Could Pharaoh be Irish? As we read this last month’s Torah portions, about the ancient idiosyncratic behavior of an Egyptian despot, we think such personalities can’t happen in our world, in our times. Well, a film with nine nominations for Oscar awards, admirably shows it can transpire in ordinary human behavior.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” can’t be easily classified. To me this movie with breathtaking landscapes, felt like a deep, dark, and haunting dream. The place, an island of the coast of Ireland, does not exist, but it feels real. The characters seem realistic but act surreal in many ways. Though I could name several Irish films that show a tragic bent – “Belfast,” “Angela’s Ashes,” to name a few – nothing I’ve see compares to this. The Banshee lady- I had to look up the reference- represented a mythic figure who would shriek at gravesites and portend imminent deaths. All that doesn’t seem like a story we can relate to, and certainly not in a Jewish way.
However, I accept the challenge to find a Jewish connection, and here’s what I come up with.
First of all, the Talmud does speak about professional ‘howling women’ at funerals, though they are not known to portend the future. More relevant to this essay, the sages do present the idea that ordinarily sane people can sink to unspeakable inhuman acts.
Turning back to look closer at Pharaoh: The big debate about Pharaoh’s behavior was about the hardening of his heart, in other words his stubbornness. A major theological question that comes up is, Why, as the Torah writes, would, he be punished for not releasing the Jews in the last four plagues if, rather than Pharaoh hardening his own heart, G-d is the one who hardened the ruler’s heart? Among the traditional answers given are a range of responses from ‘a punishment for his closed heart during the first six plagues,’ to, ‘he was given the freedom to decide on his own, rather than being pressured from the harshness of the final plagues.’
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks expands the question, one which does relate directly to the Irish film: Are people free to choose their behavior or is human nature predetermined? Rabbi Sacks points out an interesting contradiction regarding secular perspectives in our society. On one hand, the more sophisticated science becomes, the more insight there is to detecting determining factors in the way people act. On the other hand, secularists insist that freedom is a supreme value, as long as no one is hurt in the process. How does Judaism address this issue? Here is the way Rabbi Sacks describes it: ‘we are not born free (as science shows), we have to work hard to achieve freedom.’ I would add that we cannot judge others because we don’t know what nature/nurture has contributed to a person’s behavior. However, we can judge ourselves according to the higher values and standards that the Torah provides. The catch is that to go against our reactive nature as we aspire to those higher values, takes, as Rabbi Sacks reminds us, a lot of self-reflection and practice. As many sages point out, a person’s character can improve by acting better.
Now let’s focus back on the movie. It all started with a man named Colm who was brutally honest, saying to his long term friend Padraic, ‘I don’t like you anymore.’ Everyone can relate to the pain the recipient of such a direct statement must feel. I immediately think of a slew of alternate ways that such a message might be conveyed, specifically by the man Colm in this film. He did qualify his attitude at some point by saying he needs to value the time he has left in his life. Nevertheless, to lead with such a blunt admission ‘I don’t like you anymore’ would shut down the heart of any feeling person.
And, sorry for the spoilers, look where it led! To some horrific acts on the part of each of the men. The rejecter ends up cutting off his fingers to express the extent of his rejection, and the rejected one ends up burning down the house of the one who rejected him. Such extreme actions don’t pop out of nowhere. The noted psychologist Eric Fromm actually invokes Pharaoh in his discussion of the etiology of evil and diminishment of free choice. His example is that of a man who decides to drink, then decides to pick up a street girl, then decided to shack up with her, and finally says, ‘I couldn’t help it. I’m only human.’
But let’s try to find something positive about the two main characters in the movie. To invoke Rebbe Nachman’s insistence on finding a good point in people, we could show that both the men continued to care about innocent animals. As minimalistic as that sounds, to me that hinted at a sliver of hope in their future. There was a third nominee for an Oscar- a young man, Dominic, who was considered the town dimwit, but who was basically good hearted and wanted acceptance. He reached out for love but didn’t get any, even and especially from his abusive father who was the town policeman! What was most heart-breaking for me was that this gentle character that didn’t experience love, was the one who ended up taking his own life.
The two former friends, in contrast to poor Dominic, as peculiar and troubled as they were in their actions, did seem to feel a glimmer of love in their lives. Of course, the intensity of their relationship probably contributed to their ensuing fury at the breakup. Indeed, it is often the people we feel the closest to, who are most liable to disappointing us because we have such high expectations of them. In the Exodus story, if I were to look for a mitigating factor in Pharaoh’s psyche, it might be an inner conflict about an earlier love for the child Moshe who was now declaring war upon him.
How does the Torah help us navigate the raging waters of such tumultuous relationships?
In the Torah we read twice about a prohibition to not afflict or cause suffering to another, one time regarding physical or monetary damage, and a second time to emotional or psychological distress. (Think of Will Smith and Chris Rock at last year’s Oscars) Imagine if even part of humanity would attempt to fulfill these commandments, even as an aspiration, what a different world we would have. When the other lashes out at us, instead of reacting in a similar way, we sense there pain and express both our concern and any offer to help. If we could realize the arrow that is being directed at us, may actually be an arrow directed inward to the shooter, and if we could even mentally extract that arrow gently, wonders could happen. Furthermore, the Torah even commands us to help out with the burden of our enemies before those of our friends!
Another very Jewish directive: The sages tell us that at the very least, when in the presence of stubborn wrong doing, we can train ourselves to look for a stronger contrast of how not to behave. Then we will not only be the beneficiaries of our insight, perhaps the other will also benefit. That is actually one explanation of how the Bible can speak about evil doers when we are taught not to speak lashon hara- evil words even if they are true about another. In fact, if we can learn from others, both positive and negative, then we can benefit even the wrong doers.
Here is one example from Pirkei Avot: The sage Hillel once saw a skull floating on the water and spoke to it saying, ‘Because you drowned others, you were drowned, and the ones who drowned you will also be drowned.’ What’s the point of that episode? We learn from the oral Torah that it was actually the skull of Pharaoh that Hillel found; therefore the karmic lesson makes sense. Pharaoh drowned the Israelites so he too was drowned. However, the Lubavitcher rebbe goes further and insists that if our reminder of who Pharaoh was helps us be kinder, than Pharaoh’s soul also attains a release from his negativity!
In short, to me it seems appropriate to discuss the Banshees movie around the time we read about the Exodus. There are three terms in the Torah for Pharaoh’s stubbornness and stiff neck. His actions indeed remind me of the stubbornness of the two main characters in the Banshees film. One is too insensitive to see the pain he is causing his friend by dissing him, and the other is too insensitive to see that his friend needs his space at that time in his life and he shouldn’t take it so personally even when his friend says ‘I don’t like you anymore.’
If someone reminds you of the commandment, ‘It is wrong to hurt people,’ as well as other commandments that may go against your nature, your job is to listen. How much more so if G-d is doing the talking. But that takes place in next week’s Torah portion…