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(The Rabbi's sermon was given right after the congregation had sung Mi Chamocha during the Friday evening service.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rabbi Mark Shapiro


I think this is as good a time as any to offer some comments on the new movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, which I saw earlier today at the 12:15 p.m. showing.


It's a good time because we've just sung Mi Chamocha, which are the words attributed to our ancestors after they cross the Sea of Reeds. According to Exodus Chapter 15, Moses leads the people in this great affirmation of faith and thanks. After so many years of slavery and after almost being slaughtered by Pharaoh and his army of chariots, our ancestors exulted in song. Miriam, the sister of Moses, encouraged the women to take up their instruments and away they all went singing themselves into history.


They were free at last. Free at last.


As it happens, the last major scene of Exodus: Gods and Kings takes place at the Sea.


There is a crossing like no crossing of the Sea you have ever seen or imagined. The minutes leading up to the actual crossing are themselves driven and dramatic. In the movie, Pharaoh is crazed as he draws closer and closer to his former slaves. Moses is concerned, dispirited, unsure, then buoyed up with faith, then resolute and firm.


It's not how the Torah presents the story, but, in all honesty, the movie's presentation is not an insult to the Torah. The movie gives you another way of imagining this climactic moment of the liberation.


Now, if you've read any reviews of the movie on-line, you may be surprised to hear me sound fairly positive. That's because almost every review I read slammed the film.


One reviewer summed it up as a "sword and sandals epic".


A. O. Scott of the New York Times began his review with these words. This movie, he wrote is "Longer than the average Hollywood feature film and shorter than the average Passover Seder." Scott ends his review of the 154 minute film with a reference to Dayenu - It's long enough. It's too long.


M.D. Shapiro disagrees.


Although parts of the movie were ridiculous, on the whole, I didn't hate the film. On the whole, I thought it really wasn't too bad.


If you ignore the fact that Moses appears to marry Zipporah under a chupah around 3300 years ago - long before Jews (or I imagine most cultures) conceived of the chupah.


If you ignore the fact that Moses brings the entire Israelite people to live with Jethro's family after they cross the Sea (Hi, honey. I'm home for dinner... along with 600,000 of my good friends)...


If you ignore the bombastic music...


Well, if you ignore some of what makes the movie a "sword and sandals epic," there are some valuable aspects to this telling of our people's oldest story. Moses as a person comes alive in a fascinating way.


Where the Torah says almost nothing about how Moses discovers and comes to own his Jewish identity, this movie devotes a great deal of time to that fascinating process. Thus, when we first meet Moses, he's clearly not the usual courtier (even though he's grown up with the crown prince). He is different - more caring! And that turns out to be a quality which the movie will follow as Moses discovers his Jewish his roots.


Raamses, the Pharaoh of the Exodus, also has some unexpected dimensions. Although he actually grew up as the crown prince, we learn in this movie that he has never felt valued by his father. For that reason, when he finally becomes Pharaoh, he focuses on asserting his power above everyone else. Suddenly, we understand why he can't ever give in to Moses or God. He has too much ego on the line. He is too insecure. His personality is such that he has to be as hard-hearted and stubborn as he is.


I should add as well that the presentation of the plagues is about as good as it could get. One leads to the other in terrifying order. There is no sense of the comic book kind of presentation. The fear and the feeling are palpable and very affecting.


Overall, the movie tells the story of the Exodus with some real power and in an appropriately creative way.


Except for one dimension of the story.


It has to do with God.


For some reason, the filmmakers chose to present God as a young boy. I'm serious.


When Moses first encounters God on Mount Sinai, the deity appears to him as a boy perhaps 11 years old. He stands there. He talks to Moses. And whenever he appears after that in the movie, God appears as that young, pre-pubescent boy - with (I might add) an English accent.


The accent aside, I can't figure out why the writers of the movie chose that depiction of God. And I'm asking that question seriously because it's clear that they did spend a lot of time figuring out how they wanted to tell the very familiar story of the Exodus. A lot of choices were made in the making of this movie, which means that a lot of conversations had to take place about the presentation of God.


So why the young child?


And, more than that, why a young child who also has a sarcastic, caustic style.


If I recall the scene correctly, when Moses first sees God he (Moses) has fallen under a rock slide and says, "Help me. I think my leg is broken. "


To which God replies, "More than that."


I get it.


God is telling Moses that Moses has larger problems than his leg. Moses has turned his back on his people. Moses' heart or conscience seems to be broken. I get it.


But here's the problem: In the movie God (that little boy) never warms up to Moses.


God prods him. God tells him that God will do what needs to be done to free the people. God is almost never pleased with Moses.


In the movie God (especially because whatever is said comes out of the mouth of a child) is snotty, actually uncaring, and (because you never know when he may or may not show up) God seems to be mainly wrapped up in God's self.


This is a departure from the actual story of the Book of Exodus that matters.


This is a departure from the way Jews have understood God that also matters.


For one thing is sure: In the Torah, God cares. God is responsive.


We read that God "hears" the Israelites moaning. God remembers God's covenant of commitment to the patriarchs. God is a presence of concern.


Later, in the midrash, God doesn't simply mete out the plagues in order to knock some sense into Pharaoh. In the midrash, God regrets what becomes necessary. In the midrash, we read about God's wishing that Pharaoh was less stubborn.


Our Passover Haggadah shares the most beautiful commentary on God. It's the tale of what happened up in heaven after the Egyptian army was destroyed at the Sea. According to this midrash (of which there isn't a whisper in the movie), the angels on high wanted to sing and party after the Egyptians drowned. God told them, "How can you rejoice at the Egyptians' pain? They too are my children."


That's the God who does not appear in the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings.


That's the dimension of our great birth story which is missing in this movie.


It's the presentation of a God who is engaged with the world, who cares, who yearns for us to be safe. It's the presentation of a merciful God who loves us.




Should you go see "Exodus: Gods and Kings?"


To my surprise, I think I might almost suggest you do. If you know the Torah's story, you'll be intrigued by this retelling and reshaping of the tale.


If you have a sense for Judaism's idea of God, you'll also find yourself thinking.


You'll wonder how you might imagine God if you were able to make a movie about the Exodus. You'll wonder how you would tell that story. Perhaps you'll even wonder how you might create the movie of your own life and where God would be placed in that personal story. I


If God isn't a snarky little boy, what do you imagine God to be?


Where do you find the loving and caring dimension that sustains us all in this world that can sometimes be so very harsh?


Exodus: Gods and Kings presents one story of God.


How might you and I write our own story with God?


Shabbat shalom.

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