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Posts Tagged ‘Blessings and curses’

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This week we lost Gene Wilder, one of the iconic comedic actors that my generation watched in movies we consider as classics. I can trace my maturing from adolescence to college to adulthood via Gene Wilder movies. I like pretty much all of his work from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. Everyone, of course, has their favorites. And I suppose that mine should be “The Frisco Kid,” the hilarious story of a rabbi from Poland trying to find his way across the wild west – it has so many funny Jewish references and insights. However, my very favorites are two of the ones he did with Mel Brooks: “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

Both films met with controversy during their development as well as their initial releases. Both tread ground no one dared to walk, showing disdain for the political correctness of their day. Both have moments where I still laugh so hard that I cry – even though I have seen them multiple times.

Brooks always wanted Zero Mostel to play Max Bialystock, but it took Mostel’s wife to convince him to take the role. The original Leo Bloom was supposed to be Peter Sellers, but that did not work out. Brooks then remembered he had spoken to Wilder about the role a few years earlier and cast him. “The Producers” was originally titled “Springtime for Hitler.” It was an idea Mel Brooks had been developing for years before he actually produced it. Major studios rejected the movie “Springtime for Hitler,” saying the idea of using Adolf Hitler for comedy was over the top tasteless. Brooks would say in numerous interviews that the best way to degrade the most vile dictator of the 20th century was to mock him, to make him the butt of jokes. His script for the 1968 film won an academy award. In 2001 he converted it to a musical play that won 12 Tony’s. Yet, even in 2015, some folks protested the play and the film’s mocking of Hitler, saying having Nazi’s parade around the stage in musical numbers is in bad taste, an insult to those who suffered through the Holocaust.

The premier of “The Producers” in Pittsburg, November 1967 was a disaster. The movie studio was ready to shelve it. But Sellers saw it privately and supported its general release. Reviews were mixed. But what do reviewers know? To me the movie is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is brilliant in its absurdity.

“Blazing Saddles” also morphed a lot through its production. The original title was supposed to be “Tex X,” a kind of spoof on Malcolm X. Richard Pryor, who was one of the co-writers, was supposed to play Sheriff Bart, but apparently the studio would not issue insurance on him. So the part went to Cleavon Little. Brooks offered the part of the Waco Kid to John Wayne, who turned it down but promised to be first in line to see the movie. It was then given to Gig Young, who collapsed on the set early in the shooting. So it went to Wilder.

Reaction to “Blazing Saddles” was as mixed as the reaction to “The Producers.” Many thought it was hilarious, and indeed it was a box office hit. Others were offended by the frequent use of the “n” word. Brooks pointed out those protests were mostly from whites. However, the movie was incredibly politically incorrect even beyond the language, such as when former NFL star Alax Karras, in his role as Mongo, punched and decked a horse. Or when Madeline Kahn, as Lily von Schtupp, seduces sheriff Bart. One of my favorite moments is when Mel Brooks, as the Indian chief, is shocked at seeing black people and says in Yiddish, “Hast du gesehen deine leiben (have you seen anything like this in your life)? They’re darker than we are!”

Both movies challenge our sense of propriety. Both make us uncomfortable while at the same moment trying to make us laugh. Do we dare see Hitler as funny? Is he being mocked or trivialized? Do we dare laugh at the raw racism depicted by the language and attitudes in “Blazing Saddles?” I think Brooks is correct when he states this movie could never be made in today’s politically correct culture.

To put these questions in the context of this week’s Torah portion; do we see these movies as a blessing or a curse? Are they just crude attempts at humor or insights into our cultural foibles? The very first word of the portion is re’eh, the imperative form of the verb “ to see.” God commands the Israelites to “see” that the existence of blessing and curse if before us. In Nitzavim we are told to choose blessing and live or to choose curse and die. Here we are told that if we follow God’s commands given that day, we will be blessed and if not we will be cursed. We are then to pronounce the blessing from Mount Gerizim and the curse from Mount Ebal. So what are the commands given that day? Well actually, just one, to “see.” If we combine the references to blessing and curse from this week’s parashah and Nitzavim, we can understand that we are commanded to see the existence of blessing and curse; to acknowledge them and to choose our path.

Traditionally, we look at this under the mitzvah system. If we obey we get blessed. If we do not we get cursed. But I would “see” this a bit differently. We are commanded to look at things and to judge if they are blessing or curse. We are to make the choices based on what we see and from our choices we can build a life of blessing or a life of curse. Even more, can we see that the potential for blessing AND curse exists in each thing, and how we choose to react or to handle each thing determines the degree of each in our lives. While we are told to declare blessing from one mountain and curse from another, the truth is we do not live on either mountain, but at some point in between. How close we move to one mountain or the other depends on the choices we make and the attitudes we choose to embrace.

That is why I am so intrigued by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.” Each represents a life puzzle. Each can be seen as funny and insightful or as awfully insulting. If we follow God’s command and “see” them in the context of life’s choices, how we choose to frame life, we will learn something about ourselves. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will better understand why we feel blessed or cursed. Our reactions to these movies can teach us a lot about who we are. And we can laugh a lot while we learn.

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One of the underlying themes in the book of Deuteronomy is the responsibility inherent in our choices – they will result in blessing or curse. After chapters of retelling the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness, and recounting the law code derived from experiencing revelation, parashat Re’eh begins with these words, “See, I give before you blessing and curse.” The Ramban explains this as meaning God provides a way for us to attain either a blessing or a curse – and the words “before you” signify that the choice is ours to make.

Deuteronomy outlines all the tools necessary to attain blessing. The overarching command is simply to follow the commandments, but what is that exactly? Well, it includes establishing a complex and fair justice system, and allowing for conscientious objection in the time of war (parashat Shoftim) It means fighting poverty by any means available including remission of the poor person’s debt every 7 years (parashat Re’eh). It means just treatment of captives taken in war (parashat Ki Tetzei), and it includes many other passages that reinforce the idea that our love for God, required in the words of the V’ahavtah (chapter 6), is best expressed by how we treat each other. Parashat Nitzavim – next week’s Torah portion – teaches that these demands are not hard to understand. They are neither “in heaven” nor “across the sea.” They are of this world and we are capable of handling them. It is in this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, that we are given an outline of the consequences of our choices. We read the lists of curses, if we choose poorly, and the list of blessings if we choose wisely. The consequences for choosing poorly are fairly nasty, including calamity, disease, defeat by our enemies and the rain from the skies turning to dust, wiping us out.

Our tendency is to dismiss this kind of theology as childish. We all know people who are good who seem to be constantly cursed as well as those who are bad who always seem to come out ahead. The traditional rabbinic answer that this injustice is worked out in the olam haba (the next world) not only seems like a copout, but actually counter to the plain sense meaning of the words of the Torah. Moses (and God) are talking about real time physical consequences for failure to follow Torah. Maybe there is justice in the afterlife, but do you really draw comfort from that? Don’t you think there might be a Torah message that is just a bit smarter, a bit more on point?

I do.

I believe Torah is trying to make us face something very real as opposed to soothing us with the fairy tale of an afterlife in which all is made right. Deuteronomy in particular, rubs in our faces the consequences of making choices. We have the free will to choose what we will do. This week’s laying out of the blessings and curses, I think, is Torah’s way of telling us that life can be really hard, really tricky – and that the choices we make actually do have consequences. We need to learn the responsibility of bearing the results of those choices. We need to learn that life is filled with challenges, moral, physical, mental – the list is endless. It is our choices that determine if those challenges become “blessing” or a “curse.”

There is an additional layer that Torah does not address. Sometimes the choices we think are correct and will lead to blessing actually result in a curse. For this reason, I believe, our rabbinic tradition, indeed Judaism in general, emphasizes the need for constant questioning, for not accepting things at face value. Whether it is Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah, or the Talmudic stories of rabbis arguing with God or questioning God’s nature, we are pushed as part of our religious obligation, not to accept things at face value. This means our education, both religious and secular needs to be sharp, preparing us for the task of processing an increasingly complex world.

All of this, the reality and responsibility of facing our choices as well as not just accepting things at face value, was brought into a sharper focus by a conversation I had this week with one of my congregation’s members, who teaches undergraduate courses in classical literature at Florida State University. She told me about the discussion going on regarding giving “trigger warnings” to students about course content. Trigger warnings are a qualifier put into the course description or the syllabus to warn students that there is some material they might find offensive or disturbing. For example, at Santa Barbara University in CA, where there are a lot of military veterans enrolled, the warning would be about literature or presentations containing scenes of war or violence. Women who might have experienced rape would be warned about book content that discussed rape. The idea is to prevent those who have gone through some difficult experiences additional post traumatic stress.

But is this really a good idea? Or is this one of those seeming blessings that is actually a curse in disguise? I think it may be the latter. The last 20 years has been a time in which more and more parents are over protective of children, preventing them from taking ANY risks. The blessing of protecting children can actually be a curse. If children are not allowed to fail, they cannot learn to cope with life. Wendy Mogel writes about this in her book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” Children need to be challenged in order to improve the quality of not only their work, but their choices. I have noticed a lot of the objection to the Common Core standards is over the frustration of students trying to reason through the material. Parents object that the answers are not rote, but require more complex thought. This is called “critical thinking.” It is necessary to navigate an increasingly difficult world. Trying to dumb down school content, giving awards for simple participation or “A’s” for just showing up in class, only creates a generation that cannot cope with life. It is a generation that thinks it deserves to stand on 3rd base even though they have not hit a triple. This results in adults who think they deserve top jobs with no experience or training.

College students who are supersensitive to violence and rape from reading “The Odyssey”, or to the anti-Semitism in “The Merchant of Venice” are the adult consequences of over protective childhoods. Colleges should be physically safe for sure, but intellectually they need to be places where students (who are adults not children by the way) are challenged by new ideas, by different experiences and confronting the reality of the world in the rather safe world of literature and learning. Allowing challenges to course content every time a student feels uncomfortable with it, is just training them to be drones in an overly litigious society – and that is a curse to be sure.

This week’s parashah opens with the formula we are to recite upon bringing the first fruit offering at Shavuot. It begins with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” It recounts the suffering of our forefathers, the slavery in Egypt, and how God responded to their suffering. One of the key reasons to recite it is to understand our history, including all of the hardships and struggles. We cannot appreciate the blessing of what we have now without feeling a sense of our struggle. Maybe it hurts, but it is necessary. Perhaps now we know the greatest blessing of the text of the Torah – it gives no trigger warnings.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

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