The summer of 2001 my world changed. It was the year I moved to Boulder, Colorado. A few weeks later, 9/11 changed the world. That twenty-year memory became more vivid this September by watching a sterling performance by Michael Keaton as the lawyer Kenneth Feinberg who was in charge of allocating funds to the families of the victims.
The government had appointed him ‘Special Master’ of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. This film that Mr. Feinberg himself deemed fairly accurate, is called “Worth,” and is indeed worth watching, as I have with a lump in my throat each time, more than once. Let me share the worth I see in it, from a Jewish perspective.
Mr. Feinberg does not seem to be what you would call an observant Jew, though in 2019 he won a prestigious award- The Flame of Tzedek award- from a very well-known national Chabad retreat run by JLI- Jewish Learning Institute. He said at the event that it took him only thirty seconds to accept that award because of his admiration for Chabad. His life to date could fill an encyclopedia of accomplishments- as indeed it has in Wikipedia, but that’s not my focus here. I would like to zoom in on the subtle but significant transformation that the Michael Keaton so aptly portrays, and that the real life personalities in his life attest to. To witness this process especially around Yom Kippur can help us all grow exponentially.
In Judaism, there is a term Kiddush Hashem. Feinberg may be looked upon as a secular Jew but I believe he embodied the qualities of not only a Tsaddik, a righteous person, but also of a Baal Teshuva, a ‘master of return.’ A tsaddik is someone who attempts to apply sacred principles to life in general. A Baal Teshuva takes those often difficult and unpredictable details of life, and lifts them up to that higher perspective. The sages relate that angels did not want humans in the world because they can mess things up. However, it’s easy to be judgmental from a heavenly perch. As the guru on the mountain top in both wonderful versions of “The Razor’s Edge” tells first Tyrone Power and later Bill Murray to go down from the mountain top and try to maintain the high ground even when entrenched in the muddy terrain of everyday life.
Ken- I call him that because he, a Libra too, is only a few years my junior and is also a ‘landsman’ from Massachusetts-and even oversaw the disbursement of donations to the injured victims and families of the deceased in the Aurora Colorado movie theater shooting. Ken took on the 9/11 role because he ‘wanted to do his part.’ A very noble ambition indeed, and he felt eminently qualified. But what he learned along the way is something we all need to learn even and especially when we try to do something good. As the opening says in Psalm 41: Ashrei Maskil El Dal- ‘Fortunate is one who does WISELY with the poor.’
Yes, in tsaddik fashion, Ken Feinberg took the case because he wanted to help. And he accepted it and worked for thirty-three months pro-bono! In Jewish terminology one might have indeed called him a tsaddik at that point. But our sages tell us that a Baal Teshuva is even on a higher plane. We can better understand this statement when we watch Ken’s character go through the process and challenges of successfully completing the funding project through so many roadblocks on so many fronts. People thought his primary objective was to prevent a class action and individual suing, that he was just a government puppet, and that the grieving families were mere numbers to him. He did recognize intellectually of course that one cannot put a price tag on human lives. But it was his face-to-face encounters that created the necessary cracks and openings in his heart that eventually won the day.
It is rather like the distinction often made these days between intention and impact. People, -politicians and clergy not excluded- may start off with the highest objectives, but if they are insensitive to the context, nature, and needs of those they desire to serve, may end up doing more harm than good. In his own actual words, Ken evolved from ‘a by the books attorney’ to a ‘rabbi, and a priest and a nun.’ He gradually became aware of the Talmudic dictum made famous by Ben Kingsley in “Schindler’s List,” that saving one person is like saving the entire world. He could do it only by compassionate listening to the personal stories of individuals, and by making exceptions to the financial rules of distribution, when necessary.
It turned out, Ken’s most effective help came from his most explicit opponent- a man named Charles Wolf, whose wife died in the North Tower, and who initially fought Ken tooth and nail with his oppositional group called ‘Fix the Fund.’ He and many others at first called Ken ‘patronizing, manipulative, and at times even cruel!’ Later however Charles saw that Ken was actually listening to him and keeping his promises to make adjustments based on the critiques. In response he named his group, ‘The Fund is Fixed.’ Charles ultimately became the linchpin that helped Ken succeed in obtaining enough buy-in to allow his implementation of the funding to pass. Isn’t that often the way our lives go? How the biggest obstacle becomes the bridge and the scaffolding to actualizing our original objectives, in a far grander way than if the path was smooth all the way?
One of the most intimidating tests Ken faced initially was to remain silent in the face of often unfair opposition. His generally taciturn personality did perhaps help with that, but his sensitive nature- he was, like Charles, a big fan of classical music- made it very difficult to take the heat without lashing back. Rebbe Nachman teaches at length about the process of needing to do Teshuva even for one’s prior Teshuva, in other words to keep evaluating the worth of one’s behavior and attitudes. A major part of that process is remaining silent in the face of insult. The Talmud sings the praises of those who don’t respond to insult, and refers to them with the brightness of the sun, and lauds the power of their prayers.
Let’s try to apply something of Ken’s story to our own lives. We are all inspired by a David who fights Goliath, even in modern times. Take another admirable role, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Robert Billott in the movie “Dark Waters,” a lawyer who takes on DuPont and its contaminating chemicals. There have been several films of this genre, but I believe “Worth” is unique in that it does not just describe the fortitude of his determination, but the repeated examining and polishing of his character. In this sense, the film is truly Biblical in nature, even without any reference to G-d or prayer or religion.
The greatest mystics of all times insist that we come into this world primarily to refine our character traits. In this way, the message of the film “Worth” is both distinctively Jewish and universally relevant. It is truly a model of what Isaiah means by the directive that Israel be a ‘light unto the nations.’ May we all grow both humanly and Jewishly in ways that inspire by our example to become the best we can be and, as Ken so humbly put it, ‘do our part.’ In that way, we can make a once-a-year Yom Kippur experience an integral part of our daily life. Then every moment will truly reflect the infinite and unique worth of our individual souls.