Tuesday, 23 Dec 2014

Written by Emily Jurman

Star Wars, The Hobbit, and Vayiggash: Lessons in Storytelling

This season, the film I’m most looking forward to seeing is The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. I was a teenager when Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out in theatres and the night I went to the cinema with my best friend to see Fellowship of the Ring remains one of my most vivid memories of high school. I was well and truly enchanted by this world that Jackson had portrayed on film, even though I had never read the books on which they were based. The next day, I trotted down to the bookshop to buy the Lord of the Rings and immediately started devouring the books. Since then, I have read Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and the Silmarillion more times than I can count.

When it was announced that Jackson’s The Hobbit would be broken up into three films, I was conflicted. How would they stretch out the story? Where would the breaks lie? Would it be as compelling, magical, and exciting as The Lord of the Rings? I loved the source material, but The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are very different in tone… would it be able to recapture the charm of the original trilogy? And why is it that we seem to be so captivated by trilogies?

Lately, especially with the rise of superhero movies, it seems that audiences are preconditioned to expect a third instalment of their favourite movie franchises. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy featuring Christian Bale as Batman just finished up two years ago. Spider-Man is in its second iteration of trilogies, with the third film starring Andrew Garfield as the titular character already having been announced. And of course J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek with such success; a third film is in the works as he produces the new Star Wars trilogy.

There is something eminently satisfying about a story in three acts. Especially when there’s an anxiety provoking cliff-hanger between acts two and three. What science-fiction fan could forget the end of the Empire Strikes Back? Luke has just discovered Darth Vader is his father, he has lost his hand in battle and Han Solo is frozen in a block of carbinite. What an ending! The more angst that’s built up in the second act, the more there is on the line, the more satisfying a happy ending will be.

When it comes to Torah portions, there’s a tendency to look at them in isolation. It makes perfect sense – the terse nature of the Biblical text often means a single portion could be comprised of five or six different short stories, each with a different lesson and meaning that can be teased out and relished. This week’s portion, Vayiggash, is a masterpiece in storytelling, but to truly appreciate it we must go back two portions to the beginning of this great Biblical trilogy.

Parashat Vayeishev. Jacob is settled in Canaan. He has many children, but his favourite is Joseph the dreamer. Joseph brags to his brothers that someday they will all bow down to him. This gets him into trouble with his brothers, and he winds up being sold into slavery in Egypt. He encounters Potiphar’s wife, ends up in jail and meets the Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer. The portion ends on the very dramatic line: ‘the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; [instead] he forgot him.’ Joseph is left languishing in prison.

Parashat Mikkeitz: Pharaoh has disturbing dreams and needs an interpreter. The cupbearer remembers Joseph who is called to interpret his dreams. So impressed with Joseph’s ability, Pharaoh installs him as an advisor where he can help navigate Egypt through the famine to come. Joseph’s family in Canaan learn of Egypt’s resources, and Jacob sends his sons to secure rations. They enter, unaware that this great man is their brother Joseph. Joseph instructs his servants to put his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag to frame him as a thief. The brothers deny that they have stolen anything and state that anyone found to have taken something from within their group shall be put to death. The portion ends with the discovery of the goblet in Benjamin’s bag, and the brothers rerouted back to Joseph to plead their case.

This is drama at its finest. Throughout this trilogy, the text has asserted to us over and over again the extreme trauma that befell Jacob when he lost his favourite son. Benjamin is now the favourite, and it looks like Jacob may lose him, too. If we approach the story as though we’ve never heard it before, we’re left on tenterhooks wondering how it will all work out. Parashat Vayiggash has probably one of the most dramatic openings to a portion in the Bible and it certainly reads like a blockbuster movie.

The scene opens. Judah and his brothers are standing in Joseph’s house. Their clothes are torn – they ripped them in dread when they realized how their own foolish words may have sentenced their brother Benjamin to execution, or a life of slavery. Joseph is unrecognizable. He is wearing the robes of his office, and nothing so far has allowed the brothers to believe that this imposing figure will be forgiving. How can the brothers return to their father without his favourite son?

Judah approaches (Vayiggash) Joseph. He begs and pleads on behalf of Benjamin. ‘How can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer?’ Joseph can no longer contain himself. He demands his servants leave the room and dramatically unveils his true identity to his brothers. The men embrace each other, weeping, and the story concludes with the arrival in Egypt of Jacob and his household and the family becomes whole again.

There are times when the beauty of the Torah is in the moral and legal lessons we learn; when we’re taught to leave the corners of our fields for the stranger and the poor or to judge individuals fairly. There are times when the beauty of the Torah is found in the moral fibre shown by particular individuals; Abraham bargaining with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah or Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s decree to save baby boys from being drowned. Then there are times like this week, where the beauty of the Torah is found in its incredible literary quality. This week as you read Parashat Vayiggash, allow yourself to get wrapped up in the narrative. It won’t disappoint.

Student rabbi Emily Jurman


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.