Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Vaera

The unusual number of “have-to-see” movies that have come out recently has made my life very difficult. It seems to me that this year, there have been just SO many films that everyone is seeing and talking about. That’s why when I finally got around to seeing “Brokeback Mountain” I felt for a moment like I had finally rejoined the 21st century, at least pop culture-wise. If there actually remains anyone else who hasn’t yet sent the movie, I’m going to let you know ahead of time, that it doesn’t matter that I’m going to be mentioning the film today – this isn’t the kind of movie that you can spoil by talking about it.
Although Brokeback Mountain has been discussed endlessly as a breakthrough romance of gay characters, really it’s a very classical tragedy in which the flaws of one or more of the characters cause them to take a path which leads to sorrow, and ends in death. In this, the character of Ennis, bears not one, but two, of these flaws. And both of these flaws make an appearance in our torah portion this week, with different outcomes.
Ennis Del Mar is nicely described by the Nation’s Stuart Klawans as “light-haired, square-faced, mush-mouthed, stolid.” But that hardly begins to describe the inability to speak suffered by Ennis. He is the absolute paradigm of the strong but silent type. Only with Jack is he able to occasionally open up and speak a few sentences about himself. With no one else in the film is he ever able to articulate anything that is going on inside himself.
How much does this make him like our teacher, Moshe? Shemot 6:12, “
And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips

Ennis: If you can’t fix it, you just have to bear it.

Both of these men suffer a deep lack of faith in their ability to effect any kind of change. The word Orlah (foreskin) means a covering. The word orlah appears in several different incarnations in the Torah: "Orlat HaLev" (uncircumcised heart), "Orel Sfataim" (uncircumcised lips) as we have here, or "Orlah" from a tree (fruits of the third year). It implies a spiritual "barrier" between which has to be removed. Is Ennis’s problem a spiritual one? Not entirely,- he does in deed live in a world dangerous for men like him. Jack can dream about moving in together and running a ranch, but Ennis’ father made sure that his sons knew what happened to gay men, and indeed, toward the end of the film, we do see that Ennis’ fears about how the world treats people like them were justified. Or were they?

Deep down, What is the cause of Ennis’ inability to speak? The orlah of Ennis Del Mar, is an orlah of fear. It isn’t enough to say that Ennis is wisely avoiding the outcome that eventually falls upon Jack by keeping his inclinations secret. In fact, he completely fails at that. Rather, Ennis is sealed into himself in all things. He is never able to open himself up to others fully – even to Jack, whom he loves, he can only commit himself briefly, sporadically, and in relative silence. A few minutes of self-revelation here and there, leaving the wealth of his emotions under lock and key, Ennis is a man alone in the world, and unable to circumcise his lips – unable to break through and open his heart to others.

And this is related to Ennis’ second, related flaw. Ennis never moves very far from the person he was at the beginning of the film. He starts out a man dedicated to living a certain way, in a certain place. He has a particular notion of himself, and never moves very far from it, even as the circumstances change drastically. He spent the summer of 1963 learning that he wasn’t the man he thought he was. He fell in love but never changed his plans to go back to Alma and marry her. In fact, throughout his entire life, he is unable to go to Jack, even after his wife divorces him, because Ennis Del Mar simply cannot change himself. He cannot recognize his place in the world is subject to any power not his own, as if by sheer will power, he can make himself other than what he is. And this is the flaw of Pharaoh.

Pharaoh can simply not recognize that there are times when one simply doesn’t control the circumstances of one’s life. He thinks that if he only insists long enough, the world will bend to his will. Maimonides notes that for the first five plagues, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and only beginning with next week’s Torah portion does it say that God hardened pharaoh’s heart.

Maimonides explains that the reason for this curious change in phrasing is that in reality, Pharaoh is simply being human. God does not remove Pharaoh’s free will, he merely watches as Pharaoh sets down a path. Human beings are very strange creatures. The first time we act a particular way, it’s not so hard to turn back. But each time we commit to that action again, it becomes harder and harder to stop doing it.
The first time we skip going to the gym, it’s just this time, but after a week, it becomes, oh, why bother, and soon enough, we’re back to being couch slugs.


So how is it that Moshe’s story becomes one of redemption, and Pharaoh’s remains ultimately a tragedy, not only for himself, but for his nation?



The Rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, writes in the Esh Kodesh, about our portion, In the Talmud, (Arachin 10b) it says, ‘There was a magrefa in the holy temple that had ten holes, each of which produced ten different kinds of music. A tanna taught: It was one cubit long, one cubit broad, and from it projected a handle with ten holes. Each hole produced one hundred kinds of sounds, amounting for the whole to one thousand tunes.’
Rashi explains that the magrefa was a sort of trowel or spade, used in a daily Temple ritual of terumat hadeshen – the tithing of the ashes, in which the ashes on the sacrificial altar were gathered, heaped and removed.
Rabbi Shapira asks, “Why does an implement used for moving ashes need to sing – and not just to sing, but to sing a thousand songs, which is something that other instruments cannot do? In fact, from other references to the magrefa in the mishnah (Tamid 3:8) we learn that this instrument was so loud, its sound could be hears as far away as Jericho…

He goes on to mention, “There is a teaching in the book sha’ar HaKedusha by R. Chaim Vital, “The evil inclination in humanity is patterned after the four elements from which human beings and the entire universe are fashioned. From the element of fire comes anger, from the element of air comes pride, from the element of earth comes sloth and indifference.”
For the moment, let’s put aside the science of the matter.

In his holy book, Imrei Elimelech, the father of the Rabbi Shapira explains how one may exploit the passion inherent in the evil inclination derived from the element of fire, by harnessing it to good purpose and using it to worship God. ‘The same passion a person might use to do wrong can be used for doing good, because a person in his progress toward spiritual renewal can utilize passion. However, the principle does not work with the characteristics of sloth and indifference resulting from the evil inclination derived from the element of earth. There we are dealing with Amalek, who functions by chilling the passions of the Jewish people. Indifference and cynicism are devoid of passion, so they cannot be inverted and sanctified.’”

IN other words, when a person – or for that matter a nation- is angry in a passionate way, they are still able to connect. Anger and passion are still a kind of engagement. Granted, not exactly the ideal kind of engagement, but there’s something there to work with. But the kind of feelings that leave us cold, as it were, indifference, or despair, kills a piece of us, and leaves us disengaged – what can you do with that?
Rabbi Shapira says, “Once a Jew is trapped in depression and apathy, his heart, mind and all those parts of his body influenced… are dragged down, growing incapable of shaking off their depression. When thus prevented from cleaving to holiness, his faith is damaged, God forbid. That explains why calamities and crises that beset a person, God forbid, breaking him or forcing him to succumb, can also damage his faith….This is why even in the Temple, where the Jewish people offered sacrifices upon the holy altar, wanting nothing but to elevate everything to God in a fire of holiness, the ashes – the element of earth- remained on the altar. The earth element could not be elevated to holiness, and so the ashes had to be consecrated in the daily ritual of terumat hadeshen, tithing the ashes. How can this tithing be done? Only with the music of the magrefa, representing joy …-for with joy and an expression of salvation anything can be elevated, and darkness can be transformed into light.”

Rabbi Shapira also adds, “…The ashes themselves because they are disconnected from their spiritual source, are filled with longing and hence, even more song.” That when there is that feeling of detachment from holiness, it is an opportunity or the longing for God to grow out of that disconnection, which inspires within us song. The song comes “directly from the pain of separation.” In other words, song, or “the expression of salvation,” can awaken the chill of despair to an awareness of the pain causing the despair, and through the song, a connection is forged, not only banishing the despair and bringing us back to God, but the very pain itself, has caused an even deeper connection to God than we might have had without it.

Pharaoh’s story is a tragedy because he never breaks out of his chill. We are never told that he gets angry – he never, as far as we know, flares his nostrils at Moshe. He is always the calculating pharaoh; even at the very end – he will ask only “What have we done, why did we send Israel out from serving us?” Even after all the plagues, after the deaths, after the destruction, he still is mired in himself, and never breaks free of the idea that he can somehow get ahold of the situation. There is no “expression of salvation” to raise him up to a more rational evaluation of the world, and he never changes. He never breaks through the orlah of his heart, which remains hard, impervious. He is stuck doing the same things over and over again, hoping for a different result.

Moses’ story becomes one of redemption because he was not, in the end trapped in himself. Moses did not despair because God was there to remind him, “You are not alone, you have a brother Aaron, who can help you speak.” And he does. The orlah of Moses’ lips, is circumcised by the relationship he has with his beloved brother. His relationship enables him to break out of his silence. And his brother is not the only one in whom Moses confides, his father in law, later on, gives him advice, which he takes. His sister, is clearly dear to him, as we read in Numbers, even when she speaks against him because of his wife, Moses pleads to God on her behalf in one of the shortest prayers in the Torah, 5 words, el na refah nah lah – please God please heal her.
He grows from being a sheltered child of the Egyptian palace to being a leader who is involved in every aspect of his community, whom he leads to freedom and to God, for them to be healed, as he was healed, of the spiritual blockage of his lips – his inability to relate to other people, perhaps a malady he caught from Pharaoh, is healed by God.

And in fact, Moses’ expression of salvation saves not just himself from despair, but an entire nation. And that is why Brokeback Mountain is such a moving film. In it, we see ourselves, isolated, unable to truly be intimate with others, trapped in our same patterns, over and over again. Ennis is unable to express himself to the ones he cares about. There are moments of passion with Jack, but he can’t sustain them, just as pharaoh had moments of insight, which he then immediately retracted.
Ennis may very well have cared deeply about his wife, despite not having a great passion for her, but he can’t tell her – even when she confronts him with it- the truth. He loves his daughters, but he can’t make them part of his life.

A final point, there’s a very odd little midrash about pharaoh which suggests that even the greatest tragedy may not be the final end we expect.
According to one opinion, Pharaoh later became the king of Nineveh, who repented in the times of Jonah.

The one glimmer of hope that Brokeback Mountain leaves with us is at the end of the film, when his daughter comes to ask him to attend her wedding. He at first, answers her in the way he has been accustomed to doing his entire adult life, making himself absent, isolating himself in his work, but finally, when he sees the disappointment in her face, he relents, and allows himself to say that for once, they can do without him, and agrees to take part in her joy, and to himself, have a moment of joy with others, and perhaps, after all, he may yet hear the song of the magrefa, as ashes of chill are turned into notes of joy, and the song of salvation connects him to those he loves.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Wow. What a totally glorious drash on Brokeback Mountain. I really like the parallels you draw between Ennis and Moshe -- and between Ennis and Pharaoh. And I see the same possible spark of redemption in the film's closing scenes that you describe. Brava!