Vanquishing our Goblins

Last weekend we had a wonderful visit from Eric Kimmel, one of the leading Jewish children’s book authors. Eric visited the Timberland Library on Saturday evening, then spent Sunday morning with our Beit Sefer families before concluding his time with a lunch with community members.

For a tradition that loves storytelling, Eric continues that tradition with retellings of old tales as well as new storiess. He draws upon well-known and not-so-well-know figures from Jewish folklore and also gives new life to holidays through his imaginative tellings.

One of his most popular books, which has become a classic, is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. He read it as part of his visit, and it was a delight to see so many people bring their own personal copies (some quite well-worn) for him to sign. The book tells the story of Hershel of Ostropol, who, while visiting a town, agrees to challenge the Hanukkah goblins who haunt the synagogue. These goblins prevent the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and each night Hershel tricks them into letting him light the candles. The last night, the king of the goblins is similarly tricked, and heads off into the night.

  

At the lunch last Sunday Eric shared some of the stories behind the stories, as well as his own approach to storytelling and education. He provided some valuable insight, including the idea that Jewish storytelling is first and foremost about teaching values, and that is something he looks for in every story he writes.

Another powerful and poignant fact is about the reality of evil, and that it is necessary not to shield children from that fact. When he was talking about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, he mentioned a speaking engagement at a synagogue where the cantor showed him an article he had written. The article compared the story of Hershel with the commonly known Dr. Seuss tale, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

The difference, wrote the cantor, is that in the latter book, evil is vanquished by being completely overcome. The Grinch is revealed to be simply uninformed or inexperienced in the joy of Christmas, and that is what causes him to be so mean. At the end of the book, after experiencing the joy, the Grinch is converted from his evil ways.

In contrast, at the end of Hershel, the goblins still exist. They haven’t been turned to good, they have simply been temporarily defeated. As Eric pointed out, the king of the goblins will simply move on to the next town. Evil was vanquished this time, but evil continues to exist.

This is truly a powerful observation, and astounding to think about absorbing this message, both for children and adults alike. When so much of our time–and children’s literature ink–is spent pretending that evil doesn’t exist, an admission of its reality is both terrifying and a relief. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we can defeat it. And yes, it will continue to manifest itself in one form or another.

Sometimes evil is made manifest in ways we can not control–as when a child is struck by cancer. And sometimes evil is human-created, as in the many ways we continue to oppress and harm one another.

This month, we remember one such manifestation of evil perpetrated against the Jewish community. 75 years ago this month the German government launched a pogrom against the Jews of Germany and Austria in what has commonly become known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.”  Synagogues burned, Torahs and books destroyed, Jewish-owned shops were vandalized and looted, and Jews themselves rounded up and sent to camps. It is sometimes seen as the “beginning of the end,” the move from subtle laws and cultural biases against the Jews to outright and blatant action. (We will remember Kristallnacht this Friday at our Erev Shabbat services at Temple Beth Hatfiloh.)

In the scope of Holocaust remembrance, perhaps we don’t remember this period and event enough. And perhaps it is even more important that we remember this period of time. When we mark Yom Hashoah (“Holocaust Remembrance Day”) in the spring, we recall the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry and say, “never again” to genocide and mass murder.

But we also need to say “never again” to the subtle biases, the weighted laws and the community acceptance which can potentially be a prelude for greater destruction.

There is evil in our world and we need to face it. As we gather around our own menorahs this week to usher in the celebration of Hanukkah, we will be lighting up the darkness. Le us use that opportunity to, like Hershel, identify our goblins and seek to vanquish them. And when they move on, we’ll seek to do it again.

Universe’s Most Famous Atheist Dies

During a period of momentous events in the last few weeks, one was understandably overlooked–the death of actor Richard LeParmentier.

Who is he? He appeared in the movie Star Wars in one famous scene as the Imperial Officer in charge of the Death Star who is choked by Darth Vader using the Force. [For the sake of the younger set I will say the movie is Episode IV: A New Hope.] It’s a short but forceful scene: the Imperial officers are arguing about the power that they hold with the new Death Star space station. The leader Grand Moff Tarkin enters with Darth Vader to announce that the Emperor has asserted direct authority over the galaxy and will use fear of the destructive nature of the Death Star (which can destroy a planet) to maintain control.Motti

In the exchange which follows, Admiral Motti, played by LeParmentier, calls the Death Star the ultimate power in the universe. Darth Vader counters and cautions that the “power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” Motti then mocks Vader and his “sad devotion to that ancient religion” at which point Vader uses the power of the Force to nearly kill Motti, delivering the great line, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” At the request of Tarkin, Vader releases him. You can watch the scene here.

Revisiting older movies is a worthwhile exercise. Much as we read the same words of Torah differently  each year–while the words never change, we interact differently with the words of the parasha each week because we are different–when we view movies at different times in our lives, they become like texts to which we relate depending on where we are in our journeys.

Star Wars particularly has a hold on our collective imagination, and not only for those of us who grew up with the movies. We connect with them because the stories are ancient. Creator George Lucas was consciously channeling ancient hero myths and folklore tropes in crafting his story. The movies are at once futuristic and ancient, and we relate to them because the arc and theme of the stories are so well ingrained in us.

What I find interesting in this scene, now that I live out and demonstrate my own devotion to an ancient religion as a rabbi, is what is being set up–the tension between tangible and the intangible, between the physical and the spiritual. The Force is described as an energy that is given off by all living creatures. Those of a higher power (consciousness?) have the ability to manipulate this power to do seemingly “superhuman” things. The Force is, in the Star Wars universe, a representation of the spiritual, of that power greater than ourselves. To live according to the Force is to live a life of religiosity.

Like religion, the Force can be used for either good or evil. Darth Vader uses the Force for ill. The Jedi use the Force for good. In the climatic moment at the end when (spoiler alert) our hero Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star as part of a rebellion against the Empire, he switches off his computer and uses the Force to guide his ship’s weapons. So here we learn that religion as a force for good will always triumph over religion as a force for bad.

And while our spiritual lives don’t grant us the same power that the Force does–a deep knowledge of the Torah will not guide our torpedoes into a small hole, or allow us to choke someone with our minds (believe me, I’ve tried)–we can recognize that what the film–and this particular scene–is trying to teach us: there is something more to life than just what we are able to create or manipulate.

Another movie I recently revisited with my new rabbi lens is Jurassic Park, which was re-released 20 after its first run, this time in 3D. That movie, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, tells the story of scientists who recreate dinosaurs from ancient DNA in order to open up a zoo, only to have the dinosaurs run amok and cause death and destruction.

Watching it this time, I gravitated more to the character Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, the mathematician and chaos theorist who provides the conscience of the movie. Two points stood out: his exhortation that just because one can do something, doesn’t mean one should do something. The other is this gem of dialogue: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” The implication of both of these observations is that humanity needs to stand in humility in the face of the forces of nature and of life, and without some form of moral compass or higher consciousness, and our awareness of our responsibility to each other, we are prone to hubristic destruction.

Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm
Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm

And if you don’t believe this, well then, I find your lack of faith disturbing.