Friday, July 30, 2010

Oy. Friday, July 30, 2010

“One does a mitzvah, and this is the thanks one gets?” – The Dybbuk, “A Serious Man”

Poor Larry Gopnik. The physics professor’s wife is in love with a family friend who is too nice to hate. His son would rather smoke pot than study Torah, and his daughter wants a nose job at 16. His tenure is in danger because some anonymous person is writing letters accusing him of improprieties, and a failing student is trying to blackmail him.

Larry’s brother is a gambling deadbeat and lives on Larry’s living room couch, and there’s not enough cash to cover his son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. By the time Larry gets into a car accident in the Coen brothers’ dark comedy “A Serious Man,” you can’t stop laughing. But you’re not laughing at Larry. You’re laughing at yourself, because you know how it is to be downright bewildered when so many bad things happen that you really wonder if the Universe itself is conspiring against you.

Larry is a decent fellow, and he wants answers. Is God doing this to him? If so, why? What is he supposed to learn? How is he supposed to act? What message is he not understanding? Desperate, he visits a series of rabbis. But the rabbis seem to have as many questions as Larry.

“I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem,” says Rabbi Scott, using a casual Hebrew word for God. “I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can't see Him, He isn't there any more, He's gone. But that's not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him.” But then, he manages to compare Hashem to a parking lot.

Rabbi Nachtner isn’t much help either. He’s got a story about a dentist who discovers the words “Help Me, Save Me,” written in Hebrew letters on the teeth of a “Goy” (non-Jew). The dentist becomes obsessed with the finding, and he asks, “Maybe I'm supposed to help people generally, lead a more righteous life? Is the answer in Kaballah? In Torah? Or is there even a question?”

Larry can relate. He wants answers too. But Rabbi Nachter responds, “Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn't owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” So once again, no answers for Larry. Is there a meaning in his suffering?

As it happens, things get a little better for Larry. But he never sees that burning bush. He never gets unequivocal answers to the questions he asks of God. He never learns why life is so hard, and why bad things happen to good people. But as a physics professor, he is also aware of The Uncertainty Principle, which he teaches in class:

“It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.”

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