Fox Byte 5775 #51: Nitzavim (You Are Standing)

נִצָּבִים

Famous literary figures with identity issues. Top row: Oedipus Rex (Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods), Beauty’s Beast (illustration by Walter Crane), The Frog Prince (illustration by Paul Meyerheim), Rapunzel’s prince (illustration by Johnny Gruelle). Bottom row: Hansel and Gretel (illustration by Arthur Rackham), Sleeping Beauty (illustration from Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories), Snow White (illustration by Alexander Zick), Cinderella (illustration by Anne Anderson).
Famous literary figures with identity issues. Top row: Oedipus RexBeauty’s BeastThe Frog Prince, Rapunzel’s prince. Bottom row: Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella.

The worst fate a person can endure?  That would be loss of self.  It is not the same as selflessness, a desirable state of humility which YHVH honors.  Loss of self means removal of what defines a person as a person.  We see this in loved ones who slip slowly away through the ravages of progressive dementia.  Little by little they forget who they are until in the end there is nothing left of them but the memory carried in the hearts of those who once knew them.  It is a tragedy as old as humanity. 

Some of our best stories spring from this loss of identity.  Nearly 2,500 years ago Sophocles dramatized this phenomenon in Oedipus the King, a tale of a man whose birth was accompanied by a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  The parents attempt to circumvent the prophecy by ordering the infant slain, but to no avail.  Oedipus is saved and brought up by foster parents, completely ignorant of his identity.  Eventually he fulfills the prophecy.  When at last the secret of his identity is revealed, his mother commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes.

This motif of hidden identity and forgotten knowledge manifests not merely in classic Greek drama, but in every literary form.  It appears even in fairy tales, where protagonists like Beauty’s Beast and the Frog Prince lose their humanity.  Rapunzel’s prince retains his identity, but he wanders in blindness.  Similarly, Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest despite their best efforts.  Princesses also succumb to identity loss, as we learn from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Even Cinderella’s true station in life is a mystery to her prince.

The fairy tales generally have happy endings, or at least the Disney renditions make them so, but that is not the case in every tale of this sort.  One might say this identity issue is a perpetual human condition.  We make it worse by ignoring our history, severing the connection with our fathers and mothers of ages past.  This ignorance, whether self-inflicted or imposed by other forces, is the foundation of George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  It is also a reflection of prophetic truth uttered by two men of God in the 8th century BCE:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.  Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest.  Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.  (Hosea 4:6 NASB)

Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst.  (Isaiah 5:13 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #50: Ki Tavo (When You Enter In)

כִּי־תָבִוֹא

Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkens) offers water to Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in the 1959 epic, Ben Hur. (Photo: Warner Home Video, featured in "A Day at the Chariot Races: The Digital Liberation of ‘Ben-Hur’", by Bill Desowitz, Motion Picture Editors Guild, November 21, 2011)
Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) offers water to Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in the 1959 epic, Ben Hur. (Photo: Warner Home Video, featured in “A Day at the Chariot Races: The Digital Liberation of ‘Ben-Hur’”, by Bill Desowitz, Motion Picture Editors Guild, November 21, 2011)

When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences.  It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith.  The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark.  It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale.  The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously.  Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man:  Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action.  Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.

The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea.  His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy.  After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes.  On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful.  Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:

Now listen to me, all of you.  You are all condemned men.  We keep you alive to serve this ship.  So row well, and live.

Judah finds opportunity to do more than that.  In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius.  Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero.  He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life.  Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions.  In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow:  adoption as his son and heir. 

Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house.  Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace.  Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers.  The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:

The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken.  (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)

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