From Morah Yehudis, for Shavous
When I was young, I used to be afraid of escalators. I imagined the spaces between the bottom of the stairs and the top of the staircase to be wide open gaps ready to swallow any dawdlers or hesitators at the beginning and end of the stairs. As I got older, I realized that between levels of existence there are usually gaps, and the concern is not so much about the different levels as about how to travel safely between them. The Omer helps navigate the unknown terrain between Pesach and Shavuot, which is why it may be both an exciting and daunting time. We are meant to ascend, both temporally and inwardly, the space between being in Egypt and arriving at Mount Sinai.
When I think of my two most spiritually oriented, and mountain centered movies – “Razor’s Edge” and “Lost Horizon,” – both based on classic books respectively by Somerset Maugham and James Hilton – I carry the image of the gaps in the ascending and descending escalator stairs in my mind.
Let’s look first at “Razor’s Edge.” It is somewhat rare for there to be two successful films based on the same book, but sure enough I have seen two that both work very well. There were two versions of Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” one starring Tyrone Power and the later one with Bill Murray. They differed somewhat in focus, setting and emphasis but the main story line was similar. Larry Darrel, a former playboy comes back from war somewhat sobered, restless, and longing to find meaning in life. He had been ensconced among the well to do, with a sweet but materialistic girl friend who is rather aghast at his lack of success ambition, but is willing to indulge his wanderlust, hoping he will get it out of his system.
He tries out hands-on work like fishing and mining to clear his head, and in the process meets someone who directs him to India. All the while he has immersed himself in reading all kinds of enlightening material, and his books are his primary companions. In India he is guided to a Lama who provides insight and guidance for an extended period of time. One interesting difference in the two movie versions- in one, the Lama tells him it is time to leave, and in the other, he realizes himself that he needs to return to civilization. Either way the common premise is that it is easier to be holy on a mountain top than it is among his social contemporaries.
Now to the second film, “Lost Horizon.” Some movie remakes are equal or better than the originals. However, “Lost Horizon” is, in my opinion, definitely NOT one of them. The theme of “Lost Horizon” was twice portrayed in film, one in black and white and a later one in color. I feel the earlier one with Ronald Coleman is far more meaningful and successful. In both versions, however, the central theme is deeply Jewish. Both in time, space, and person, in spite of being solidly grounded in specific reality, there is an inner core that takes us beyond those limits.
Coming out as “Lost Horizon” did in 1937, between wars, the depiction of a remote place where the familiar troubles of ordinary life were non-existent, it made a strong impression on viewers. It was nominated for several awards, and won two Oscars, for interior decoration and film editing. Plot summary: In 1935 a British diplomat and idealistic writer is trapped in China during the Japanese invasion. He helps evacuate some Western refugees onto the last DC-2 plane from a flaming airport. The plane seems to be hijacked because the pilot is a Mongolian and the plane is headed toward Tibet in the Himalayas. The plane crashes into the snow covered mountains and the passengers encounter a caravan which provides warm clothes for them and leads them through treacherous terrain till they suddenly come upon what looks like a paradise called Shangri-La. As they try to adjust to their imposed state, they have different reactions, from extreme resistance to almost blissful pleasure.
The leader of the residents of Shangri-La, Chang, explains how the people there can live in such peace, beauty, and harmony. “Our general belief was in moderation. We preach the virtue of avoiding excesses of every kind, even including excess of virtue itself.” Pretty Hassidic if you ask me.
Another quote which echoes Jewish values: “We do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes because, well, there is no uncertain future here for which to accumulate it.” This perspective is very similar to the statement of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot.” Eventually Conway meets the High Lama and is told that he was selected to be brought there because folks in Shangri La have read his idealistic writings. The Lama confesses, “I wanted to meet the Conway who, in one of his books said, ‘There are moments in every man’s life when he glimpses the eternal.’ “That Conway seemed to belong here.”
As a teen I read the book that the film was based on, “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, and it moved me very much. It felt right that there must be a ‘magic kingdom’ where people live in peace and harmony, and no one ever dies- kind of like a Garden of Eden.
There is actually a story in the Midrash that speaks of a city, where if someone left, they would die. As I got older and learned more Torah, I realized that the idea of an indestructible center of life exists in many facets. One example is the confluence of the holiest person, the cohen gadol, the high priest who represented the entire Jewish people, comes into the holiest place in the world, the Holy of Holies which exists in space but does not occupy space, on the holiest day of the year, a day in which the Satan whose numerical equivalent equals 364, has no dominion over.
The interpersonal drama in “Lost Horizon” is subsidiary to this sense of wonder, and ambivalence to the possibility of being sequestered in this paradise. Of the five people trapped inside, only one has not changed his mind about leaving. Sadly this is the brother of the main actor Robert Conway. Robert was actually the one chosen to replace the high lama but feels he has to leave out of loyalty to his brother George. But Robert’s destiny, as the leaders of the community realize, is to return, as he indeed does after superhuman determination to get back.
There is a Rabbinic teaching about a bone in the body that is never destroyed and from which will come the resurrection, called the Luz bone. Interestingly, this bone in the bible has a spatial counterpart of a city called Luz where no one died until they went out. Luz is also the bone from which, rather like stem cell therapy, the entire body will be recreated at the time of resurrection. The Luz bone, say the mystics, did not derive any nourishment from the Tree of knowledge, and therefore was not subject to the laws of physical entropy. It is however sustained and fed from the meal that we eat on Motzei Shabbat, Saturday night, as the Sabbath morphs into the weekdays. So again we have the confluence of time, space, and person, coming together in this one mysterious bone.
By the way, it is interesting that the English transliteration of Luz is related to light! Using this metaphor to look at the two above mentioned films, we could say that, much like the Sinai experience itself, there are places, like high mountain tops and secretive cities where people may be able to access extreme enlightenment. By comparison most of the world feels mundane and even crass. Once I asked a second grade class to explain why the heavenly angels didn’t want Moshe to bring down the Torah from heaven. One young boy, in all innocence, proclaimed, “Because people might let it get dirty.”
There is so much in Torah teachings about what one might call ‘exit strategy’ or for that matter ‘entrance strategy’ between earthly and heavenly planes. Given the concept that there are multiple realms of existence, the protocols of travel back and forth, or ‘up and down,’ need to be in place. And indeed both directions are necessary. Imagine if you were going shopping in a high rise department store, and there was available only a one way escalator! Well in this world, we are meant to be ‘shopping’ for heavenly as well as earthly goods. The more ethereal items are on the highest floor. However the purpose of all the shopping is to bring the more spiritual goods down to earth with us to be used according to the manufacturer’s directions.
So many of us long for a mountain top of tranquility, but would we really feel tranquil, even if we got there? So much about life is ephemeral and transient, as these two pairs of movies portray. But so much of life, at the same time, contains the longing for the eternal and everlasting. We want so much to hold on to the beautiful, the loveable, the inspiring, but ironically it is often the transient that we hold most dear and precious. So much of great poetry and writing, and scrapbooks, and even movies, tries to help us hold on to that which otherwise would be forgotten.
The yearning and tension expressed by these two films is captured in another statement in Pirkei Avot- “Better is one hour of bliss in the world to come than all the pleasure of this world, and better is one hour of Teshuvah and good deeds in this world than all the life in the world to come.” There is much to unpack in this teaching, but in terms of the two films, the ‘world to come’ is like life on the mountain top or more fully, in Shangri La. But from a Torah perspective, our purpose and individual destiny lie primarily on an earthly plain. The soul and the body need to work together to repair this world.
How do Torah perspectives help us keep those sacred moments? Maybe if we don’t ‘lose’ the message of the Luz bone, we can encounter those unique circumstances and situations in special times and places in our lives. Moreover, perhaps precisely the most ordinary moments, can be riddled with bliss and wonder-filled. The Sanctuary in the desert was meant to be like a ‘doggie bag’ of Sinai; to take that one time moment and location with us along our travels. Our historical timeline from the time of the destruction of the temple is called ‘the desert of the nations’. We can still capture the essence of the revelation which may be imprinted in our genes, or on our Luz bone. From it, if we can resurrect that awesome Sinai event, we can transform even the most mundane situations and escalators of our lives into ‘peak experiences.’ Then we can not only ‘crave eternity,’ we can manifest eternity ‘in a grain of sand.’