Late Saturday night, my husband whisked me out of the house without telling me where we were going. He took me to see the Coen Brothers latest film, A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg. The graphic violence, bleakness, cynicism, and grotesque nature of most Coen Brothers movies turns me off, just so you know – but this was relatively tame.
The film opens with a Rashi quote, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” followed by a folk-tale-like vignette about an unlucky rabbi who helps a neighbor in a snowstorm. The rest of the story witnesses the inner struggle of a physics teacher who tumbles into a crisis of faith and meaning when his wife informs him she wants a divorce.
This could come across like one of those message films, where you walk out of the theatre asking yourself and those around you, “What did they mean by that?” and no one has a clue, so you all figure it must have been profound. In this case, though, I think obscurity actually is the message. They seem to be saying the message of life is obscure, and we should just deal with it.
The movie got me thinking about Martin Buber’s classic I and Thou, in which he describes ways we may objectify others, relating to them as props or accessories. We may use other people to fulfill material or emotional needs, to perform roles that have nothing to do with who they are as individuals – as if people were interchangeable. We may choose a career path based on the label that path represents, failing to recognize our own patterns, preferences, limitations, and true talents.
A Serious Man encapsulates reality, like the Book of Job in comedic form. Nothing goes according to our plans. Sh*t happens. And then, just when we start to get a grip, the excrement hits the propeller. And then we die. What can we learn from this? To appreciate each moment as it comes, and see it for what it is – to abandon our scripts, to receive our waking moments with innocence. The wind tunnel of chaos is not an enemy; it is what it is. God isn’t the sh*tstorm, but is, instead, how we respond to the sh*tstorm.