Category Archives: war

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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

War Machine (2017), directed by David Michod

war machineAfter serving in Jewish education for many years in America and teaching in two schools in Israel, I am no longer active in the field of education. However, I continue to read articles about the latest trends in Jewish education, particularly at the high school level where I spent most of my career.

What I find interesting is that while outwardly things change, especially due to technology, many things still remain the same. One example: Year in and year out, the subject of how to make prayer meaningful is discussed in Jewish schools.

Dr. Beth Hait, former assistant dean of students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, in 2016 discusses three issues pertaining to prayer in Jewish day schools: attendance, decorum, and participation. These issues are the same ones I dealt with in the 1970s when I began my tenure as a high school principal. Hait insightfully writes: “If part of the goal of Jewish education is not only to impart knowledge but to build the foundation for a lifelong relationship with God, then understanding prayer should be a priority, and God should be an integral part of classroom conversation.”

Indeed, there are no easy answers to perennial questions. Nonetheless, we try our best to solve the problem. This essentially is what four-star General Glen McMahon does when he is called in 2009 to deal with the war in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on for many years without a successful resolution. No previous general has been able to deal effectively with the diplomatic quagmire in Afghanistan, and so McMahan is brought in; but the same problems that plagued his predecessor plague him. The realities on the ground have not changed.

McMahan wants President Obama to authorize a troop surge of 40,000 soldiers to end the war, but he runs into political opposition. Things get worse when Sean Cullen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, pens an article critical of the general and his staff.

Cullen provides the voiceover narration for the film. He views McMahan with skeptical eyes, appreciating his energy and patriotism but questioning his judgment in matters where the general’s ego is involved. Cullen observes: “You could argue that the main reason certain generals like war so much is because only in war do they feel truly relevant. It’s only in war that they feel close to the center of power. Only in war do they feel the warm glow of other people’s attention.”

The problem depicted in War Machine is that America is involved in a war it cannot win. The locals don’t trust the Americans who may not be there to help them in the long run. At a press conference with McMahan, a German politician articulates the dilemma: “Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me that there is no monolithic Taliban. You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village, and that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.”

Jewish law considers the reasons why a nation has to go to war. Obviously, it can go to war to defend itself. Beyond that, things get complicated. Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University, in an article on warfare and its restrictions in Judaism, tells us that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court in ancient times, is the body that can authorize a discretionary war. Kimelman quotes Rabbi David Bleich: “Before granting authorization to wage war, the Sanhedrin must weigh the probable losses, consider the chances of success, and assess the will of the people. The Sanhedrin is charged with assessing the military, political and economic reality and determining whether a proposed war is indeed necessary and whether it will be successful in achieving its objectives.”

The Sanhedrin was composed of wise men, not politically motivated but concerned about the long term wellbeing of the people. The egos of generals were not part of their consideration. War Machine reminds us of the complexity of military decisions that affect not only soldiers, but also the locals who are affected by what nations do on the battlefield.

%d bloggers like this: