We are now in that somewhat limbo and contradictory seven-week time period between Pesach and Shavuot – limbo because historically the Jews left Egypt but did not yet arrive at Sinai. It is also contradictory because on one hand, we are joyously counting up to the revelation at Sinai. On the other hand, it is a semi-mourning time frame where we minimize celebrations such as wedding and live music, and postpone getting haircuts because of the death of the twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva, who were struck by a plague when they disrespected each other.
Aside from the external restrictions, what are we meant to focus on internally to help us navigate these weeks? The mystics have linked the seven weeks to working on refining our character traits of the seven emotional attributes which parallel the divine attributes of: Chesed, kindness; Gevurah, power or discipline; Tiferet, beauty or harmony; Netzach, victory or eternity; Hod, splendor or empathy; Yesod, foundation or relationships; Malchut, royalty or dominion.
In recent times, this focus has become more and more popular and prevalent in expansive and inclusive Jewish circles. I believe this is a very positive sign because working on these traits relates to becoming a mensch, which is actually the root of Jewish values and practice. In fact, the sages frame the rationale for studying the six chapters of the key book of Jewish ethics – “Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Fathers,” during these weeks, on the principle: ‘Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah’ – Ethical practice, literally the way of the earth, precedes the receiving of the Torah. In fact, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneerson, advises that when we open the door for Eliyahu at the seder, we choose to plead for help in becoming a mensch!
The main premise of the seven weeks in the Omer’s inner work is that we all have the above seven character traits, but what makes them morally right or wrong depends on the context of their application as well as our intentions behind them. The famous Talmudic adage, ‘Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear -awe- of heaven’ is relevant to this principle. We are all endowed with a unique and individual set of traits, but how we use them is up to us.
Two startlingly different and divergent award winning Westerns, which are surprisingly similar in their motifs, come to my mind. Almost mirror opposites, these two films contain an analogous theme: A lone, rather uptight, cowboy, who is attracted to another man’s wife, and a boy who grows more and more attached to the cowboy.
I am speaking about this year’s multiple award winner, “Power of the Dog,” compared to another award winning film from 1956, starring Allan Ladd, “Shane.” Two films over fifty years apart show that human nature, and life circumstances, are not that very different.
In “Shane,” the gunslinger hero stops by a homestead that is threatened by a group of bullying ranchers who want to buy out, or run out, the homesteaders and farmers. Shane decides to stay for a while to aid the homesteader. Meanwhile, he and the homesteader’s wife, and more explicitly the couple’s young son, admirably played by Brandon de-Wilde, feel emotionally closer to each other. There is some obvious tension from this dynamic but any distress is focused on the unavoidable, protective, and necessary use of weapons by Shane rather than feeble and unsuccessful attempts to maintain a fragile peace.
Aside from a one-time social dance between Shane and the wife at a farm celebration, there is no romantic expression between them. And with the boy, as intense is his hero worship of Shane, and although Shane is pleased and comforted by the boy’s adulation, he does not cross any improper boundaries. While responding to the boy’s insistent and persistent attention and questions, Shane keeps a respectful limit to their interaction. At the end, Shane is forced to leave because, as much as he would prefer to stay there, he knows that his involvement in taking down the rancher villains, makes him a marked man. His painful but necessarily helpful choice necessitates his departure.
Shane is stunningly polar opposite from the dynamics of the plot in “Power of the Dog.” Cumberbatch, usually playing positive roles, here is subtly but definitely evil incarnate. He, Phil, is brilliant, and a Yale grad, who uses his power and intelligence to control his men, manipulate his brother and brother’s wife, and especially the wife’s timid, superficially effeminate teenage son, who both fears and idolizes him. Phil could have turned out like Shane, helping where he could, while wistfully longing for what he may be missing, but instead used his position to belittle whomever he felt like deprecating, especially those he was jealous of.
In Judaism, as I mentioned, free will is a basic principle. Even though we are each dealt a particular hand, it is up to us to decide how to act upon our strengths and weaknesses. Our self-analysis has as its purpose, our own character development, as well as our relationships with other people, and with G-d. As a famous example from the great twentieth-century teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Dessler, we all start off on different rungs of a ladder. Our job is not to reach the top but to see how many rungs we can climb in our lives. This is one reason, as taught in “Pirkei Avot,” ‘Don’t judge your fellow until you reach their place,’ in other words unless you are in the same circumstances as the other, and then can do better. Since this is generally impossible, we would do best to, as another saying from Pirkei Avot” goes, ‘Judge every person in the scale of merit,’ or at least, judge their actions, not their essence.
Of course, whether by nature or nurture, people from a very young age have a distinct advantage or disadvantage, in terms of value assessment. But the significance of freedom of choice to go up or down exists on any rung. Thus a hardened criminal can choose to become a thief rather than a killer, or even to skip levels by taking an elevator to the top. On the other hand, even someone who had been righteous most of their life, can flip into a life of crime, depending on what the trigger or provocation might be. Psychologists will try to figure out what prompted the change, assuming there must have been some predictable factor. And, as with young Anakin becoming Darth Vader, film analysts will do the same psychological search for a motivation, since a ‘deus ex machina’ is too easy of an intervention. Therefore movies cannot have too explicit of a religious factor. Still, the open-ended possibility of unforeseeable choices is what makes good movies as well as good Jewish theology.
The Talmud relates a story of Yochanan the high priest who was righteous till he was eighty, and then suddenly became a Sadducee. On the other hand, there is another Talmudic story about a man who visited every prostitute that he knew of, until he decided to repent and actually died from the intensity of his repentance. There is a mystic who insists that the latter was a reincarnation of the former, and it was his ‘good credit’ from a former life that propelled him to repent in his later years.
Very few movies speak about reincarnation playing a significant role in a person’s life, perhaps because, as mentioned above, it is too easy -or perhaps too complex- to ascribe motivation and ethical choices to past lives. However good movies will look for earlier experiences in people’s lives to explain later choices and reactions. In the above films, Shane has had to do a lot of gun fighting in his younger years, and you can tell he has mixed feelings about those experiences. On one hand, he is adept in both the speed and accuracy of shooting, but on the other hand, he is not very happy to be labeled and singled out as a gunslinger.
In contrast, Phil, the cowboy in “Power of the Dog,” feels the misery and deprivation from his earlier years as an excuse to be mean and controlling in any way that he can, especially in his manipulation of Peter, the young son of his brother’s wife, of whom he is also jealous. Peter too is ambivalent about his relationship with Phil but is especially upset about how Phil treats his mother. Finally Peter can take it no longer, and in the process of his medical explorations, finds a way to extract his revenge. In a clearly Biblical moment, we find him at the end of the film opening a book of Psalms, and turning to chapter 22 verse 31, where King David, also persecuted throughout his life, begs G-d, ‘Save my soul from the sword, and my core being (translated as power in some texts) from the dog.’ Hence the title of the film. Peter’s act is a big karmic contrast with the famous and heart wrenching ending of Shane, where the boy cries out over and over, ‘Shane, come back. Shane, come back!’
No one in either film, “Shane” or “Power of the Dog,” had to act the way they did, and could have made different choices. But we viewers and observers, as we do of Biblical narratives, need to attempt to understand and find meaningful reasons for the choices made. What these films help us, as Jews, to do is to reflect on our reflexes, and to consider our choices not just for what makes us feel good, but for what is the best action for all concerned, and above all, in the all-seeing eyes of G-d. This reflection is what we are meant to do during the Omer time.
In relation to these films, the second week which is focused on the trait of Gevurah, or restraint, is very revealing. In yet another quote from “Pirkei Avot” – “Ben Zoma says, ‘Who is a “Gibor,” a strong person? One who is able to conquer or master his inclination.’”
As Benji Elson expresses it in his recent book, “Dance of the Omer,” Gevurah is compared to a mighty sea. As in the coast of the sea, we ‘enter into the world of boundaries which itself involves structures, distinctions, and discipline. We also enter into the world of justice, law and order, and karma.’ Phil had no boundaries to the indulgence of his will whereas Shane restrained his aggressive proclivities until he felt he had to act on them. As we journey through these seven weeks, let us take the candle that helped us externally find the arrogant and self-indulgent Chametz, the anathema ingredients for Passover, and use that inner candle to ferret out our negative character traits, so that we are able to create an open pure heart to receive the Torah especially tailored for our personal purpose and destiny for our lives.