The Sixth Sense (1999), directed by M. Night Shyamalan

sixth senseI read chapters from Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, every day. So many of its messages resonate that no matter how many times I study it, I always find something new in it. For example, when I first read the maxim “if not now, then when,” I was a young man and the phrase encouraged me not to procrastinate when it comes to doing good deeds. When I read the same maxim as a senior citizen, the subtext of the line is mortality. The maxim reminds me that every day could be my last, so I should use every minute of life wisely preparing myself for an audience with the Divine. At the end of my life, I will have to give an accounting of my life to the Holy One, blessed be He.

The Sixth Sense is a mystery, but also a meditation on how we prepare ourselves in this world for eternal life in the next. It is a complex film that deals with death and ultimate questions such as how we should conduct ourselves in this transitory world. How do we spend our time? With whom do we spend our time? With family? With friends? With work? To what extent do we prioritize our time with family? Sometimes we are so busy doing good things that we forget to spend time with those whom we love and who want and need our attention.

Malcom Crowe, a child psychologist, is deeply concerned about his patients. Regrettably, he cannot solve everyone’s problems. One evening, an ex-patient invades his home and shoots Malcolm in front of his loving wife, Anna, and then kills himself. The film continues a year later with Malcolm in recovery mode trying to help a nine-year old boy, Cole Sear, who seems to have the same delusions as the patient who entered his home a year before.

This time Malcolm does not want to fail his patient, so he devotes all his time to trying to understand his psychosis. Why does Cole see dead people? How does he communicate with them? The more time he spends with Cole, preoccupied with the boy’s problems, the less time he spends with his wife, and their relationship suffers.

After many therapy sessions, Malcom begins to believe Cole when he tells him that he sees people who do not realize they are dead. Malcolm suggests that Cole’s ability to see ghosts may have a purpose: Cole perhaps has a mission to help the dead finish their mission on earth. This insight becomes the catalyst for Malcolm’s completing his own life’s mission.

The Sixth Sense suggests that there is a middle ground between life and death where we can still do things that affect our status in the next world. Judaism does not believe in such a middle ground. Rather, Jews are encouraged to maximize the moments in this world so that our existence in the next world is one of supreme spiritual pleasure.

The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, maintain that one hour in the world of the living is more precious than all of life in the world to come. This world is the world in which we live and toil, and it is a world where we can do good actions. Once we leave this world, we can no longer perform good deeds.

Judaism believes that there is life after death. Our physical bodies may deteriorate over time, but our spiritual essence, our souls, which come from God, transcend the body. The fact that physical life has an end gives meaning to what we do on earth. Indeed, our spiritual existence after we die depends on the kind of life we led when we were alive.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, referring to a source in Kabbalah, writes: “As we bid farewell to the world, we are shown a film that contains scenes of our entire lives. We are witnesses to every moment of our days on Earth as they pass before us with incredible rapidity. And as we watch our own story unfold, there are times when we cringe with embarrassment; others when we smile with glee. What happens after death is that we gain the wisdom to evaluate our own life by the standards of Heaven – because we have finally glimpsed an eternal perspective.”

Moreover, he insightfully comments: “Death isn’t a destroyer; it’s a transition. As the chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk put it, death is just a matter of going from one room to another. And if we live our lives in accord with the will of God, we are certain that the place we are going to is ultimately the more beautiful area.”

The Sixth Sense deals with the transition from life to death and raises questions about how we lead our earthy lives and prepare for our spiritual lives after death. The film encourages us to leave a legacy of good deeds before we enter our eternal abode.

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Notes on Blindness (2016), directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

notes on blindnessA couple of years ago, I visited the Museum of the Blind in Holon, Israel. It was an immersive visit in a totally dark environment led by a blind guide who wants to give visitors a sense of what it is to be blind and what accommodations a blind person has to make to lead a relatively normal life. I left the museum extremely grateful for the gift of sight.

Notes on Blindness took that grateful feeling and made it deeper. The film is a true record of what happened to John Hull (1935-2015), a writer, theologian, and university professor in England, who totally lost his sight in 1983 after a number of operations on his failing eyes. The script of the film contains the exact words of his audio diary, which he kept to document his coming to terms with his blindness. They eventually became the basis for Hull’s book, Touching the Rock, and later the movie, Notes on Blindness.

Notes on Blindness is a film in a category of its own. Between segments of the film, the screen goes totally black for several seconds. Even as the story is told, much of it appears in dim lighting. Furthermore, the images are often out of focus, making it challenging for the viewer. Moreover, many of the scenes are shot with only parts of a person in focus. There are images of parts of faces, feet walking, and hands moving, as if to suggest impaired vision. As Hull narrates, we are given entrance to his dreams, his memory, and his imagination; and it is a fascinating journey.

As he comes to accept his blindness, he goes through various psychological stages. A particularly difficult time occurs when he returns to his native Australia to visit his aging parents. He remembers little of his visual life there and returns to England depressed.

It is at his home in England that his spirits are lifted. He emerges from “the shadowland of passivity” to a world with which he is familiar. He caresses his old furniture. He is pleased to find his desk and chair in their proper places, and he is happy to find his tape recorder in working condition.

What is amazing is the devotion of his wife who is by his side through all his adversity. We learn later that Hull and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, a profound testimony to their love and devotion to one another. Hull writes about her: “What I remember about you most vividly in those years was your amazing practicality. You never expressed regrets. You just got on with the next thing, step by step. The way you did that, I always thought was incredible.”

Hull does arrive at some kind of epiphany. He ultimately sees his blindness as a gift from God. It is not a gift he wants either for himself or his children; but now that he acknowledges this divine gift, he realizes that to complain about it is fruitless. What he must do is to decide how he will use this gift in a creative way for the rest of his days.

This perspective on life echoes the sentiment expressed in Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem in its entirety:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton, one of the great English poets, wrote this masterpiece when he was blind and coming to terms with his own personal affliction. One of my Torah teachers, in fact, said that this passage was a comfort to him when his father lost his sight. The essential message: we cannot know why God does what he does, but we can decide how we respond to adversity. That is the key to living a meaningful life.

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The Greatest Showman (2017), directed by Michael Gracey

greatest showmanIn the news recently was a story about a politician who announced that he was not going to seek re-election. He was successful in his career and made lots of money giving speeches across the country. Why was he retiring? He said it was because he did not want to be a “weekend dad” to his teenage children. He understood that his kids needed more face time with him, and he did not want to look back at his life and regret not spending more time with his children. Family was more important to him than fame or wealth. This dilemma in broad outline is at the heart of The Greatest Showman, the story of the rise of P.T. Barnum who makes choices between family and the pursuit of personal goals.

Phineas Taylor Barnum wants to make lots of money and be a celebrity. His wife is a polar opposite. She is content with little. For her, family is more important than fame or money. Phineas’ origins explain his perspective on life. Orphaned and poor, he is driven by his desire to succeed financially. Moreover, he possesses a creative and optimistic mind, ready to take on all kinds of challenges.

After losing his regular job in a trading company that goes bankrupt, he decides to open up a wax museum to support his family, a wife and two daughters, thinking that people will want to come to see his wax creations of famous people. It is a resounding failure.

He then launches a show introducing people who look weird, such as a woman who has grown a man’s beard and a midget. Others see his collection of oddities as a freak show, but he sees himself as giving these strange looking people a chance to celebrate their uniqueness. His motives, in truth, are a mixture of the altruistic and the pecuniary, and he is successful. His success enables him to tour all over the world, including America, and his family is left behind. Absence in this situation does not make the heart grow fonder. An emotional and psychological rift grows between husband and wife and it is only when tragedy strikes that Phineas rethinks his flamboyant lifestyle.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, a veteran Jewish educator, writes regularly on sayings from the Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. On the passage “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot,” he comments: “Wealth does not ensure happiness. It is an important means towards many other things — comfort, self-sufficiency, tranquility, peace of mind. But if we make it an end — if its pursuit consumes us and occupies all our waking hours — we will find nothing but stress and anxiety.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld quotes his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, who also shares his perspective on the acquisition of wealth: “People who claim they are pursuing their careers so doggedly in order to provide comfortably for their families are generally deluding themselves. It is simply not true. They do it for themselves — for their own fulfillment. The pursuit of wealth and career assumes a life of its own. Such people become consumed with a drive for prestige, achievement, fulfillment, or they don’t even really know what. But career becomes their life goal in and of itself.”

The Greatest Showman on one level is an entertaining musical with songs and dances that engage your mind and heart. More important, it alerts us to the negative effects of possessing too much wealth and focusing on career more than family. In the end, it is family that endures, not money.

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For the Love of Spock (2016), directed by Adam Nimoy

for the love of spockIn the late fifties and sixties, I was a rock and roll aficionado and some of my favorite songs were what became known as “one-hit wonders.” They were great songs done by artists who basically produced only one hit song. Some examples: “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford, and “The Book of Love” by the Monotones. They were classics, but the vocalists had a short shelf life.

Reflecting about their careers reminded me of a line uttered by Leonard Nimoy in For the Love of Spock, a loving biography of the actor directed by his son Adam. Nimoy says that before Star Trek, the longest acting experience he had lasted only two weeks. He was a “two-week wonder,” and this created a financial uncertainty that influenced his career decisions throughout much of his life.

As a young man, he became enamored of the theatre and, against the wishes of his parents, journeyed to California to further his career goal of becoming an actor. He got parts in films, did live theatre, and, serendipitously, landed the role of Spock, the Vulcan alien who became a fixture of the celebrated Star Trek series. Although the show only lasted three seasons, it turned into a cultural phenomenon through many years of syndication, and gave Nimoy the kind of job stability that he yearned for since his early acting years.

The only downside to Nimoy’s luminous career was his performance at home as a husband and father. So immersed was he in his own career that he was scarcely available to his children. A chasm developed with his son Adam, in particular, who was going through his own adolescent crisis. For many years the two did not speak to one another. Happily, before Nimoy died, his son reconciled with him so that Nimoy’s final years were emotionally rich and rewarding. What is especially touching is hearing a letter that Leonard Nimoy wrote to his adult son in which he apologizes for not being there for him at challenging moments of Adam’s life, when he truly needed his dad to support him through addiction problems and divorce.

Dr. Miriam Adahan, a psychotherapist living in Jerusalem, encourages parents to be present in their children’s lives to help them develop ego-strengths during their formative years. How do we do this? Give children a smile, or word of praise, or express gratitude for the good things they do. Value the smallest acts of self-discipline that a child shows. Remind them of the wisdom of King Solomon who said, “No one gets even half their heart’s desires fulfilled (Ecclesiastes 1:13).” The assumption is that God gives you everything you need. It may not be all that you want, but it is all you need to grow and prosper.

The portrait of Leonard Nimoy that we see in For the Love of Spock is complex. The film is not hagiography; rather it gives us a window into the life of an artist who was multi-talented and craved success. But there was a price he paid in terms of family connections.

In truth, Nimoy did not have a close relationship with his own father, and that lack of a role model influenced his own lackadaisical attitude towards parenting. Interestingly, in spite of having little meaningful interaction with his own father, Leonard Nimoy still remembered his childhood fondly.

One memory, in particular, stands out and was the basis of one aspect of Spock’s character, Nimoy’s fictional persona; namely, the Vulcan greeting. Nimoy recalls going to the synagogue as a child and watching the descendants of priests utter their holiday blessing to the congregants while forming a “V” with the fingers of their hands. This became the Vulcan greeting that accompanied the phrase ”live long and prosper.” This phrase expresses Nimoy’s personal mantra and his life. Indeed, Leonard Nimoy lived long and did prosper.

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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.

Stronger (2017), directed by David Gordon Green

strongerA few weeks ago, I had hip replacement surgery. Over the past several years, my hip has degenerated. I have moved from becoming an avid runner to an avid walker, to a part time cyclist and swimmer, to a struggling walker who walks at an extremely slow pace. When friends told me about the benefits of hip replacement surgery, at first I was reluctant; but as my hip continued to get worse, I felt I had little choice if I wanted to improve the quality of my life. And so I had the surgery. But there was one problem: I did not fully grasp the complicated and arduous road to rehabilitation, which would take 4 to 6 weeks.

The complicated rehabilitation road is a central theme in Stronger, the profanity-laden true story of Jeff Bauman, a working-class Bostonian who tragically lost both of his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Jeff is not running in the race. He is there at the finish line to welcome his girlfriend Erin who is running to raise money for the hospital at which she works. In the days after the blast, he is hailed as a hero when he identifies Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the bombers. In truth, Jeff is uncomfortable with the mantle of hero and his mental state is fragile. The realization that his life is forever changed and physically compromised is a haunting and painful reality that is not easy for him to accept.

Patty, Jeff’s alcoholic mother, pushes Jeff to do interviews and basks in the refracted glory of her son’s celebrity. But she is weak emotionally and begins to become an enabler of Jeff’s drinking and lackadaisical approach to his rehabilitation. This leads to confrontations between Patty and Erin, each of whom has a different take on what is best for Jeff.

Things change when Jeff meets Carlos, the man who pulled him out of the carnage and saved his life. Carlos relates a sad story in which two of his sons died. One is a Marine who lost his life in Iraq; the other committed suicide. Carlos, a man with overwhelming guilt, confides to Jeff that rescuing him enabled him to find a measure of peace after his personal tragedies. Hearing Carlos’ narrative gives Jeff a sense of what his mission in life should be. He realizes that his desire to live in spite of personal tragedy gives people hope and inspiration, and he gracefully listens to many people who share stories of how they have been positively influenced by him.

Rehabilitation is slow, whether physical or spiritual. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a Torah scholar and physician specializing in addiction, uses the model of the 12-step program for alcohol addiction to apply to the general process of changing negative behaviors. Several of the twelve steps, in particular, occur in the rehabilitation of Jeff Bauman. (1) He recognizes that his life has become unmanageable. (2) He makes a fearless, honest moral inventory of himself. (3) He admits his mistakes. (4) He is willing to make amends to anyone he has harmed.

Once Jeff recognizes that his life is out of control, he begins to put it back together. When he realizes that Erin loves him in spite of his physical disability, he understands that he has not treated her with respect and kindness. When he finally apologizes to her for his insensitive behavior, they can start their relationship anew.

Things do not change overnight for Jeff. Changing his behavior will take years just as his physical therapy will take much time and concerted effort. Stronger reminds us that only through hard work over an extended period of time can we indeed make ourselves into better men.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean

lawrence of arabiaI first saw Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. It was a cinematic event, panoramic in scope and intellectually engaging. The central character, T. E. Lawrence, a brave and psychologically complex British lieutenant, was not a conventional movie hero and the story was complicated. I remember being impressed by the dramatic visuals, but I was not touched emotionally by the narrative.

The film begins with Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935. At his funeral, mourners debate his greatness, and the viewer is taken back to his early years as an intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916 to observe the arc of his military career.

Because of his knowledge of Arab ways, he is sent to assess the efficacy of the Arab revolt against the Turks, who are allied with the Germans in World War I. Once in the desert, he does not follow his orders to simply obtain information. Instead, he decides to organize an army among the many disparate Arab tribes that will harass the Turks with raids, train explosions, and camel attacks. Indeed, Lawrence and his cohorts have military success and help the British destroy the Ottoman Empire.

Throughout his exploits, Lawrence is a conflicted man. At times he sees himself as a demi-god, at other times a mere mortal at the whim of fate. His sense of personal destiny enables him to accomplish the near impossible. It is his goal to give the Arabs freedom from the Turks and an opportunity to determine their own destiny.

Regrettably, the Arabs have no experience with setting up the rudiments of a conventional government. They cannot unify their often adversarial points of view; and, in the end, the Arabs surrender the cities they have conquered to the British. In spite of Lawrence’s military success, his dream of Arab unity is never realized.

Jewish tradition stresses the importance of unity whenever there is an important mission to be achieved. At the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Jews were of one heart and mind. Their unity is based on the notion that people should genuinely love one another and care for each other. The implication of that unity is that any action by one Jew affects another Jew. When one Jew does something good, it benefits the entire people; when a Jew does something bad, he hurts the body politic of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg provides an unusual description of unity from the biological realm, but which has implications for relationships between humans as well: “If you are slicing a carrot and accidentally cut your finger, do you respond by taking the knife and deliberately slicing into your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Because your other hand is a part of you, too. Humanity is one unit. If we’re united, the Almighty’s with us. If we’re divided, we’re on our own.”

As I watched this cinema classic from the 1960s, before the Six Day War, I began to think about why the Arab population of the Middle East has not been able to move forward to establish a state. They are still functioning as tribal communities, unable to see beyond the present and unable to develop a cohesive world view that triumphs over sectarian interests.

Lawrence of Arabia may deal with a specific incident of the past, but it demonstrates the disastrous consequences of being unable to unify peoples who still hold tribal loyalties as more important than national goals. When people are enmeshed in their own personal worlds, they do not consider the negative results that mitigate against the greater good.

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