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Be One of the Good Guys! Thoughts on Avatar: The Way of Water – Vayḥi 5783

Over the December vacation, I was fortunate to be able to see a couple of movies in theaters, something which I rarely have time for. One that my family and I saw was the new Avatar sequel, and it was quite good (although, I must confess, about an hour too long).

If you saw the original film from 2009, you know that there is a good deal of subtle, yet identifiably Jewish content. First, the one god of the Na’vi people on the planet Pandora is called Ehua, which is a thinly-disguised rearrangement of Yahweh, the likely pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton.* (Aside: the letters YHWH are all matres lectiones, consonants which often function as vowels in ancient Hebrew; hence the name is entirely breath, suggesting that Yahweh is the spirit which flows through us all.)

Another Jewish theme clearly referenced is that of the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life which is the spiritual center of the Na’vi people. It is clearly echoing the role of the Torah as our spiritual center.

And, of course, it is clearly not coincidence that the name “Na’vi” sounds an awful lot like the Hebrew word נביא / navi, meaning “prophet.” 

In this newer Avatar, a shofar makes an appearance. As it rang out, Judy and I both called out “Teqi’ah,” perhaps amusing, or more likely annoying some of the other folks in the cinema. Another possibly coded Jewish theme in the new film is that the subtitle is “The Way of Water,” perhaps a reference to the essential role that water plays in Jewish liturgy and spirituality: the seasonally-appropriate prayers we say for rain and dew, the essential connection of water with God’s favor found in the second paragraph of the Shema, the prophet Isaiah’s connection of water with our spiritual redemption: ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה / Joyfully draw water from the wells of deliverance (Isaiah 12:3), which we recite every Saturday evening at havdalah.

Now, am I perhaps seeing these movies through a Jewish lens, and reading into them things that are not there? Maybe. But some of these cues are more obvious than others.

Both the films play on the classic cinematic struggle of “the good guys versus the bad guys,” a struggle which is clearly more universal, but certainly also appears on the Jewish bookshelf. Perhaps the most significant such struggle is the story of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and eventual liberation. (We will begin that story next week, as we move on to the book of Shemot / Exodus.)

In Avatar, the “good guys” are the Na’vi: traditional, native, respectful and in harmony with their natural environment and the flora and fauna of Pandora. They are strong and resilient and zealously loyal to each other, to their elders, and of course to Ehua. They are spiritual people, and remarkably “human” in their sense of love and caring and support of one another and their willingness to fight to protect themselves and their way of life.

The “bad guys,” of course, are the actual humans, who are invaders. On Pandora, they are weak and dependent on technology to enable them to survive. They are portrayed often as uncaring and emotion-less, and of course dedicated to exploiting natural resources for profit, which they pursue to the detriment of other creatures and nature and tradition. 

Now of course, as I am telling you this, it should be clear that the story favors the good guys, the Na’vi. We sympathize with them. They are, most of the time, the things that we want to be: communally-oriented, loyal to each other, and of course in tune with their environment. And we despise the bad guys, the humans, who are only on Pandora to conquer and subdue it and steal its natural resources. We want to be the Na’vi; we loathe the Earthlings. 

And yet, we also know that the bad guys are us. We see ourselves despoiling God’s Creation here on Earth. We see ourselves putting profit over Godliness. We see reflected in the struggle the initial challenge to humanity captured in the two Creation stories of Bereshit: the balance between פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ / Peru urvu umil’u et ha’aretz vekhivshuha, “Be fruitful and multiply and  fill the Earth and conquer it” (Bereshit / Gen. 1:28) and לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ / le’ovdah ulshomrah, “to till it and to tend it” (2:15). These films are a harsh, if overly simplistic and quite biased, critique of humanity’s relationship with God. But they replay this struggle as it is laid out in the Torah from the very beginning.

An ironic point that my daughter pointed out after seeing the film is that of course we want the good guys to win, for tradition and community and family to win out over greed, but of course, sequels are really only about making more money. So the irony is that the bad guys will never be vanquished. The struggle continues, and we humans will shell out another 12 bucks to see the next one.

A related aspect of the struggle between good and bad is reflected in an ambiguous passage of Parashat Vayḥi. As Ya’aqov lays on his death bed in Egypt, bestowing blessings upon his children, he says something curious to his son Yosef, who is essentially the hero of the last few parashiyyot of Bereshit (Gen. 49:22):

בֵּ֤ן פֹּרָת֙ יוֹסֵ֔ף בֵּ֥ן פֹּרָ֖ת עֲלֵי־עָ֑יִן בָּנ֕וֹת צָעֲדָ֖ה עֲלֵי־שֽׁוּר׃ 

Joseph is a wild ass,
A wild ass by a spring
—Wild colts on a hillside.

That’s the translation you’ll find in the Etz Hayim umash, from the Jewish Publication Society’s 1985 text, which you have here in the Sanctuary at Beth Shalom. However, check out this version of Ya’aqov’s words from the 1917 “Old” JPS translation:

Joseph is a fruitful vine,
A fruitful vine by a fountain;
As branches run over the wall.

OK, so, “wild ass” vs. “fruitful vine.” What gives? Truth is, it could go either way; most medieval commentators tend to the more friendly, fruitful depiction of Yosef. The problem is chiefly “porat,” which could be related either to פרי / peri, fruit, or פרא / pere, wild ass. If the latter, which the NJPS translators feel quite strongly about (for various reasons which I can’t get into here – if you’re interested, check out the JPS Torah Commentary Genesis volume by Nahum Sarna), then Yosef could be as wild and potentially dangerous as he is fruitful.

And so for all of us. Humanity is a mixed bag. We are good and bad. We are deep and complicated. Sometimes we are wild asses, and sometimes fruitful vines. We are certainly not black and white.

But here is the good news: you can be on the side of the good guys in this world, in real time. Right now. In fact, many of us in this room are engaged in that battle right now.

I heard a podcast this week about Shabbat by Ezra Klein, featuring the author Judith Shulevitz, who wrote a wonderful book on the subject more than a decade ago called, The Sabbath World. Apropos of nothing in particular, as far as I can tell, other than our desperate need for a day of rest, the two exchanged thoughts and ideas about the value of Shabbat. 

Klein, who claims that he attended an Orthodox day school for a few years as a child, spoke about the profound effect that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath, had on him when he read it many years ago. In particular, Heschel speaks about how we spend six days conquering the space around us, and on the seventh day we abandon that project for higher ideals:

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

(It is worth noting at this point that this week, on the 18th of Tevet, January 10-11, we mark the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Heschel, whose work continues to serve as an incomparable inspiration to many of us.)

God wants you to be with the good guys. To recapture Gan Eden, the simplicity and natural state of the Garden of Eden at least once a week, with your community, with your family. To simplify your life, to set aside your wild nature for fruitful spiritual pursuits. To avoid the tools of construction and commerce and conquering. To connect with the people you love. To be a part of nature, rather than an actor upon it.

The struggle of the Israelites vs. the Egyptians ultimately yields to the revelation on Mt. Sinai, in which humanity is given the seventh day as a holy day of rest, as a day to cease from the domination of the world around us. Even for us today, thousands of years post-slavery in Egypt, the daily struggle of six days necessitates the day which Heschel calls a “palace in time,” which we build from our souls. 

If there is one thing I take away from the “Avatar cinematic universe” (as the kids say today), it is that we always have the potential to be the good guys, and setting aside the 25 hours of Shabbat to do so is a noble pursuit, and healthy for us as individuals and for our world as well.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/7/2023.)

* The letters of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, YHWH (yod-heh-vav-heh) are all matres lectiones, consonants which often function as vowels in ancient Hebrew. Hence the name is entirely breath, suggesting that Yahweh is the spirit which flows through us all.

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