Parashat Vayigash 5776 (and its relationship with Star Wars)
So it is not a mystery that I am a big fan of the Star Wars universe, I have even received presents from Shul members related to Star Wars! This week, as many other people around the World, I was over excited by the release of the new Star Wars movie. Indeed, I went to the first screening at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday and I am still recovering from the excitement… it’s ok, it will pass.
So this week Parsha runs like Return of the Jedi, we have a huge act of Teshuva when Joseph brothers, in front of the same situation when they sold Joseph in the past, now have changed their ways and are willing to defend Benjamin . The love of their brother and their father, who they don’t want to cause any more pain, redeem them. In the same way the Darth Vader’s love for his son Luke redeem him from the Dark Side at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Now, Jedi is an interesting word. Jedi sounds a lot like Jid, the Yiddish version of the word Yehudi, Jew. Is there any connection or parallel between Judaism and the Jedi belief in the Force. You bet, if not I wouldn’t be talking about it.
Daniel Perez claims in an article about our subject that while the Jedi belief isn’t theistic, meaning they don’t believe in a Divine Being per se, its practitioners do teach of a Force that, in the words of Rabbi Obi-Wan Kenobi “…is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” That almost sounds like some sort of Chasidic teaching – just replace “energy field” with “entity” or “consciousness,” and “created by,” with “that creates,” we believe we are created by the Force, not the other way around. When you do this you have something that starts to come across less like new age hippie talk and more like an introduction to Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.
One idea that devout Jews of all stripes share, is that G-d, the creative “Force” that sustains all, is the source of a Jew’s power. “Ein od milvado,” there is none besides Him. The Jew expresses his or her connection to the universe by striving for an ever closer relationship with its Creator. To become one with the Force.
Another aspect of Jedi belief is the notion of balance, the idea that the Light Side and the Dark Side are both aspects of the same Force seeking equilibrium, balance. The religions that branched off from Judaism, especially Christianity, tend to show the Creator and Satan, or “The Devil,” in an relationship of enemies, almost a sort of de facto dualistic theology with a God and an anti-God, if you will. Judaism maintains that the Satan (lit. “Accuser”) is the angel associated with temptation, and prosecution in the Heavenly Court. He’s got a dirty job to do, but in the end, we’re both serving the same Boss.
Judaism also teaches that the source of Light and Darkness are One and the same, as it says in the prayer book: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates all things.” The source for this line of liturgy can be found in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 45:7: “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Who makes all these.”
Incidentally, one of the traditional names for God – invoked particularly by the Jewish mystics – is HaMakom, literally “The Place.” The deeper idea conveyed by this name is that the Creator does not exist within the universe; the universe exists within Him. It sounds a lot like The Force. The key conceptual difference between the fictitious all-uniting Force of Star Wars and the Shechinah or “Divine Presence” is that the former is impersonal and passive, the latter is an omnipotent consciousness that actively intervenes in human history, speaking with Prophets and working miracles until this very day.
There is one Jewish theology even closer to the concept of the Force in Star Wars and is that of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. In agreement with prominent medieval Jewish thinkers including Maimonides, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. For Kaplan G-d is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of G-d. In his view, G-d has ontological reality, a real and absolute existence independent of human beliefs, while rejecting classical theism and any belief in miracles.
Being said that, in Star Wars is very important for the Jedi to be sure of their faith and commitment to the Force. In Empire Strikes Back, during Luke’s training, he practices moving small rocks around with The Force. Yoda then insists that he raise his sunken spaceship from the swamp in a similar way. Luke tries but is defeated, ‘It’s too big!’ he gasps as he struggles to catch his breath. Yoda admonishes him for attributing such importance to physical size, which is irrelevant in the face of the all-powerful Force. But Luke is unconvinced and scoffs, ‘You want the impossible!’
Then to his amazement, and a rousing musical surge from composer John Williams, Yoda raises the ship clean out of the water and back onto land with just his two little outstretched yellow claws and a concentrated expression.
Luke is dumbfounded and exclaims, ‘I can’t believe it!’ and Yoda replies, ‘That is why you fail’.
The link to Jewish philosophy is astounding. Some rabbis explain that Nature is simply a series of miracles we have become used to. There are many levels in which humans can relate to Nature, but those on the highest levels see Nature not as something independent from God, not only as something running along its own principles and laws, but as a function of God’s ongoing and continuous intervention. They feel God in every single detail of the world around them (feel The Force!).
And what about the imperative for the Jedi to control his emotions? This is Jewish character development, or tikkun hamiddot, to its core! Yoda and Obi Wan repeatedly warn Luke against anger, fear, aggression and hatred, all characteristics that lead to the Dark Side. These emotions are as negative in Judaism as for the Jedi, and Luke is continually battling to control himself. As a Jew is required to conquer his negative characteristics, so is a Jedi.
Rabbi Yoda taught us: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”. The path to hatred may be more varied than Rabbi Yoda believes. Though it often comes from fear, it can also come from hurt, or sometimes just ignorance. No matter where it comes from, however, the result is almost always suffering. The Torah has already warned us against hating others, teaching us in Leviticus 19.17-18, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When we hold a grudge, or hate someone, so much evil can come from it. If we hold enough grudges, it does indeed lead us to the dark side, possibly corrupting the way we think and turning us into vindictive, hateful people. It can lead to actions that hurt others and ourselves.
This is what the Children of Israel learnt in our Parashah. They hated Joseph for being “daddy’s boy”, the spoiled one, the favourite and they acted upon their hate and sold his brother as a slave. In our Parashah, Benjamin was now the favourite, the spoiled one, the one not sent to Egypt with the rest because he was too precious. His brothers chose this time to not give themselves to hate, they don’t hate their brother accepting the situation. This choice enabled them to do the right thing when tested by Joseph and brought redemption to the World. Likewise Joseph, instead of giving up to hate when he saw again his brothers, taking advantage of his newly gained power to take revenge on them, he chooses to test them, to see who they are now and is surprised to find that they are not the same. When there is no hate, there is no suffering. When there is no hate, brothers can embrace without fear, with love and blessing.
May the Force be with you!