‘A Serious Man’ with Serious Doubts?

‘A Serious Man’ is a seriously quirky yet enjoyable award-winning black comedy that centres on the nature of faith in a man’s life, which became chaotic in multiple ways for no apparent cause on his part – despite trying his best to be a ‘serious man’. Here is some of its dialogue and comments on them. [You can click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensch to know what it means to be a ‘serious man’ (mensch).]

Demon or Not?

Dybbuk?: I shaved hastily this morning and missed a bit-by you this makes me a dybbuk? It’s true, I was sick with typhus when I stayed with Peselle, but I recovered, as you can plainly see, and now I-hugh! [She stabs him in the chest with an ice pick] What a wife you have!
Shtetl Husband: Woman, what have you done?
Dybbuk?: Why would she do such a thing? I ask you, Velvel, as a rational man: which of us is possessed?
Shtetl Wife: What do you say now about spirits? He is unharmed!
Dybbuk?: On the contrary! I don’t feel at all well. [Blood begins to seep from his chest] One does a mitzvah and this is the thanks one gets?
Shtetl Husband: Dora! Woe, woe! How can such a thing be!
Dybbuk?: Perhaps I will have some soup. I am feeling weak. Or perhaps I should go. One knows when one isn’t wanted. [Walks out]
Shtetl Husband: Dear wife. We are ruined. Tomorrow they will discover the body. All is lost.
Shtetl Wife: Nonsense, Velvel. Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil.

Comments: This is from a standalone short film at the beginning of the film set in the olden days. A dybukk is supposed to be a demon who possesses the dead. The husband believes the old man is not one, as he had helped him that night, while the wife believes he is one, because who he identifies himself to be is ‘supposed’ to have died before finishing a shave. With the bleeding and his departure, the husband believes he’s really human, while the wife continues believing he’s a dybukk. The audience is deliberately left wondering if the old man who was stabbed is really a dybukk or not – and is forced to take a side. But then again, one can suspend belief too. Were the directors hinting at the arbitrariness yet potential deadly danger of what one believes in? What do you really believe in? Is it rational? Or must what we need to believe in be beyond rationality, which is why faith is needed? Or is there rational faith? Is true good riddance of evil not in uncovering the good truth instead of clinging to blind faith?

Are Parking Lots Amazing or Not?

Rabbi Scott: But maybe – can I share something with you? Because I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem, which is the problem here. 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. Am I right? [He rises and goes to the window] I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see. It is a different angle on the same parking lot we saw from the Hebrew school window. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these… autos and such… somebody still with a capacity for wonder… Someone with a fresh… perspective. That’s what it is, Larry.
Larry Gopnik: Um…
Rabbi Scott: Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she’s become a sort of… thing… a problem… a thing…
Larry Gopnik: Well, she’s, she’s seeing Sy Ableman.
Rabbi Scott: Oh.
Larry Gopnik: She’s, they’re planning, that’s why they want the Gett [ritual divorce].
Rabbi Scott: Oh. I’m sorry.
Larry Gopnik: It was his idea.
Rabbi Scott: Well, they do need a Gett to remarry in the faith. But this is life. For you too. You can’t cut yourself off from the mystical or you’ll be – you’ll remain – completely lost. You have to see these things as expressions of God’s will. You don’t have to like it, of course.
Larry Gopnik: The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss.
Rabbi Scott: Ha-ha-ha! That’s right, things aren’t so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry. [He gazes out, marveling] Just look at that parking lot.

Comments: If we imagine ourselves to be visitors with fresh perspectives, will we be more amazed by the number of parking lots or the amount of human suffering that seems to go ‘unchecked’? If what we believe in is not seen or felt, could it also not mean the absence of the believed? When do we see something unfortunate as an expression of divine will that we cannot counter instead of something that we should challenge and counter with our will? Is the best advice in times of hapless distress always acceptance? But even true acceptance requires personal will; not any divine will.

Signs or Not?

Rabbi Nachtner: You know Lee Sussman.
Larry Gopnik: Doctor Sussman? I think I – yeah.
Rabbi Nachtner: Did he ever tell you about the goy’s teeth?
Larry Gopnik: No… What goy?
Rabbi Nachtner: So… Lee is at work one day; you know he has the orthodontic practice there at Great Bear. He’s making a plaster mold – it’s for corrective bridge work – in the mouth of one of his patients, Russell Kraus. The mold dries and Lee is examining it one day before fabricating an appliance. He notices something unusual. There appears to be something engraved on the inside of the patient’s lower incisors. He vav shin yud ayin nun yud [Hebrew characters]. “Hwshy ‘ny”. “Help me, save me”. This in a goy’s mouth, Larry. He calls the goy back on the pretense of needing additional measurements for the appliance. “How are you? Noticed any other problems with your teeth?” No. There it is. “Hwshy ‘ny”. “Help me”. Son of a gun. Sussman goes home. Can Sussman eat? Sussman can’t eat. Can Sussman sleep? Sussman can’t sleep. Sussman looks at the molds of his other patients, goy and Jew alike, seeking other messages. He finds none. He looks in his own mouth. Nothing. He looks in his wife’s mouth. Nothing. But Sussman is an educated man. Not the world’s greatest sage, maybe, no Rabbi Marshak, but he knows a thing or two from the Zohar and the Caballah. He knows that every Hebrew letter has its numeric equivalent. 8-4-5-4-4-7-3. Seven digits… a phone number, maybe? “Hello? Do you know a goy named Kraus, Russell Kraus?” “Who?” “Where have I called? The Red Owl in Bloomington. Thanks so much.” He goes. It’s a Red Owl. Groceries; what have you. Sussman goes home. What does it mean? He has to find out if he is ever to sleep again. He goes to see… the Rabbi Nachtner. He comes in, he sits right where you’re sitting right now. “What does it mean, Rabbi? Is it a sign from Hashem, ‘Help me’? I, Sussman, should be doing something to help this goy? Doing what? The teeth don’t say. Or maybe I’m supposed to help people generally, lead a more righteous life? Is the answer in Caballah? In Torah? Or is there even a question? Tell me, Rabbi, what can such a sign mean?” [pause as the Rabbi drinks his tea]
Larry Gopnik: So what did you tell him?
Rabbi Nachtner: Sussman?
Larry Gopnik: Yes!
Rabbi Nachtner: Is it… relevant?
Larry Gopnik: Well, isn’t that why you’re telling me?
Rabbi Nachtner: Okay. Nachtner says, look. The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others… couldn’t hurt.
Larry Gopnik: No! No, but… who put it there? Was it for him, Sussman, or for whoever found it, or for just, for, for…
Rabbi Nachtner: We can’t know everything.
Larry Gopnik: It sounds like you don’t know anything! Why even tell me the story?
Rabbi Nachtner: [chuckling] First I should tell you, then I shouldn’t.
Larry Gopnik: What happened to Sussman?
Rabbi Nachtner: What would happen? Not much. He went back to work. For a while he checked every patient’s teeth for new messages. He didn’t find any. In time, he found he’d stopped checking. He returned to life. These questions that are bothering you, Larry – maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.
Larry Gopnik: I don’t want it to just go away! I want an answer!
Rabbi Nachtner: 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.
Larry Gopnik: Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?
Rabbi Nachtner: He hasn’t told me.
Larry Gopnik: [puts his face in his hands in despair] And… what happened to the goy?
Rabbi Nachtner: The goy? Who cares?

Comments: Were there really deliberate divine engravings on the teeth? Or were they simply natural marks that happened to resemble words? Whether heeding a divine call or not, helping someone specific or others in general with genuine compassion and wisdom definitely is… helpful – to one and all! We don’t need any special signs to remind us to help others. The fact that many others suffer already is a huge ‘sign’ that the world needs our help. We can’t know everything at once – but this we know. Questions that bother us always come and go – though they might arise time and again till they are answered. Larry didn’t really need to know the answer to “What happened to Sussman?” as much as he needed to know how to best help others, while seeking more relevant help for himself. No one owes us any answers to our existential questions other than ourselves. Likewise, we owe it to ourselves to ask the right questions.

Uncertainty Principle

Larry Gopnik: [to his physics class] The Uncertainty Principle. 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.

Comments: It is certainly our personal responsibility to grapple with uncertainty and to seek enlightenment best we can!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.