Chanukah may be over but its message is not. Especially with recent challenges to Jewish lives, we need to find experiences that bolster our determination to thrive, and our confidence in humanity. There are still good people in the world full of enough light and faith, either in some higher Being or faith in transcendent values, to defeat even a most powerful and massive foe. Two recent and reality based films capture this theme in an exceptional way: “A Hidden Life”, and “Dark Waters”.
“A Hidden Life” is about an Austrian farmer who refuses to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler. Though he may avoid military action by working in an infirmary, he still cannot bring himself even on paper, to pledge allegiance to a policy of wholesale slaughter of innocents. He is a religious Christian but gets little support from his church, or, for that matter, any of his neighbors who boycott him. Even his wife at first feels like he will put his family and village in danger. The film is painfully stunning in its natural scenery- reminiscent of Sound of Music. Thus the contrast between the scenic visuals and the gruesome treatment he receives from the Nazis, is agonizing to watch. But Franz’s fortitude in not letting anyone deter his resolve is so uplifting.
I recall as a teenager going to see the play, “A Man For All Seasons” on a school trip. “A Hidden Life” reminds me so much about that conviction. However that story was very much in the public eye, whereas “A Hidden Life” was precisely that: hidden from the public view. In fact so many people around him tried to push Franz to sign, because they felt, what difference would the defiance of one private person make. A quote from George Elliot at the film’s end, says it all: ‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ Our post Holocaust generation should feel both the pain and the solace of this quote.
In contrast, even without much religious reference, “Dark Waters” is also a very spiritual film. It was for Robert Billot, himself, a literally gut-wrenching experience. I too emerged emotionally both drained and inspired. Billot was a lawyer working for corporate America, until he realized the effect of harmful chemicals being dumped on the environment. For one man to take on an entire industry like Dupont, after having worked for years to support and promote such industries, seemed superhuman. Though achieving a subpar settlement, Billot eventually won his case.
As Billot demonstrated by giving it all he had and more, the power of one is not about numbers. It is about an inner vision and dedication to a cause that rationally may seem hopeless, but a cause that will assert itself with incredible momentum when given the proper vehicle to drive it.
In the words of MLK, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’
This my friends is also the story of the Maccabees. Whatever the specific details of the events of the first Chanukah, the primary message is the victory of the few against the many, and those dedicated to eternal Jewish values, as opposed to those who, as the Midrash puts it, forced the Israelites to ‘write on the horn of an ox, that you have no portion in the G-d of Israel.’
The Hellenist worship of the physical, even of its less tangible standards of abstract beauty of human perfection and pleasure, can lead to abandoning non-utilitarian ethics, when ego driven interests are at stake. Greed, often cloaked as competitive ambition, may seem like the force behind economic growth. However, it can turn into a weed which propagates beyond healthy proportions and threatens to strangle valuable and delicate plants in its wake. However, as human beings who are supposed to be the guardians and caretakers of the planet, and not, as misinterpreted, the rapacious conquerors, then the motto should instead be, as Rebbe Nachman puts it, ‘If you have the ability to destroy, you also have the ability to repair.’
The irony is, if this repair is not engaged in with wisdom, foresight and humility, then the attempts at correction can be worse than the harm caused in the first place. An obvious example: pesticides, like the recent Roundup calamity, that were developed to aid and increase plant growth, have become both in the short term and long term, sources of harm and destruction, both for the ecology and for human life. As the Talmud puts it, ‘Who is wise? One who sees ‘what will be born,’ in other words, one who sees the consequences of actions. As people speak about these days, it is the difference between intention and impact.
Even if these industries start off with noble motives, the corporate priority of success which is measured by dollars and winning even while trampling upon ethical norms, takes over very quickly. When there is a conflict between principles and profit, the vector of the business victor is easy to predict.
For someone moving up corporate or political ranks, compromise of values seems almost inevitable. In Kipling’s words, ‘If you can keep your head above you when all the rest are losing theirs’…..Or as Sara Rigler writes in a classic article about Jewish contribution to society- Before Judaism, there was no universal education, legal recourse, access to medicine, etc. without the leverage of money, power, or elite family connections. Of course, the necessity of survival and physical sustenance cannot be overlooked, but the how is as least as important as the what- the quality of the work as much if not more than the quantity. Competition too may be a realistic value in a free market society but literally, at what price?
On a higher plane, there are Jewish values that can take us even beyond personal initiative. As in A Hidden Life, Jews throughout history have often chosen to give up their lives, rather than join the persecutors. There is a famous story of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, when someone held a gun to his head to get him to stop praying. He replied, ‘Put away that toy. The only ones afraid of it are those who have many gods and one world, but not those who have one G-d and many worlds.
And that’s why I also call “Dark Waters” a religious movie. Robert’s wife, admirably played by Anne Hathaway of Les Mis fame, through much of the film, seems totally exasperated by her husband’s all-out and apparently fruitless devotion to the cause of exposing Dupont’s fraudulence. But at one point, she lashes out at other critics of his by saying ‘Do not call my husband a failure.’ He is trying the best he can to accomplish what he believes in most. And where does she get her conviction? I think it is from her belief in a power that stands above all earthly power. And that’s where we can all get the inspiration ‘To dream the impossible dream.‘
To the Creator of all existence, nothing is impossible.
The outer lights of Chanukah may be gone for this year, but let us keep the inner flames alive throughout 5780 and beyond.