The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015), directed by Matt Brown

man who knew infinityWhen I was in fourth grade in elementary school, I encountered long division. Until then I never had a problem with mathematics, but I had a rude awakening. I had trouble mastering it, and my inability to attain instant success in the subject forever prejudiced my attitude towards math, so much so that when I entered college I chose my major field of study based upon the major not requiring any math courses. I realized as I went through high school that I had no gift for mathematics.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who has a gift for mathematics. The year is 1910. Born in poverty in a small town in India, he works at a number of menial jobs. His boss notices that he is good at math and enlists his aid in the accounting section of his business. Soon his employer, college educated himself, discovers that Ramanujan has more than simple mathematical skills and encourages him to apply to Trinity College in Cambridge where he can receive the mentoring to further develop his mathematical abilities.

Ramanujan takes his suggestion and begins writing to university professors of mathematics. G.H. Hardy, an eminent mathematics professor, invites him to come to Cambridge.

Coming to Cambridge presents challenges to Ramanujan. He has to leave his young wife and attend a college in a country whose cultural landscape is much different from India. Moreover, he has to confront an establishment of theoretical mathematicians who are reluctant to accept Ramanujan into their elite circle of scholars. They view him as an outsider, a foreign and intuitive genius who cannot conform to the rigors of classic theoretical mathematics. While they recognize the originality of his work, they don’t see his intuitive approach to mathematics as worthy of study. It is too spontaneous for their taste.

Under G. H. Hardy’s influence and mentoring, Ramanujan eventually publishes one of his theories in a major journal. But this is only the beginning of an arduous process towards obtaining Ramanujan a fellowship at the college. It is a journey that is both tragic and inspirational.

Although my secular field of study is not mathematics but literature, I connected with the depiction of G.H. Hardy’s supportive mentoring role in Ramanujan’s academic journey. When I was a doctoral student at Georgia State University, I had a full-time job, a devoted wife, and a family of six children. Given those personal responsibilities, it was difficult for me to pass all of my doctoral examinations and the university suggested that I leave the program.

I was blessed to have a supportive mentor, Dr. William Sessions, who believed in me and encouraged me to persevere. As a result, the doctoral program that I began in 1972 finally reached a happy conclusion in 1984. The five-year program took me twelve years to complete. Mentors can truly make a difference.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, encourages us “to make for yourself a mentor.” One of the Sages points out that this means one must look for people who can guide you and give you an objective perspective on important matters of life. The person should not simply tell you what to do; rather he should encourage you to think for yourself and work through a challenging situation. Moreover, the mentor can support you and give you confidence during tough times, enabling you to persevere in the face of adversity. Having a mentor means you are not alone on the battlefield.

Ramanujan is not alone is his quest for excellence in theoretical mathematics. G. H. Hardy is by his side. Together, they make mathematical history. The Man Who Knew Infinity reminds us that mentorship can change the course of a person’s life and ultimately bring him professional success no matter what the obstacles.

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra

It's a wonderful lifeMy wife and I recently had dinner with a family that warmly welcomed us to Israel seven years ago when we moved to Beit Shemesh. My friend’s wife asked me why we joined the synagogue of which they were members. I responded: “Because your husband smiled at me.” It seemed a superficial answer, but it really was not. The answer highlighted the impact of a small gesture that made a big difference in our lives.

And that is what happens oftentimes in life. We frequently do not realize the powerful effect of a kind gesture, how it can change what happens in the future even though the act itself seems minor at the time. This is the narrative arc of It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic film that considers the good that we do which has a ripple effect unto eternity even when we are not aware of the wisdom or generosity of our actions.

The film begins with a conversation between angels about the fate of George Bailey, a man on the verge of suicide. The angels decide to send one angel, Clarence, down to earth to convince George to live again and not let difficult circumstances overwhelm him.

George’s story is told via flashback. As a boy of twelve, he rescued his younger brother Harry from drowning on an ice-covered pond. We also see him save a pharmacist from making a major mistake by giving a customer poison instead of the proper medicine.

We later see George articulating his dreams. As a young man, he had thoughts of leaving his small hometown of Bedford Falls and becoming a builder in a large metropolitan area. But life is put on hold when George’s father suddenly dies and George is asked to manage his father’s savings and loan association. Instead of George going to college, his younger brother Harry goes and returns a married man with a job given to him by his father-in-law in another city. Later when World War II breaks out, Harry fights as a pilot and saves a transport ship carrying a boatload of soldiers. The rescue earns Harry the Congressional Medal of Honor.

George’s main business adversary in Bedford Falls is the greed-driven Henry Potter, who charges people exorbitant rents for his apartments and owns much of Bedford Falls. When the Great Depression arrives, George, now happily married to Mary Hatch, is hard pressed to loan his customers money to sustain them through the crisis. Potter, sensing George’s desperate plight, offers to buy George’s savings and loan. Miraculously, George weathers the financial storm and his business continues to grow and provide affordable housing for his community.

All is good until the day before Christmas when a bank auditor arrives to examine the bank’s finances. Unfortunately, he discovers a loss of $8000, and George is threatened with bankruptcy and possible prison time. After leading a life filled with good deeds, George is depressed and lashes out at those he loves. In the midst of this crisis, Potter again offers to buy out George and declares to George: ‘You’re worth more dead than alive.” This is the catalyst for George to contemplate suicide so that his heirs can inherit the life insurance money.

In the midst of his mental turmoil, Clarence, George’s guardian angel arrives and gives George an opportunity to reevaluate his life and reconsider his plan to kill himself. Clarence takes George on an imaginary journey looking at life in Bedford Falls as if George never existed, and subsequently viewing life as it actually happened. In that way, George understands that his life has been filled with good deeds and with blessings for himself, his family, and his friends. Clarence reminds him: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

The Talmud tells us that it is important to greet everyone with a smile. It seems simple, but the Sages are telling us a profound lesson. When we smile at others, they smile back at us, and so a community of friends is formed. The small kindnesses that we do today, whether we recall them or not, implicate many tomorrows. It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us to appreciate the blessings of everyday, to value our friendships, to be kind, and to know that good deeds have a ripple effect into the future.

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Resurrecting the Champ (2007), directed by Rod Lurie

resurrecting the champBeing a parent is challenging, but it often brings out one’s best self. Let me explain. One of my children once asked me a question of Jewish law. I felt it was a simple question and I responded quickly with an answer. Months later, I realized the answer I gave him was wrong. I apologized to my son and then I told him the correct answer.

The relationship with my son was strong and life moved on, but I was deeply troubled by the fact that I had given him an answer that was not accurate. The incident still haunts me thirty years later. I had wanted my son to feel he could always rely on me to give him the best advice, the most accurate information; and in my own mind, I had let him down. From then on, I resolved never to be quick when a question is posed to me. Lesson learned: Allow some time to think things through carefully.

I realized then and I realize now that we are always role models for our children, and we have to make good decisions not only for ourselves, but good decisions that will stand the test of scrutiny by our children. Such is one dilemma in Resurrecting the Champ, a story about a successful prizefighter who, in the twilight of his life, becomes a homeless person, living on the streets.

Erik Kernan Jr., a sports reporter for a major newspaper, is upset that his editor, Ralph Metz, buries his stories in the last pages of the paper. Metz tells Erik that his articles are boring and lack interest, and Erik begins to think of doing regular reporting rather than sports.

On one fateful night, Erik serendipitously encounters a homeless man who calls himself “Champ,” and discovers that he once was a professional boxer named Bob Satterfield, who had been in the ring with such boxing luminaries as Ezzard Charles and Jake LaMotta. In truth, Satterfield is a forgotten man and most boxing aficionados thought him dead. Erik sees Satterfield’s story as a ticket out of his current job and as a way to become a feature writer at a weekly sports magazine. He pitches the idea to the magazine editor, who is intrigued with what might be a major article about the rise and fall of a contender for boxing royalty.

In his quest for success as a writer, Erik becomes careless in fact-checking Satterfield’s story, and thereby hangs the moral crux of the narrative. Erik’s moral dilemma is highlighted in his relationship with his son, Teddy. Erik is separated from his wife, Joyce, and only sees Teddy periodically. To maintain his iconic status in his son’s eyes, he often tells him of his friendship with sports celebrities, but Erik does not really know them. He only covers their athletic events, and his relationships with them are superficial. Nonetheless, Teddy believes his father.

This belief is tested when his father is openly accused of lying to promote his professional career as a writer. How the Satterfield story is ultimately regarded and how Erik’s relationship with his son is resolved is the stuff of real life compromise. The resolution may not be neat, but it is emotionally satisfying.

Jewish tradition has much to say about how parents should serve as role models. The patriarchs of the Jewish people were mindful that they were role models for an entire people, not just their own families. The Bible states regarding Abraham: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him (Gen. 18: 19).”

A key aspect of the parental relationship is honesty. In depicting the relationship between fathers and sons, honesty emerges as a critical bond that unites the generations, a connection that is sacred between parent and child.

In truth, no one is perfect. All parents possess flaws, but Resurrecting The Champ suggests that we can still love and respect our parents in spite of any flaw. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks poetically describes the function of parents as role models: “Judaism, more than any other faith, sees parenthood as the highest challenge of all. Judaism takes what is natural and sanctifies it. What Darwin saw as the urge to reproduce, what Richard Dawkins calls ‘the selfish gene,’ is for Judaism high religious art, full of drama and beauty. Abraham the father, and Sarah the mother, are our enduring role models of parenthood as G-d’s gift and our highest vocation.”

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), directed by Steven Spielberg

close encounters of the third kindAt the Sabbath table here in Israel, we often invite guests, some of whom do not speak English. When we run out of words, I find that music, Sabbath melodies even without words, can sustain the conversation. We do not have to understand one another in a conventional sense. The music and its harmonies bring us together and we are communicating on another level. Music becomes the universal language. Close Encounters o the Third Kind deals with a visit of aliens from another planet. Although they share no common language with earthlings, they are able to communicate with harmonic tones. Music brings them together.

The story begins as a cohort of government representatives from the military and the space program discover a group of airplanes in the middle of the desert. The planes were reported missing in the 1940s, and now they miraculously are found. At the same time, air traffic controllers in the United States receive reports of unidentified flying objects coming perilously close to planes in the air. Surprisingly, none of the controllers wants to report that they have a seen a UFO, an unidentified flying object.

In Muncie, Indiana, there are major power outages, and two specific families experience unsettling events. Jillian Guiler wakes up in the middle of the night to find her son missing. Roy Neary sees a bizarre aircraft overhead, gets sunburned on half of his face, and begins to have visions of a mountaintop, to which he feels compelled to go.

Simultaneously, other uncommon events occur. In India, a group of people begins chanting an unusual 5-note octave that they claim came from the sky. The US military and NASA receive a message that extraterrestrial life plans to visit earth at Devil’s Tower, a small mountain in Wyoming. To protect the encounter from being disrupted, officials create a false health scare at the site of the impending touchdown. This will enable the military and NASA to rendezvous with the aliens without average people interfering with the planned meeting.

The rendezvous is accompanied by a light and sound show featuring a 5-note octave, which has already been heard by many of the principals involved in the meeting between the aliens and humans. Music, primitive as it is, becomes the vehicle that brings strangers together. The threat of an alien invasion dissipates in the face of expressions of love and connection from the strangers who want to understand the life of humans on earth and carry back that information to their own planet.

Judaism places a great importance on the power of song to unify disparate elements. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent, and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Tolstoy called it ‘the shorthand of emotion.’ Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”

When words cannot convey the desire to communicate, music arises to bring two worlds together in harmony. Close Encounters of the Third Kind suggests that the creature from outer space is not here to destroy the human race, but rather to build bridges of trust and friendship between two planets. Fortunately, cool heads prevail and the encounter between the aliens and earthlings is filled with beauty, love, awe, and trembling. Each group sees the opportunity to expand one’s knowledge of the self and knowledge of the universe. Egos become secondary to the desire of everyone to explore the unknown and learn from the other’s experience. Close Encounters of the Third Kind reminds us that strangers can find ways to be friends.

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Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan

dunkirkOne of the many things I enjoyed during my years of serving as principal of a high school was working with a top notch staff, a group of teachers who were mission-driven, focused on doing the best for their students. They were not limited by their job descriptions. I recall that, on several occasions, we needed someone to drive a van to pick up kids to come to school for several weeks. Teachers eagerly volunteered. They understood my dilemma and just did what was needed to get the task done. They did not simply stand on the side, waiting for someone else to do the job.

This readiness to get the job done in spite of obstacles is what drives the action in Dunkirk, a tense and engaging war thriller, describing the rescue of over 400,000 soldiers who were under German fire on the beaches of Dunkirk. The success of the rescue mission depends on the work of three different groups of men, all of whom contribute to the rescue but in different ways. They include British officers and soldiers, British airmen, and local villagers with small vessels who attempt to ferry soldiers off the beach and back to England, away from enemy fire. Although the solders and the pilots have a military mission, the locals who have small boats do not. What motivates them is simply the desire to aid those in danger.

It is the officers who come up with a plan to evacuate the soldiers using civilian boats since there is no large ship to transport them. It is not a simple task, but they enlist the aid of locals to give the soldiers a chance to survive. The solders themselves attempt to shoot down attacking German planes with conventional weapons, but they are severely tested when German fighter planes zoom overhead.

It is the British airmen who provide support for the troops on the ground, but they too are severely outnumbered. In spite of this, they are able to shoot down some enemy planes and provide an opportunity for the soldiers to board the rescue vessels.

But it is the local bystanders, not compelled by law but motivated by altruism and focused on the mission, who save the day. One of the civilian vessels is commandeered by Mr. Dawson. On the way to Dunkirk, his crew, consisting of his son and a family friend, rescue a shell-shocked soldier on an abandoned ship. The soldier wants no more of war and tries to discourage Dawson from continuing on to Dunkirk. Dawson resists the pressure and sails forward, committed to the rescue of the soldiers.

Judaism has much to say about the role of the bystander who witnesses a person in danger and does not help. Aaron Kirschenbaum, Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University, writes: “In Judaism, the bystander’s duty to come to the rescue of his fellow man who is in peril is religious, ethical and legal. A citizen is expected to engage in the act of rescue both personally and with his financial resource.”

Moreover, Maimonides observes: “If one person is able to save another and does not save him, he transgresses the commandment neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Similarly, if one person sees another drowning in the sea, or being attacked by bandits, or being attacked by wild animals, and does not rescue him, he transgresses in each case the injunction, neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.

The Sages tell us that when we save the life of one person, we are in effect saving an entire world. The inspiring story of the Dunkirk rescue reminds us of our obligation to help others at a time of crisis. In this way, we bring about the spiritual salvation of ourselves and the physical salvation of others.

Rocky (1976), directed by John G. Avildsen

rockyI have a friend who never fails to miss an opportunity. Although talented and possessing charisma, at age 45 he is still single and without a steady job. Occasionally, he asks me for a loan and I give him small pocket change; but his life, on the whole, is a mess.

At age 42, he decided to leave his regular job and explore becoming a real estate agent in Chicago where he was born and raised, but now he has neither job nor steady income. Instead, he has lots of stress and an unpredictable paycheck.

A year ago, he had a chance to take a high-paying job in the hotel industry where his superior people skills would in all likelihood make him successful, but he hesitated. In the interim, the job was offered to someone else and his job prospects turned increasingly bleak. I thought about him as I watched Rocky, a film about a loser who has the good sense not to let a one-time opportunity pass.

Rocky is an iconic story because it touches on the insecurities of every man who is mired in a mediocre reality, but who wants more out of life. Rocky serendipitously is given a moment when he can change his life for the better and he takes advantage of it, and that decision makes him an inspiration for many.

We first meet Rocky in November of 1975 as a small time fighter and collector for a local loan shark in a seedy neighborhood in Philadelphia. He is a man with no prospects. But fortune shines on him when the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, needs a replacement for the boxer who has dropped out of a glamorous New Year’s title defense because of a hand injury. Apollo turns to a local underdog with the flashy pseudonym of “the Italian Stallion,” to generate interest in the fight, and so Rocky Balboa has his chance of a lifetime to come out of obscurity and into the limelight.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, reminds us that a person should never disparage another man, for every man has his hour. Although Rocky is at first dismissed by many who see him as a failure in life, who never capitalized on his talents, they reassess him when he reinvents himself as a serious contender for the title.

No longer casual about his training, he realizes what is at stake and resolves to go the distance with Apollo. All this happens because Rocky is blessed with a mentor, Mickey Goldmill, who initially calls Rocky a bum but then has a change of heart and mind, visioning Rocky as a potential champ who simply needs to get rid his old habits and rededicate himself to the sport of boxing. It is this mentoring that makes all the difference. Rocky understands that he does not know everything and that he needs guidance, which is the first step to self-knowledge. Under Mickey’s guidance, Rocky emerges as a real threat to Apollo, and what subsequently happens is the stuff of boxing legend.

Rocky has lots to recommend it. It reminds us to appreciate the talents that God has given us and to use them to become the best that we can be in spite of setbacks and limitations. Furthermore, it encourages us to find a mentor, who will give us the wisdom to make good life decisions. It is noteworthy that Ethics of the Fathers specifically recommends that we acquire a teacher. This is a priority in a world that can be confusing and damaging to us if we insist on going it alone.

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Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve

arrivalAs I get older, I reflect upon the life I have led. Although I cannot change the past, I sometimes feel that I could have made different decisions that might have led to different outcomes. For example, if I had decided to become the chief rabbi of a small synagogue instead of an assistant rabbi at a large synagogue, my career path might have been different. In Atlanta, circumstances allowed me to switch my professional direction, and I became a high school principal instead of a pulpit rabbi. The opportunity would probably never have come to me if I began my rabbinic career as the chief rabbi in a small town.

The reality is that time is linear, and we can only respond to life as it unfolds in front of us. This assumption is belied in the intriguing science-fiction movie Arrival, the premise of which is that time is not linear and we can experience life in a non-sequential order.

There is another complicating factor as well in Arrival, an intellectually compelling story of aliens mysteriously landing on earth: how we view language and how the aliens view language. In order to avoid conflict between earthlings and aliens, there must be communication. If we want to avoid conflict, we have to understand the other’s language and motives, and that is not quickly accomplished. The key player in this cosmic drama is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist and language professor, who is recruited by the government to discover a way to talk to the aliens.

We are introduced to her through a series of scenes in which she is speaking to her daughter at different stages in her daughter’s life, from birth until her daughter dies from a fatal disease. This narrative thread is abruptly dropped and the scene shifts to the present when Louise is asked to travel to Montana where one of twelve spaceships has landed. There she tries to initiate dialogue with the aliens, large creatures with tentacles.

Louise tries her best to communicate with the aliens, but the conversation is ambiguous. For example, the aliens use the word weapon, but Louise feels the word does not refer to the word’s conventional meaning, but rather to a tool. In other words, the weapon is language, and it is not sinister. Ian Donnelly, a physicist who is a member of Louise’s team, articulates this as he reads from a book that Louise wrote: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

With tension and uncertainty mounting around the world, some governments are very nervous. China delivers an ultimatum to the aliens: either leave or you will be attacked. Louise and Ian want to understand the mission of the aliens before confronting them with a military response. They labor heroically to prevent a precipitous decision that will bring the world to catastrophe.

Ultimately, the two plots converge: (1) Louise’s personal history with the birth and death of her daughter, and (2) the aliens’ arrival on earth. The denouement of both narrative strands is both surprising and satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels.

A seminal issue in Arrival is the ability of one species to speak to another. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. The outcome depends on what we say and how it is interpreted.

Judaism has much to say about the influence of speech in everyday life, and there are ramifications for speech in circles of power as well. What we say and how we say it can change a relationship between two people or two nations. It can cause pain or it can bring about friendship and good will.

Indeed, the Talmud tells us that oppressing someone with words is worse than oppressing someone financially because money can be returned but words cannot be retrieved, once uttered.

Arrival considers the power of words in human discourse. The film reminds us that the wise use of language can help us avoid conflict and can serve as a fortifying bond between nations and between people.

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