Our most common mirror of society - cinema - recently focused on time-travelling heroes putting things back in order. What does this say about us, as we welcome 2017?
Towards the end of 2016 a sequence of films were released in which time is not impenetrably linear but potentially elastic. In each case the hero fights catastrophe by stepping out of linear time and anticipating disaster.
Dr Strange averts the world’s descent into evil by literally pressing the rewind button. In Arrival, Amy Adams, as linguistics professor Louise Banks, somehow personally reflects on the future to intuit that the threat of global destruction lies less in the external threat of mysterious aliens, but in a potential failure to communicate sympathetically and remember what’s important- love, and life and death. Your Name, Japan’s highest-grossing non-Miyazaki anime ever, also integrates the quest for personal identity and a concern for the lives of others in the face of the frightening comets of history, as a teenager is buffeted between bodies and time-periods with barely enough facebook data to know who and where he is. Even Fantastic Beasts plummeted us, as an audience, back in time to a fight against divisive extremism, even if the characters themselves occupied only this past moment in time, rather than leaping back to the future as in the other films.
What’s going on?
While time travel may be a common enough cinematic device, it seems to be a particular concern in this uncertain, wavering moment. A friend of mine suggested that perhaps the trend reflects a feeling that historically we’ve been here before.
I would add that many of us regret where we seem to have found ourselves,
and might perhaps transform regret into reflection on what we’ve done and what we can do, however limited.
2016 has brought to the White House a man who has boasted about sexual assault, made racist threats on a national scale, and questioned, seemingly with intent, democratic process. We in the UK have undone time by repealing our relationship with the European Union, and possibly the increased freedom of movement and economic cooperation it brought. Trump’s success has in Israel contributed to public calls by politicians to annex occupied territory with little regard for the human rights discourse of the last 70 years. We find ourselves spinning back through time, again hearing fear of all sorts of aliens, and I’m reminded of what the philosopher Moses Mendelsohn taught in his book Jerusalem more than 230 years ago:
‘‘Now, as far as the human race as a whole is concerned, you will find no steady progress in its development that brings it ever closer to perfection. Rather do we see the human race in its totality slightly oscillate; it never took a few steps forward without soon afterwards, and with redoubled speed, sliding back to its previous position’’.
Whereas Mendelssohn seems to have slightly more faith that “progress is for the individual”, I, as 2016 comes to a close, feel that we too as individuals can stumble backwards and get stuck.
It is in recognising that we find ourselves in repeated situations that we may grow, in our personal lives and public contributions.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yehudah, our ancestor, finds himself in a painful, repeated situation. Yosef, thought to be long-gone and in disguise, tells Yehudah that he must abandon his younger brother Binyamin to captivity. Yehudah many chapters and half a lifetime ago was with his brothers as they threatened to kill Yosef. He then averted this worst possible scenario by persuading them to sell him into captivity instead, asking “what profit” would there be in us killing him. His behavior in this earlier episode is both effective and painfully compromised. Yosef and the narrative recall this earlier behavior in contriving a similar situation, and this time Yehudah proclaims his full, unimpeachable responsibility for his brother, proclaiming “I am his guarantor/ deposit”- if you must take someone, take me.
The Torah’s language emphasises Yehudah’s gradual transformation, he has moved from a framework of “profit” to one of guaranteed responsibility. Time has been part undone - for the good. Yosef’s cry brings echoes of the past and intimations of the future, and collapses them in the present of reconciliation.
We too find ourselves in repeated patterns of behavior, and can acknowledge this and sensitively learn from our experiences and self-awareness, rather than expecting miracles. Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish thinker, teaches that we have done teshuvah g’mura, complete repentance or return, when we find ourselves in a repeated situation in which we have previously made a mistake and we pull ourselves back from that same mistake (Mishne Torah, Laws of T’shuvah, 2:1).
Entering 2017, I hope we can each reflect on some of the patterns of behavior that we’re getting wrong so that we can grow. Maimonides also teaches that the principal act of repentance is admitting you have done something wrong (1:1). In 2016, I have not paid enough attention to others and the world. I have been shocked by political developments because I have not cared enough about others lives and opinions. I have used language that others have found dismissive, accusatory and hurtful, and in doing so I have contributed to personal and political divisiveness. I hope we can start reflecting upon ourselves and returning to our best selves, and maybe in doing so we will bring the world back, just a little, to its best, beautiful self.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.