‘You can’t choose the card you’re dealt, but you can choose to live every minute of it.’
This could come straight from a Jewish Mussar text, but it’s actually from an enamored reviewer of the movie, “Soul.”
Unique but in the genre of “Coco” and “Inside Out,” this film also contains a dash of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” – with perhaps a touch of “Michael” (John Travolta), and a riff from “August Rush” (Robin Williams).
Personally, what intrigued me most about “Soul” is that it may get both kids and adults to pay more attention to the concept of an after and before life, or as the movie calls it, ‘The Great Beyond’ and The Great Before’, and even to a hypothetical Zone in between spirit and body. Many people resist this possibility, sometimes because they feel a soul is not physically perceptible, or that thinking about an afterlife, will take them away from the importance of this life. So I believe a most vital message from this film, for our people and our times is that not only are the many lives of the soul compatible, but they are even inseparable. This premise overrides any technical or dramatic flaws that some viewers or reviewers may find in the film. It is a premise that is also supported by more and more reports of NDE’s- Near Death Experiences, coming to light. As the film terms it, the ‘Thin Spot’ between worlds may be getting more and more permeable as people become more open to these realms.
Speaking about the ‘Great Before,’ the Talmud refers to a place called Guf- literally meaning body- where souls await birth. From a Jewish perspective too, most souls are not so anxious to be born. Given life’s challenges, a sardonic line from the film conveys this trepidation: ‘You can’t crush a soul here (in heaven); that’s what life on earth is for.’ As the sages put it, ‘It is easier (in contrast to better) for a person to have been born than not be born.’
In a similar vein in the film, 22, the ‘soulmate’ of the main character Joe Gardner tries to explain her reason for staying in heaven:’ it’s not great, but at least I know what to expect.’ As worded in a famous Hassidic song, ‘The soul comes down into the body and cries out, Oy, oy, oy, (however it realizes) this descent is for the sake of an even higher ascent.’ This song as well as 22’s resistance, reflects the dictum in Ethics of the Fathers, ‘against your will you are born, and against your will you die’ – a dictum which indeed is a major theme of “Soul.” Though the soul may not want to enter the earthly plane, it also doesn’t want to leave it because once it inhabits a body, it realizes the value of that partnership. Again, Ethics of the Fathers captures that paradox. ‘Better is one moment of bliss in the world to come than all the bliss of this world, but better is one moment of good deeds in this world, than all the value of the world to come.‘
As taught from Hassidic masters, (whom the film might label ‘Mystics without borders’) the soul itself may not need a fixing, but it can be elevated way beyond its initial qualities by overcoming the challenges of this world. To borrow an image from the film- the soul earns its badge for the Great Beyond, only by ‘going beyond’ in life and achieving its destiny through the trials and tribulations of embodied life.
A question many ask: ‘Does the soul have an identity prior to birth?’ Yes and no. The complexity of this response is conveyed both in the film and in Jewish thought. In “Soul“, the heavenly beings who ‘run the show’ are a motley crew of both male and female entities called ‘Jerrys’ who decide in the ‘Great Before’ what personality traits each soul descending to earth will contain. Here I would say there is an interesting difference from a Torah perspective. The sages teach, ‘Everything is in the hands of Heaven besides the fear of Heaven.’ This is understood to mean that individual personalities may be a soul’s endowment, but the moral and ethical choices a person makes are up to them.
On the other hand, the film’s assigned traits may contain a blend of both inborn and acquired qualities. This blend sometimes contrasts with what Judaism treats as a distinction between personality and character- Personality may define the givens prior to birth, whereas one’s character is usually sculpted by the journey through the winding paths of this world in the allotted time frame. The common feature about this journey is the concept that a person has to work hard on earth to find or maintain their ‘spark’ and purpose in life. It is easy to give up. The film’s portrayal, both in heaven and on earth, of a default mode of despair or just laziness is graphically mesmerizing. Pixar writers are great after all, at showing what emotions look and feel like.
Each day is a new choice in courage and the sum total of those choices are played back in the afterlife. ‘Accomplishments are like an art gallery’. The sages also tell us that we are shown the movie of our lives at some point after death. The Baal Shem Tov related that we are actually shown two movies: who we were and who we could have been. If the movies are similar, we are in heaven. If they are very different, we are in- to quote “Soul“- the place of ‘HE with two hockey sticks.’
Even further, and an especially strong theme of the movie, is the Hassidic teaching, ‘Sometimes a soul descends to earth for seventy or eighty years just to do one favor for another person.’ Indeed, by Joe coming back down and helping 22, in the form of ‘Mrs. Mitten’, a cat hungry for both human food and experience, to appreciate life on earth, Joe too becomes a better person. Both learn the value of the seemingly small things in life, like a spontaneous I-Thou conversation in a Barber shop.
One thing I wasn’t sure about, when there was talk about the difference between ‘sparks’ and ‘purpose’, but after the second viewing, I think I got it. I was hung up on the term ‘spark,’ because in Kabbalistic terminology a spark is a trapped bit of holiness in aspects of the world that only a person can release and redeem. The film’s use of the term ‘spark’ is different, though compatible. It means one’s passion for a particular calling in life, often realized by being ‘in the zone.’ However, it got clearer to me after the second watching. I paid more attention when the ‘Jerrys’ made the psychologically astute comment that if being in the zone becomes an obsession, a person can become as disconnected from life, as by not finding a spark at all, or the fear of being, as 22 cleverly puts it, a ‘No-body’. On the opposite end, activities that a person may be pushed into, but bring out a ‘Meh’ or ‘Make a trade’ response, can derail a person from finding both their spark and purpose.
I recall thinking something similar when reading and watching Seabiscuit, and observing how the main characters, especially the jockey played by Toby Maguire, lost their reason for living when the racing thrills were over. Their whole lives were taken over by racing, and when that petered out, they also did. So too, Joe Gardner began to realize when, after he plays the performance of his life, the question ‘Now what,’ comes up. As his ‘soulmate’ 22 teaches him, the spark for him may have been jazz, but the purpose of life is life itself. As explained in Hassidut, the soul itself needs no fixing, but it gains immeasurably from being in a body with all its sensory experiences. Of course, Judaism adds the dimension of the higher purpose of serving G-d, but the corollary of that aspect, i.e., making this physical plane a dwelling place for the divine, does not contradict the sense of the uniqueness of material existence. Judaism has so many blessings for sensory experiences just because, if one is not oblivious, sparks of soul joy awareness and gratitude can be found everywhere.
In terms of ‘mentors for soul mates’ a theme that occupies most of the film, there are also Kabbalistic concepts of ‘helper souls’ which come down into a physical plane to be a kind of coach for a needy person. Sometimes, like when 22 ‘mistakenly’ inhabits Joe’s body, the ‘impregnating’ spirit can provide the person with a newer perspective than they had before, and guide them, sometimes biting and kicking, to a deeper realization of how to live- and in the process, also gain a greater awareness and sense of meaning.
I once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe directly, ‘How do we find clues into our life’s mission? From that which comes easy, or that which is most difficult for us?’ His response was something like, ‘whatever we are confronted with in life, straightforward or challenging, expected or unexpected, can direct us to fulfilling our mission. Especially in our times, he continued, before the arrival of Mashiach, we are meant to ‘grab and eat,’ as the Talmud puts it, to assist both us and the entire world to a place and time when ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d like water fills the sea.’
Perhaps this was an answer to my question about the difference between ‘spark’ and ‘purpose’. Sparks may be what we are more readily attracted to, while our life’s purpose is often beset by many obstacles and distractions along the way. Both the easy and the difficult await us on our journeys. May we all be blessed during our precious lives on earth to actualize our native talents and abilities. At the same time, may we realize that our life’s purpose can hide in the least expected and anticipated areas of who we thought we are, and what would bring us the greatest fulfillment.