Today is January 17, 2018 -
Sometimes you should listen to your children. One winter a few years back, my son Evan, who is something of a film nut, (he once spent a summer watching every film that received the Oscar for Best Picture) convinced me to watch one of that year’s Academy Award nominations. The reason he needed to convince me was the nature and format of the film. It was not the kind of movie that ordinarily peaks my interest. It was Pixar’s seemingly simple animated story about an old man and a young boy who set out on an adventure together.
The film was titled “Up” and while it did not win any awards, I had to admit that I was stricken with a bit of parental pride when I finally viewed the film because the first twenty minutes of the movie are among the most beautiful and meaningful twenty minutes of film that I have ever seen. It was poignant, utterly captivating and seamless.
In a series of scenes of montage-like scenes with almost no words, the beginning of the film traces the journey of the older man portrayed as the protagonist of the story. It details the facts of his life-long relationship with a woman who will remain faithful to him until the very end. As I said the tale is simple but recognizable. It begins when they first meet as children, and it shows them as teenagers, and even portrays their wedding day. The film, in those first twenty minutes, exquisitely encapsulates the joy that young couples often experience on their wedding day, but the film does not avoid some of the trials and tribulations that the couple experience throughout their lives together. It reveals to us in subtle and dark detail that the woman is unable to have children as those first twenty minutes follow their lives closely all the way to the illness that ultimately takes the wife away from the husband.
Now these are scenes that we all can recognize. They are scenes many of us have lived in the course of our own lives. But what happens on the screen is almost indescribable. Because what unfolds for us so seamlessly is the depth of emotion that is conveyed by the images; it is the emotion that comes from the profound, mysterious and sacred connection that friendship and love can have as it develops gradually over time between two human beings during the course of a lifetime and the rare gift that it that this organic relationship represents.
In those first few minutes we witness the kind of relationship that, though not perfect, more than sustains two lives together and morphs into a full and enduring bond between two people that represents the part, perhaps the best part of what makes us human. And it is absolutely stunning to watch it unfold.
The film has been on my because it captures not only the message of a sacred relationship between two human beings, but also because it can be emblematic of the unique experience that the people of Israel have with God during the wilderness scenes that are captured in the book of Exodus. It also reminds us how that experience suffers when our ancestors commit the sin of the golden calf.
While at first you might think that the Torah is only stressing the weaknesses of this generation of Israelites, if you take a step back from the details of that incident you will discover that the Golden Calf story is not really about sin; it is rather all about relationships typified by the relationship between Moses and God, the relationship between Moses and the Israelites, and most importantly, the relationship God and the people.
You see, God is commonly portrayed as the king and the people are understood to represent a queen. They are on Mount Sinai. Moses is officiates at this union. The Ten Commandments that we just read last Shabbat reflect the covenantal nature of their relationship. In fact in one altogether fanciful midrash our sages depict Mount Sinai actually suspended over the Israelites at the precise time that the commandments are given and so it can be seen as a metaphorical wedding canopy hovering over the heads of a young couple as they are about to wed?
So, you might ask, how does one reconcile the transgression of the golden calf with this idealistic image of a wedding between God and Israel? It is, if you will, when you consider it, the first serious fight that this “young couple” has. It is the first clear hint that they will share that life will not always be perfect. There will be bumps along the way. The people probably expected to find this. They were human. They knew that life contains difficulties and challenges because they were human. But I am not certain that God, at the outset of the transgression really understands that. In a manner of speaking, God really doesn’t yet realize what God is getting into.
God at first seems to have high expectations for the people and God is shocked when the people let Him down. God appears to think that this relationship between the people will be one of pure unadulterated bliss. But with the sin of the golden calf, God discovers that it is not going to be that way. And so what does God do? God sends Moses back down the mountain with the set of commandments, the ketubah, if you will, and when Moses sees what the Israelites have done, what does he do? He shatters the first set of tablets. He does away with the Ketubah. And one might think that the relationship is over forever. In fact when you think about it from God’s perspective, God could say to Godself, “what do I need this tzores for? These people have flaws and they not perfect. I might just as well start all over again with someone different.”
And yet maybe the most remarkable thing about the Torah is that when God recognizes that humanity is fallible God still believes that such a relationship is worth it. So God calls Moses back to the mountain a second time and gives him a second set of commandments – indeed a second chance. The relationship that started then is still here tio this very day as we sit in this sanctuary. God chooses to be vulnerable when God makes that decision. God is in a relationship and God comes to a realization that there is no turning back.
And when you think about it, is that not the way with all relationships? Take a young couple about to get married. What do they see before their eyes, only the promise of perfection? Or what does a mother see when she is looking at her baby for the very first time, once again perfection. No complications. Loving parents hovering around the beautifully quilted bassinet, as the infant blissfully sleeps, uttering not a sound. But the truth of the matter is that in a real world the Torah is teaching us that ideal image never really happens because such perfections only exist in our heads. It never exists in a single person or in a single relationship.
When I see a young couple about to get married I tell them that when you stand under the chuppah you are not saying, “I love you and I look forward to having a loving relationship with you forever and ever.” Rather, you are saying that I know there will be bumps in the road, there will be challenges, but when a challenge surfaces I also know that I love you so much that I would rather face those challenges and those difficulties with you by my side.
That kind of strength, that kind of resolve, that kind of love – is what was first experienced between God and the Jewish people and is something that has lasted to this very day. I only hope and pray that this same kind of relationship can in become a model for our own lives, not for what we think relationships will be, but for what they truly are. Shabbat Shalom.