However, there was a time when people trusted the news outlets. If Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite reported something, we assumed it was true and we had great respect for those who reported the news. Balibo harks back to a time when people looked to the newsman to find out what was happening in the world and relied upon reporters to deliver the truth.

The film, Balibo, follows the Balibo Five, a cohort of five journalists who were captured by Indonesian forces invading the tiny country of East Timor in 1975. They subsequently were killed while reporting on the conflict.

The story begins when Roger East, a veteran journalist, journeys to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the death of the reporters and to set up a news agency to broadcast news about the impending Indonesian invasion. He does this at the encouragement of young, charismatic activist Jose Ramos-Horta, who was East Timor’s secretary of foreign affairs.

Jose feels that the desperate plight of the people of East Timor will receive more international attention if the fate of the Australian journalists in East Timor is front-page news. The journalists are white while the East Timorese are brown, and the English media will identify with the Anglo journalists, not the brown-skinned Timorese whom, by and large, are anonymous. In fact, at the end of the invasion, which took place over an extended period of time, almost 200,000 East Timorese were killed.

The crux of the film revolves around the question of whether, given the dangerous environment, the journalists who, indeed, were in harm’s way, should have pulled out earlier. The reporters, totally focused on getting out the story, are depicted as naïve and naturally competitive, two qualities that often encourage simplistic thinking without considering the risks involved in a particular course of action.

Jewish law has a clear perspective on risk-taking. Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, a Jewish educator, writes: “Risk is everywhere — an unavoidable part of daily life. What are the parameters of our obligation to protect ourselves from everyday dangers? Judaism teaches God gave each person a body to use, but we are required to protect it. This is a difficult balancing act. If we are overly cautious, we miss out on much in life. Yet if we are reckless, we risk destroying the very body we were given to protect. What is the prudent course and what are the limitations?”

Dr. Eisenberg provides an answer: “In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands us to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby. Similarly, all dangerous pursuits (bungy-jumping is an example) are proscribed.

Obviously, there is latitude in evaluating how much risk is acceptable. A person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of normal society without undue concern.

Judaism recognizes the need to earn a livelihood as a mitigating factor in allowing risky behavior. The Talmud asks: Why does the worker climb the tree and risk his life? Is it not to earn his wages?

Intrinsic in the Talmud’s argument is the assumption that one may take risks to earn a living that would not otherwise be permitted. Someone has to paint the bridge, build the skyscraper, and dive for pearls. So long as the risk stays within reasonable parameters, such activities are permitted as professions.

The exact degree of risk in any endeavor always remains hazy. And the overarching rule is the obligation to protect one’s health.”

It is clear that the idealistic journalists in Balibo confront extraordinary risk to life and, from the perspective of Jewish law, overreach normal standards of risk. Although their goal is worthy, they make the mistake of accepting an unacceptable risk.

 

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The Resistance Banker (2018), directed by Joram Lursen

I recently had a discussion with a family member about how I am conducting my life now that I am in my mid-70s. He asked if I have made any changes in my daily routine. I told him I certainly have.

Health challenges over the past several years have made me very sensitive to the passage of time. I am driven to make sure that I use my time wisely in the service of God. Instead of learning one page of Talmud a day, I now study two. I am very careful about my interactions with other people, greeting everyone I meet with a pleasant countenance and doing my best not to get angry at anyone.

Moreover, I am very meticulous about meeting my film review writing goals on time. Inwardly, I feel the reviews are Mussar lessons, ethical instruction, not just film reviews. They are a legacy of Torah sensibilities, not an evaluation of mere entertainments.

I have a sense that any day could be my last and I want every day to count, for time cannot be retrieved.

This focus on making the most of every day is on display in The Resistance Banker, the true story of banker Walraven (Wally) van Hall, who uses every moment to work on behalf of Dutch citizens persecuted by the Nazi regime. In his eyes, his job is never completed. He feels he can always do more. What is his mission? To bankroll the Dutch resistance to the Nazi regime during World War II.

Wally did not start off as a banker. He first worked at a New York Wall Street stock brokerage, a job secured by his brother Gijs van Hall, who later became the mayor of Amsterdam. When Wally came back to the Netherlands, he worked as a banker and stockbroker. This experience proved invaluable after the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

In the beginning, Wally’s efforts were directed to helping merchant-sailors and their families manage when many husbands and breadwinners were stranded abroad. Wally secured guarantees from the Dutch government-in-exile in London that enabled him to get funds to the Dutch sailors.

When the Germans started to enact anti-Jewish measures, Wally’s abhorrence of the Germans intensified, and he began fundraising for a whole array of resistance groups. So pervasive were his efforts that he became known as the banker of the resistance.

Wally raised money for the resistance through circuitous means. He and his brother arranged for the forgery of valueless bank bonds and exchanged them for valuable bank bonds. These bonds were used for the collection of authentic paper money. They also borrowed money from wealthy Dutch people with the understanding that the lenders would get their money back at the end of the war.

Wally was obsessive in his work, knowing that every day people counted on him financially for survival. He also knew that on any day he might be caught and killed by the Germans, but he could not rest as long as the job was not finished. It is said that in today’s currency, the money he collected would be over a half billion Euros.

Wally van Hall intuitively understood two statements of the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. The first is that when it comes to good deeds, one should always begin the task even if the outcome is in doubt. Outcomes are in God’s hands, not ours.

Secondly, one should also consider the possibility that every day might be one’s last day, and, therefore, one should make every day a masterpiece of righteous living. Knowing that time is short should be a motivator for performing good deeds now.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

The White Helmets (2016), directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

For the last several years, I have seen in the media a plethora of stories about the Syrian Civil War. Exactly who is fighting who and for what reasons is sometimes unclear to me. So I looked forward to viewing The White Helmets, an award-winning documentary about this cadre of volunteers, all of whom wear white helmets. Their mission: to rescue people caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Syria. I hoped the film would give me a better understanding of this ongoing conflict and it did.

The film is composed of raw footage of the bombings of populated areas, wounded adults and children, the rescue training of the volunteers, depictions of some of their actual rescue efforts, and interviews with some of its members, who are mission-driven to save lives.

The White Helmet organization began in 2014 to labor in the fields of medical evacuation, urban search and rescue, evacuation of civilians from dangerous locations, and general service delivery of life essentials. As of April 2018, the White Helmets claim to have saved 114,000 lives, and in the process 201 White Helmets have died. They claim not to be affiliated with any particular cause in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, they are targets of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, both of which see them as aligned with the terrorist opposition to Assad’s Syrian government.

Interestingly, in July of 2018, Israel opened the Golan Hieghts border to permit a UN rescue team to evacuate 422 people, 98 While Helmet members and their families, to Jordan because their lives were in danger. A Syrian government spokesman condemned the rescue as a “criminal operation” that supported a terrorist entity.

Observing the rescue work that the White Helmets do, it is hard to imagine the group is a terrorist entity. Interviews with three of the volunteers demonstrate their passionate desire to save lives as their sole motivation.

Similar motivations are expressed by Hatzalah, a Jewish volunteer rescue organization in America and Israel. No matter whether thay are professionals or day laborers, they drop what they are doing and travel at a moment’s notice to save a life. One Hatzaloh member observes: “We help our neighbors, friends, relatives, and complete strangers. We get their fast so that we can minimize the trauma and suffering of the patient. That is our job and that is why I love it. I get to help make the community I live in a better and safer place.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states: “Whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Aaron Kirschenbaum, Law Professor at Tel Aviv University, traces the origin of this Talmudic statement to Leviticus (19:16), which states: ”thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The takeaway is that every human being has an obligation to help someone in distress. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law provides some specific guidelines. Most important, we must be able to save another. Stepping into a dangerous situation without the proper training can lead to more harm both to the victims of terror and the rescuers themselves. Moreover, a number of ancillary considerations come into play in rescue efforts, such as geographic proximity, mental awareness, creative thinking, and physical disposition.

The White Helmets reminds us not only of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but also of the many everyday heroes who desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of innocents. Their altruistic spirit and their hope for a better future in the face of present adversity should be an inspiration to all of us.

Watch “The White Helmets” on Netflix.

Leave No Trace (2018), directed by Debra Granik

In the summer of 2010, in preparation for our move to Israel, I made a car trip from Dallas, where my wife and I were living, to New York with my son Ezra. Attached to my Toyota Corolla was a hitch upon which was loaded many of our possessions from our Dallas home.

In Salem, Virginia, my car started making strange noises and, within moments, died. I thought: In two days it will be the Sabbath. What do we do now?

Amazingly, Mike Fultcher, the accounts manager at the motel at which we are staying, miraculously located a 1999 Toyota engine for our vehicle and a super mechanic who could install it within 24 hours. Mike truly reinforced my belief in the kindness of strangers.

The kindness of strangers is displayed in Leave No Trace, a complex drama of a father, Will, and teenage daughter, Tom, living off the grid for many years in the forests of Oregon. When they are suddenly discovered by social services, the professionals at the agency want to integrate both Will and Tom into normal society. The challenge: Will, a single father and a war veteran with PTSD, needs the tranquility of the forests to maintain his mental equilibrium. Will he adjust to a new reality living in society with other people?

Will is uncomfortable with the battery of computer-generated questions that he has to answer at the social service agency, but Tom responds positively to the social worker tasked with evaluating her. In spite of Will’s reluctance to join conventional society, social services determine that he has been and is a loving and responsible parent who has educated his daughter well while living on public wilderness land.

The kindness of the social workers is evident when they locate an empty house for Will and Tom in which to live. They also find him a job. Tom meets local teens and finds their friendship pleasant. The neighborhood kids are not exploitative or cruel to the newcomer and they invite her to participate in local agricultural competitions.

A crisis occurs when Will decides to leave the home which social services has found for him and return to the woods. On the way to obtain provisions, Will falls badly injuring himself, and he requires medical attention. Again, locals come to his rescue and nurse him back to health. Over time, it becomes clear that the demons that afflict Will do not affect Tom, who wants to remain in society, not flee from it.

There are no villains in Leave No Trace, only good people who want to help others in distress. Their kindness is manifested in their good actions and from a life philosophy that encourages helping the stranger and those less fortunate than they. Their behavior reflects an internalization of concern for the stranger, an oft-repeated theme that appears frequently, in fact, 36 times, in Scripture.

Most of the exhortations to treat the stranger kindly are coupled with a reminder that we were strangers in Egypt and we should know what it feels like to be a stranger. God commands us to be empathetic, but being empathetic also is an outgrowth of our own slavery experience in Egypt.

Leave No Trace deals with the psychological scars left on servicemen who have seen battle. Emotionally, Will cannot forget the terrible memories of his wartime experiences. They affect his present and future interactions with people, and he cannot rid himself of this memory.

The film suggests that those close to such damaged souls need to recognize the pain of their loved ones, but cannot be limited by their close relationship with them. Tom comes to this epiphany when she decides to leave her beloved father who cannot escape the haunting recollections of the past. It is the kindness of strangers that enables both he and Tom to finally separate and go their individual ways.

 

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Darkest Hour (2017), directed by Joe Wright

breakfast clubWhen I first started out in 1970 as an assistant rabbi in a large Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, I also had the title of educational director. This reflected the fact that I was in charge of the afternoon Hebrew school which catered to kids who were not enrolled in the local Jewish day school. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I would be a perfect professional and not make any mistakes. I soon realized that I was, indeed, fallible.

After disciplining a student for bad behavior, her father made an appointment with me. He told me that my educational vision was small and that I did not recognize the emotional complexity of students. His comments stung and I thought about them for some time. I went to the senior rabbi to get his take on the situation, and he smiled at me. He thought my desire for professional perfection was nice, but unrealistic.

In life, we all make mistakes, and the big question is how to respond to our failures, how do we continue to grow in spite of errors we make along the way. The key is to “fail forward” as motivational guru John Maxwell has said. Let failure be a lesson and teacher for us, not a death sentence. Darkest Hour, the inspirational story of Winston Churchill’s leadership of England during World War II, is an example of a leader who does not allow others to define either him or his cause. He is a leader who triumphs over the darkest of times.

In May 1940, German troops were at the Belgian Border intending to conquer the rest of Europe. In England, Parliament had lost faith in the current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who appeased Hitler. Britain quickly needed a replacement who could form a coalition government at this dangerous moment in history.

The only man who could do that was Winston Churchill, a very unpopular man with many members of Parliament. In his first speech to them, he tells them of his plans to aggressively fight the enemy and to win the war no matter what the cost. His address unsettles those who want to negotiate a peace and save the lives of British soldiers.

Compounding the problem for Churchill is the fact that at that very moment, 300,000 British troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, with little possibility of rescue. He weighs carefully whether to tell this bitter truth to the English people in his next radio address. Ultimately, he decides not to reveal this information, which would put more fear into the hearts of his countrymen. Instead, he sends a fleet of civilian vessels to rescue the soldiers. Amazingly, the miraculous occurs and the vast majority of them is saved.

Churchill derives his mandate to lead both from the people and from his own intuitive comprehension of the challenge facing his country. In spite of the perilous situation, the people support him. That support lifts his spirits, enabling him to effectively lead the nation even when his approach is questioned by negative opinion makers in government.

Five years later, Britain declared victory in the war, thus vindicating his leadership. A seminal Churchill quotation flashes at the end of the film: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Churchill’s political history before he became Prime Minister is one of mixed success. He failed many times before he succeeded as Prime Minister. The pattern of experiencing many failures before succeeding is often found in Jewish history. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, for example, examines the life of Moses, and a review of Moses’ successes and failures can give us insight into why Churchill was successful.

Cardozo observes that Moses had many failures before he reached the acme of his influence when he reached the age of 80. For instance, his first meeting with Pharaoh was a disaster. He asked Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart, forcing Moses’ brethren to labor even harder.

In the desert, his own people continue to complain and some even rebel against his leadership. The incident of the golden calf was the nadir of his career. After shepherding his people out of Egypt, they worship an idol and lose sight of their commitment to serve one incorporeal God. When Moses sends out spies on a reconnaissance mission to scout the Promised Land, they return with a negative report that, in effect, delays their entrance into Israel for 39 years.

Korach, his opponent, threatens to take the reigns of leadership away from Moses. Furthermore, at a critical juncture in the wilderness, Moses fails to follow God’s instructions and hits the rock instead of speaking to it to cause water to flow in the desert. Finally, he learns that he will not enter Israel, the land to which he has labored for over 40 years.

Ordinary mortals would give up under such adversity, but Moses does not. He understands that failure is part of life, and that failure can be a stepping stone to success. Until his last breath, he works towards the goal of settling his people in the Promised Land.

Rabbi Cardozo quotes a Yiddish proverb: “one that lies upon the ground cannot fall.” Cardozo explains: “Many people who are the most critical of those who failed do not realize that they themselves have never left the ground. Those who never fail, never accomplish, since defeat is the necessary step to success.” Moses comprehended that the path to success involves failure, but failure does not have to be terminal. Winston Churchill understood that same message, and was able to inspire a nation in its darkest hour.

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Seven Years in Tibet (1997), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

seven years in tibetI know people who are very busy in their professional careers, but who always find time for family, and especially their children. One rabbi friend of mine who works for a number of companies in the pension fund industry in order to make a living for his large family always finds time to study Torah with his children. It is a weekly commitment that he rarely misses, and I admire him greatly. That kind of devotion to family is absent in the life of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, a picturesque drama that chronicles his life before, during, and after World War II.

Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in British India to gain glory for his country and for himself. So driven is he to accomplish this goal that he leaves his wife, Ingrid, who is expecting their first child. Harrer is self-centered and cannot recognize the stresses under which his wife functions with a husband who is away for long stretches of time and is emotionally distant from her even when he is at home.

During their climb, World War II breaks out and Harrer and his fellow climbers are arrested and sent to a P.O.W. camp where they languish for several years, during which Harrer’s son, Rolf, is born. Harrer finally escapes and finds refuge in Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan monks. There he befriends the very young Dalai Lama, whose curiosity about the world is satiated by Harrer’s worldly knowledge.

Although young is years, the Dalai Lama is old in wisdom, and Harrer learns from him as much if not more than what he teaches him. A wise Tibetan points out to Harrer the difference between his life’s philosophy and the Tibetan way of life: “You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who abandons his ego.” Harrer’s ego is large and it takes much time for him to understand the importance of humility in shaping one’s character.

During Harrer’s long hiatus away from family, Ingrid sends him divorce papers, informing him of her desire to re-marry. The finality of the letter and his own increasing desire to see his son begin a process of repentance for Harrer. He becomes less self-centered and begins to think of how his actions are perceived by others. He is also troubled by the insensitivity he showed towards the suffering of his wife, who he essentially abandoned at a critical moment in her life.

The Tibetan experience teaches Harrer about the significance of family, which in Judaism is a primary value. Rabbi David Rosen connects the importance of family to the value of sanctity, a central theme in Judaism. Rosen writes: “It is thus not without significance that the Hebrew word for Jewish marriage (Kiddushin) means “holiness or sanctification”. Not only is the relationship of marital commitment itself seen as holy – indeed it is seen as the ideal state of adult life – but the family as the central institution and focus of Jewish life, is the key to the realization of the people’s raison d’etre, to be a holy nation.”

Rosen also notes that a hallmark of the family is the mutual dependency of husband and wife. If one partner is arrogant, that partner deludes himself into thinking he is self-sufficient, not needing anyone else. This describes the relationship between Harrer and his long-suffering wife Ingrid.

The Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah, perhaps says it best. The language of the document indicates that the husband is responsible for his wife’s happiness. The Sages of the Talmud tell us that a man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself. Moreover, the Talmud states: “there is no blessing in one’s home without the wife’s honor.”

Heinrich Harrer comes to this realization too late to salvage his own marriage, but his Tibetan experience makes him a wiser man now ready to devote time to family. His encounter with the Dalai Lama has forever changed him. He is now obsessed with being a good father and does his utmost to share his son’s journey into manhood.

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