Fisher King- A Fictional Exodus Story

As the tumultuous and miraculous month of Nissan ends, here’s a movie link to keep you connected.

The torment of psychological pain can make people insane, but blessed encounters lead to recovery lane.

The film “Fisher King” is riveting in how it expresses this kind of encounter. Two well-known movie stars engage with each other in this surreal and superficially absurd film with layers of profundity. Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges are two tormented men, Parry and Jack, whose lives are intertwined because of one incident. Jack is an articulate radio host with an arrogant and dismissive manner who rags on a desperate caller, Edwin. Edwin then proceeds to go on a shooting spree, killing Parry’s wife right in front of him. Parry loses it by becoming a near psychotic hobo, and Jack loses it by becoming paralyzed by the realization that it was his dissing of Edwin which probably pushed him over the edge.

The title relates to a medieval tale of a depressed king searching for the Holy Grail. A simple knight heals him with a cup of water. The king thinks the cup is the grail and wonders how the knight found it. The knight responds saying that he knew only that the king was thirsty. In the film, Jack is first like the king, and Parry is like a jester who tries to cheer up the king. Toward the end however, the roles are reversed. When Parry is comatose, Jack risks his life to obtain the goblet that Parry insisted was the grail. In short, each man tries to help the other by liberating him from what prevents him from moving on with his life.

I see many parallels in this film to the Passover story of slavery and liberation. First, it is in the realization of how events happen to people that can cause them life altering trauma, unless faced and worked through. But it is nearly impossible to do alone, and here is where Judaism reminds us that relief can come from G-d sending us ways to confront our demons by hitting us with the very face of the situation that caused the trauma. This concept helps shed some light on why we should thank G-d for getting us out of trouble, while we wonder why we got into trouble in the first place.

The Torah portion of Tzav contains the law of bringing a korban Todah, a thanksgiving offering for having survived certain dangerous situations. The sages elaborate that these situations are hinted at in the word CHAIM, whose four Hebrew letters stand for Chavush-in prison, Yam-crossing the sea, Yesurim-being ill, and Midbar-crossing the desert. Some Hassidic masters explain these situations allegorically and I would also like to do something similar, related to the “Fisher King.” In a way, both Jack and Perry went through these stresses. They were both ill, and they crossed a sea of false elation, and a desert of feeling lifeless and depressed. Above all, they were prisoners of their own minds, and could not escape until they were able to help each other.

Their personal exodus was also like the process of getting rid of Chametz, leavening products that are the anathema of Passover. The current custom is through gathering the Chametz and then storing it away, burning some leftovers, and nullifying the remainder in one’s heart. The Mishna discusses other methods besides burning, like throwing crumbs into the air, or into the sea, or burial in the ground. These four methods might relate to four parts of a person, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Jack and Parry had to deal with blockages in each area. They were at first enslaved to their physical pain- Parry in his catatonia and ensuing hobo life style, and Jack in his alcohol addiction. Then their emotional paralysis held them captive- Parry in his refusal to face his wife’s horrible death, and Jack in his torment about playing a role in the shooter’s act. Intellectually, both were unwilling to admit that anything was wrong. Still spiritually, the pilot light of their souls drove them to the unrest that would not let them rest in the status quo. For them, their internal process of casting off Chametz was not just about physical removal but of emotional, mental and psychological components of arrogance on one hand, and false humility on the other. These two extremes have a common function of preventing any progressive change that can release a person from a destructive strangle-hold on moving forward toward positive growth.

It is so interesting how the two main characters who were totally lost in their own way, managed to not only meet up with each other but bring about a transformation for each other. Jack’s change is more straightforward. If I may borrow another pattern from the four sons of the Haggadah, here’s how I see it. He starts off by being a ‘wise guy.’ He’s condescending and insensitive to those around him, especially to a desperate caller who feels hopeless in life. The second son in the Haggadah, is the wicked one where Jack treats the caller in a cold and callous manner. Then Jack finds out that he may have been indirectly responsible for the shooter who killed Parry’s wife. It happened right in front of him, with her blood gushing over him. As a result, Parry went basically psychotic.  Then the third son in the Haggadah says, ‘What is this?’ Similarly Jack is in a very confused state and really wants to atone but doesn’t know how. He keeps saying, ‘Forgive me’ with many different intonations. Finally comes the son who doesn’t know how to ask. This is when Jack seems to let go of control and understanding, and in this state, he has kind of met his match with Parry, who almost lives the reverse process.

Thus, Parry lives from a place of being clueless and creating his own inner world where on one hand he imagines seeing a terrifying red knight, and on the other hand, swoons over a socially inept but very sweet woman. He also goes through a stage of confusion of fantasy and reality, and then refuses to face what really happened that drove him over the edge to the point that he becomes catatonic again, until he sees that Jack actually risked his life to bring him what he asked, the Holy Grail, and brought him together with his new love.

What resonates for me from a Torah perspective is how difficult and complex the ‘road back’ really is, because it is not a return to a status quo ante, but an integration of all of what is and what can be. When the challenges are faced and overcome it is like a rebirth into a new persona. Often G-d provides us with relief by sending us ways to confront our demons by hitting us with the very face of the situations that caused the trauma. There is an intriguing symbol surfacing in the film. When he is drunk, Jack is given a doll of Pinocchio by the young son of a wealthy man. The boy hands the doll to Jack, saying, ‘Here, Mister Bum.’ It doesn’t take much to figure out what the message is: Just as the doll has to go beyond its wooden nature to become human, so too Jack and Parry have to face and transcend their fears to become the people they have the potential to be.

And this transformation cannot usually be done alone. The Talmud says, ‘Ein Chavush Matir Et Atzmo’ – a prisoner cannot release him or herself without help. On one hand, no one can do the work for the person, but on the other hand, some assistance is needed. The benefit of physical assistance is only a part of the help. The psychological awareness that someone else cares and therefore considers you valuable enough to warrant their help is a key factor in recovery. The uniqueness of “Fisher King” is that both Jack and Parry would not have recovered without each other. They are mirrors and reflectors to that which they couldn’t bear to look at on their own.

This too has a Pesach counterpart. The sages say that one of the reasons Moshe lived his earlier life in the palace in Egypt was so he could have a sense of a world beyond slavery. The Jews were imprisoned in their life perspective where all they knew at that point was enslavement. Moshe was exposed to the enslavement after he had a taste of royalty, albeit in a corrupt form. But he could convey a dream of a different life to those who were born in oppression and once they had that dream, they could move toward the path of liberation.

In a similar teaching, the Maharal of Prague teaches that the one person of the seventy descendants of Jacob who went down to Egypt and was born on the border, was Yocheved the mother of Moshe. Since she was meant to birth the man who lived in two worlds, she too had to be born ‘between the walls’ as the sages put it. To help another one must have both empathy and an escape plan.

Rabbi Dovber Pinson frames the four stages to inner freedom in the following way: 1-REJECTING the negative narrative and not accepting the current situation as absolute. 2-BELIEVING in the possibility of radical change and the miraculous. 3-VISUALIZING the new reality and creatively imagining being in that brighter future state. 4-DOING the actions that begin the steps in making your future happen. These stages parallel the changes in both Jack and Parry throughout the film.

What is the negative narrative? There are two kinds of situations that people call very ‘bad’. One is when very bad things happen to people; another is when people do very bad things. These two situations usually evoke two different kinds of responses. If someone does something bad and realizes it, they have to first of all deal with a sense of guilt. If something bad happens to a person, they have to deal with their feelings of grief and loss. The former is Jack’s reaction and the latter is Parry’s.

The Torah has some guidelines for people to create a healing process, for people experience both kinds of ‘bad.’ Repairing the ‘bad’ one does has a more straightforward path- It is called Teshuva. In Jack’s case, it involves recognizing and taking responsibility, i.e. ‘mea culpa.’ Then comes expressing regret, which obviously contains allowing one to feel the regret. Lastly comes determination to change, and ideally in the long run, to implement the change.

Dealing with the second kind of change is more psychologically charged. When faced with personal trauma, identifying the cause and effect is itself often blocked by the trauma. The process of grieving and mourning is what leads to the healing. In this case, having an empathic friend is invaluable. And in both cases, of course, having faith, conscious or unconscious, in a higher power is not only beneficial, but critical, from a Jewish perspective.

There is a profound teaching from Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, who wrote an essay about the challenge of loving G-d and loving people. What prevents these key mitzvot from being completely fulfilled, is the phenomenon of death. Rav Hutner wrote that the tablets of the Ten Commandments prepared the world for an eternal healing because, unlike even a sacred Torah scroll, the words are not superimposed on an existing scroll, but in the tablets, the stone itself became the letters by having the words carved into them. The symbol represents the time when matter and spirit won’t be two separate entities. When the body totally radiates soul, then the divisions between people and each other and between people and the divine, will dissolve.

In terms of the movie, when Parry feels that Jack truly cares about him enough to risk everything for his outlandish wish, and when Jack feels that he cares about Parry above and beyond expiating his sin and supercilious attitude, then the healing can occur in both of them. As a not insignificant bonus, they can both express their love and commitment to the woman who completes them. But when the love becomes more selfless than the reasons that precipitated the love, something more lasting and satisfying seems to remain.

Rabbi Yanki Tauber speaks about different degrees of the commandment ‘love your friend as yourself.’ Even the greatest of our ancestors may have had agendas in their expressions of love, conscious or unconscious. The three predecessors of Moshe-Chanoch, Noach, and Avraham were confronted with people whose values were different from theirs. Even Avraham whose tent of hospitality was literally open on all sides, wanted his guests to get closer to monotheism. How can you top that from a Jewish point of view? Each one of the above three was more limited in their sphere of influence than Moshe. Why? Rabbi Tauber puts it bluntly: In order to truly influence someone, we must devote ourselves to him or her regardless of whether or not they will be influenced. If someone needs your help, so help them, whether the help is material or spiritual. But why bother with a ‘lost case?’ Because, insists the Lubavitcher Rebbe who walked his talk, because you care about them, not only what they ought to be. If you care for them in this way, they will respond. If you care for them only because they will respond, then they probably won’t.

Parry and Jack came to this realization in very different ways, from very different and tormented states of mind. However the realization they reached by looking into each other’s eyes and souls, transformed them both forever. From a Jewish perspective, the directive of ‘Love your friend as yourself’ does not only impose a commitment of dedication to the other, but counter intuitively expands your own being beyond any limitations you thought confined and defined who you are.  Perhaps that is the deeper purpose of drinking a ‘L’CHAIM’ to those you feel close to. The first and last letters of the Hebrew word ‘ life’ spell CHAM, meaning warm; the middle letters are two Yuds which spell G-d’s name. Maybe that’s why the verse of ‘Love your friend as yourself’ ends with the phrase: ‘I am G-d.’ G-d’s Presence rests in the space that connects two good friends. Perhaps the Passover cup of Elijah, who is said to restore the hearts of parents to children and children to parents, is after all the Jewish holy goblet! As they say in Israel when asked ‘how are things’- HAKOL B’SEDER,’ Everything is in order. If we are really in tune with each other, (as in the film, ‘I love a Gershwin tune, how about you?’) then it may truly be ‘Everything is in the SEDER.’

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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