For the week ending 13 March 2010 / 26 Adar I 5770

Another Look at the Oscars

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair - www.seasonsofthemoon.com
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I'm always fascinated by the amount of media coverage that the Academy Awards in Hollywood garner.

This year, an average of about 41.3 million people in the U.S. were watching the three-and-a-half-hour show at any given minute -- up 14% from last year.

There's no doubt that America's contribution to world culture is the Motion Picture.

Film is the language of the age.

Although the early history of the cinema is far from clear, around the year 1900 film evolved from a penny arcade amusement into a sophisticated language capable of narrative and emotion.

Little more than a century later, that language is so ubiquitous that books are in danger of becoming a niche market.

According to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts survey, a dramatic and increasing decline in literary reading in the United States leaves fewer than half of America's adults reading literature.

Despite film's visceral immediacy, its syntax has a great limitation – Film has only one tense – the Present. Film has no past or future. Everything in a film takes place in a constant "present tense." Film has no "was" or "will be". To depict the past or the future, film has to resort to the flashback or flash-forward, an inelegant device at best. We have all seen this -- The image begins to blur, the dialogue echoes until the picture resolves into a past or future scene. However, the new scene we are now watching is once again in the present.

In a film everything takes place in a perpetual state of "is".

It's axiomatic that the language of an age reflects its worldview. How then does the syntax of the language of our film reflect the worldview of our era?

You can look at time in two very different ways.

You can look at time as a landscape. Just as a landscape that is populated with houses and trees and fields, so time can seem like a background against which events take place and then are gone - but time itself seems to have always been here - we just travel through it.

This idea is the basis of all atheism. If time was always here, then there can be no creation, and if there's no creation – there's no G-D (R"L)

It’s an easy mistake to make. Time seems immutable. Our experience of time is that seems to just be – that it was always here.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the Vilna Gaon, the Sforno and other commentaries on the Torah, the very first word in the Torah – Bereshit - comes to contradict that presumption. Bereshit, “In the beginning…” Meaning -- G-d created beginning. Time itself is a creation. It has a beginning and it moves inexorably to an end.

The word for time in Hebrew is zman. The same root appears in the word hazmana, which the Talmud uses to mean “preparation"; or in modern Hebrew – invitation.

In no other language in the world does the world for preparation have the same root as the word for time.

What does this teach us?

You can look at time as a series of moments which are constantly passing from the non-existence of the future into the non-existence of the past and the line between those is called life. In which case, every second of our lives is really a kind of continuing death – not a very pleasant perspective. And maybe it's for this reason that a world that sees time in such a way spends most of its time escaping from that thought by white-water rafting, paragliding, sipping margaritas around the pool, seeing the Mona Lisa or the pyramids or climbing Everest - or by winning Oscars.

Alternatively, you can see every second as a building block to a future existence to which we are all invited. The Jewish view of time is that it is an invitation, a preparation to an existence that we can build with every second of our lives.

There's a beautiful story that illustrates this idea:

There was a young Torah student who arrived at an inn after a long and tiring journey. He was standing at the front desk when he had the disquieting feeling that something was out of place in this inn.

But what was it?

As he finished checking in, he suddenly became aware of a sound; a sound as familiar as it was out of place. Tick, tock, tick, tock. That was it! The clock! The innkeeper’s clock!

“That clock…” he said to the innkeeper. That clock is my rebbe’s clock!”

“How do you know?” said the innkeeper.

“Because my rebbe’s clock is different to any other clock in the world.”

“How so?”

“With each tick, every clock in the world says, ‘One more second of your life gone. Tick! One step nearer to death, Tock! Nearer to death, tick! Nearer to death, tock!…’ Every clock in the world is like that except for my rebbe’s clock; my rebbe’s clock says, ‘One second closer to the geula (redemption), tick! One step closer to the world of Truth, tock! One step nearer to eternal life, tick! Nearer to life, tick! Nearer to life, tock…’ I have no doubt that that clock is my rebbe’s clock.”

“A few year’s ago,” said the innkeeper, “there was a rabbi staying here at the inn. When he came to pay the check, he realized he didn’t have enough money to pay, so instead, he gave me this clock…”

Of course, it's only a story – but the point is clear.

Can it be just a coincidence that today's most famous celebrities are those people whose lives are dedicated to film, to a medium whose very syntax can only depict the present; that expresses life as a series of frames in a world passing inexorably into the past with every second?

The world of Oscar is a not just a world of glamour, glitter and artifice; the medium it celebrates epitomizes the idea that nothing exists but the moment.

The first mitzva that the Jewish People received while they were still in Egypt was the sanctification of the moon. It’s axiomatic that something that comes at the beginning contains all that is to follow, thus as this mitzvah was the first mitzva, it must be fundamental to Judaism. Ostensibly however, the sanctification of the moon does not seem such a central pillar of Judaism. If you or I were writing the Torah, I doubt we would have selected this mitzva to be the first? What, then, is so fundamental about the sanctification of the moon?

When G-d told the Jewish People to sanctify the new moon, He was giving them much more than a mitzva; He was giving them an entirely different system of time.

With the Exodus, G-d didn't take the Jewish People just out of Egypt, but out of the Oscars' world, a world where nothing exists except the present, a world where time goes nowhere -- except the grave; G-d brought the Jewish People into a system of time where every second is a preparation, an invitation to something that is beyond time.

A step nearer to life itself.

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