Flatline Termination and Yom Kippur De-Termination

Morah Yehudis Fishman

For years people have asked me to recommend a movie to watch before Yom Kippur. I have often suggested the 1990 academy award nominee, “Flatliners.” In this film five brilliant, maverick medical students attempt to induce a few moments of death to see what there is on ‘the other side.’ I have not yet seen the updated version of “Flatliners” which is coming out this year right before Yom Kippur 5778. I can’t dismiss its timing synchronicity as a random occurrence. Some of my friends were surprised at my recommendation of the earlier film during this sacred time of year. However, a major premise of the movie is that we can’t truly repent for transgressions involving other people until we can feel from their perspective the hurt we may have inflicted. From this outlook, I think “Flatliners” is very much related to the message of teshuva which occupies center stage during the ten days beginning with Rosh Hashana. As expressed by one of the characters, ‘Atonement, gentlemen, atonement.’ However, Judaism gives us a unique process that is especially relevant during the ten days of Teshuva.

If we read the list of ‘sample apologies’ recited over and over again- ten times to be precise- over the course of the 26 hours of Yom Kippur prayers, we are struck with the amount of ‘Al Chet’s’ (listed transgressions) that are centered around human relationships. Just to cite a few examples: ‘For the sin we have committed before You with the hardening of the heart.’ ‘For the sin we have committed before You with the foolishness of the mouth.’ ‘For the sin we have committed before You with causeless hatred.’

On Rosh Hashana we have hopefully made a general commitment to repair and improve our relationship both with G-d and with other people. But on Yom Kippur we must address the ‘nuts and bolts’ of our flaws. Otherwise, we can become like the person who insists, ‘I love humanity; it’s individuals that I can’t stand.’ And we learn in the Mishnah, ‘Transgressions between us and G-d are atoned on Yom Kippur, but transgressions between people are not atoned until a person appeases the other.’ “Flatliners” is a striking, even shocking, portrayal of this teaching.

I can’t help recalling another set of films around a similar theme. I have watched both versions of “The Razor’s Edge” several times, and with equal interest. The theme is about a former playboy who, after a war experience, goes to the Far East to seek enlightenment and returns transformed. Both Tyrone Power and Bill Murray in the later version, play their roles admirably. In fact, I read that Bill Murray took “The Razor’s Edge“, his first straight role, so seriously that afterward he went off to Paris to study philosophy for four years!

The common factor between “Flatliners” and “The Razor’s Edge“, is that some kind of spiritual awakening took place after encounters with death. Like more and more reports in our times of
near death experiences-NDE’S as they are now called- coming face to face with mortality seems to clarify and restructure one’s priorities in life. Instead of producing the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ attitude of some, the state of mind and heart following the NDE experiences magnetizes what seem to be random filings of life toward a greater sense of purpose and meaningful action. In “The Razor’s Edge” and NDE’S, the encounter comes upon us; In “Flatliners,” as perhaps in some extreme risk taking adventures, the encounter is sought out. In both kinds of situations, the scenario involves as one of the reviewers of “Flatliners” put it, a ‘return trip to Eternity.’

There is an apparent contradiction between the two films that is easily reconciled. In “The Razor’s Edge“, the hero’s epiphany is expressed when he says, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ In “Flatliners“, the heroine says, ‘It all matters.’ The difference is in just what is the ‘It’. (Another interesting remake film- Stephen King’s IT- is coming out now- but I’m not going there). From a Torah perspective, ‘It’ in “The Razor’s Edge“-‘it doesn’t matter- refers to living life as a consumer of material goods. In “Flatliners“, ‘It’-it all matters- is about seeing the importance and consequences of even our superficially insignificant interactions and perspectives. Confronting mortality helps us to distinguish between the two ‘IT’s. A common feature in both these pairs of films is that these kinds of situations can propel the experiencer to a larger and deeper vision of life than may otherwise have transpired.

For Jews, there is another way besides actual encounters with the termination of life- it is the annual experience of Yom Kippur. Indeed, many have called Yom Kippur a ‘rehearsal for death.’ As stark as this image seems, it can shower us with waves of consolation, renewal, and hope.

How does this happen? The obvious part is distancing from physical preoccupations: Refraining from food, drink, perfume, physical intimacy, bathing and wearing leather shoes helps us detach from our trivial selves. The positive aspects are: seeking out and turning to the eternal Source of life, and apologizing for so many of the ways we may have hurt others. This effort endows us with the recognition that, as Rebbe Nachman put it, ‘If you have the power to mess up, you have the power to fix up.’ Both of these foci just happen to be the major themes of “The Razor’s Edge” and “Flatliners“. Both films are repeats of earlier versions, as if to tell us, ‘Return and return again.’ The process of teshuva only gets deeper and deeper as life goes on. Finding connection with the Infinite is just that-infinite.

Let’s make the most of ‘it’ and listen to the message from both contemporary culture and ancient traditions. May this Yom Kippur bring relief from earthly challenges, so that we may indeed experience a ‘return trip to eternity’ and come back with a yearning and ability in the coming year to change our lives and the world for better both globally and individually!

Ps. For any who may be interested, consider coming to a class about ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife,’ that I am teaching at the JCC on Wed. December 20 at 2 pm.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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