GENE WILDER – THE FRISCO KID
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
Avram: Wonderful! Wonderful and nice dancing
Chief: Nice does not make rain. Yes or no, can your god make rain?
Chief: But he doesn’t
Avram: Because that’s not his department!
Chief: But if he wanted to he could?
Chief: What kind of a god do you have?
Avram: Don’t say ‘My God, it’s your god too!”
Chief: Don’t give him to us, we have enough trouble with our own gods
Avram: But there’s only one god
Chief: And what does he do?
Avram: He… He can do anything!
Chief: Then why can’t he make rain?
Avram: Because he doesn’t make rain. He gives us strength when we’re suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness… but He does not make rain!
Cue the thunder, lightning and torrential downpour.
Avram: Of course… sometimes, just like that, he’ll change His mind.
On August 29th of this year Gene Wilder passed away at the age of 83. Some remember him best from Willy Wonka, others from Young Frankenstein. But for me, the roles that stand out are the Waco Kid in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, and Rabbi Avram Belinski in the Frisco Kid. This movie also features a very young Harrison Ford, who becomes an unlikely companion for the naïve Polish rabbi traveling from Philadelphia to San Francisco to meet his new congregation, and the woman he’s supposed to marry. Along the way, while spending time with a Native American tribe, he has a discussion about God with Chief Gray Cloud, played by Val Bisoglio, which was just dramatized. I admit it loses something without the video portion, but you get the idea.
At face value, this vignette seems like a light discussion of varying theologies; that God either makes things like rain happen or doesn’t make them happen. Although I’ve seen this movie a few times, I hadn’t given much thought to this segment. Watching it now, from a rabbinical perspective, it’s amazingly thought-provoking. The dialogue between the two is charged with possibilities for study and consideration. One of my first thoughts, however, was that the writers and producers clearly didn’t do their Talmud homework, because there are at least two stories in our tradition where someone asks or prays for rain, and God sends rain.
The first story is about Honi ha Mag’el, Honi the Circle Maker, a famous sage discussed in a tractate of the Mishna called Ta’anit, which deals with fast days. We are told that on one occasion, when God did not send rain well into the rainy season, Honi drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it began to pour. Honi then explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain tapered off to a normal rain.
The second story, which is even more fitting for today, concerns one of our greatest, and most well-known, sages, Rabbi Akiva. As the story goes, during the early part of the 2nd century, there was a terrible drought in ancient Israel, and the people turned to Rabbi Eliezer, a powerful, pious scholar, and asked him to pray the prayers for rain. He spent days meditating, fasting and preparing himself; and when he was ready, he poured his heart out in passionate prayer with the whole community watching. But nothing happened. Suddenly, Rabbi Akiva jumped up and cried out Avinu Malkenu, ein lanu melech ela Atah. Avinu Malkenu aseh imanu lema’an shmecha. “Our Father, our King, there is no other sovereign but You. Our Father, our King, do for us for your name’s sake.” Immediately the rains began to pour.
We are told that God was more willing to hear Rabbi Akiva’s prayer because he was able to forgive those who wronged him, whereas Rabbi Eliezer, who was known for having an ego and a temper, was not. It is the lesson in this story that gives “The Avinu Malkeinu” such prominence in our Yom Kippur liturgy, and the traditional, heart-rending mi Sinai melody emphasizes our need to pour our hearts out and pray that on this day, God will forgive us for sins we’ve committed against God.
By contrasting Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, we learn that refusing to forgive another person is considered to be a sin against God, not just against another person. This story also reminds us that in ancient times, the right type of rain for the season was an expression of Divine favor and considered to be a reward for proper and pious behavior, and not just among the Israelites.
Today, we might have a more logical and scientific understanding of how weather works; and dancing, praying, begging forgiveness and promising to do better in the future – while that might be nice –as Chief Gray Cloud said, “nice doesn’t make rain.” On the other hand, we’re here in shul today – the most solemn day of the year – for a reason. Some of us are here out of habit or tradition, and some of us want to feel God’s presence in our lives, to feel a connection. Or “D, all of the above.”
I can’t imagine my life without God, even though I can’t explain God. I need to know that like my parents – zichronam livracha – God is there for me, supporting me, forgiving me when I mess up and trusting me to do better next time. God is, Avinu Malkeinu, God our Father, God our King … God – who has been sitting al kisei din, on the seat of judgment – for the past 10 days, whom we hope – through our prayers and repentance – to move al kisei rachamim, onto the seat or throne of compassion.
The question is, on which of these thrones is God sitting while Rabbi Belinski and Chief Grey Cloud are arguing in the teepee? El maleh rachamim, “the compassionate God” who gives us strength and courage when we need it, who cares for us, who helps us to be kind when all we feel is hate? Or the God who doesn’t make rain, “because that’s not his department”? And does this suggest that God doesn’t, can’t or won’t control nature?
It depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you last month’s flooding in Baton Rouge was Divine punishment for people’s misbehavior. Others will point to an article in the New Orleans Times Picayune which said that the Louisiana Flood of 2016 was triggered by a complicated, slow-moving low-pressure weather system that dumped as much as two feet of rain in 48 hours. That amount of rain backs up drainage systems, rivers and streams, and there’s nowhere for the water to go.
The amateur meteorologist in me understands that, but the amateur theologian in me wonders why God didn’t plan for that when creating the world. Seriously, if you were managing this construction project, would you have let God get away with a drainage system like that? And what about the devastation in Haiti caused by hurricane Matthew? It’s one thing to accept that God gave people free will, which explains evil in the world, but can the same be said about nature? Does God manipulate the natural world to reward or punish us? Or does God simply set things in motion and stand back? And perhaps an even better question …. Which do we want?
The second paragraph of the Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy chapter 11, is a classic example of Divine reward and punishment; and like the United States in the 1800s, when Frisco Kid takes place, people were at the mercy of nature. If the land received the proper amount of wind, rain and sun, crops grew and the people prospered. If there was a drought, or too much rain, it often spelled disaster.
The text in question basically tells us that if we diligently obey God’s commandment to love and serve God with all our heart and soul, that God will give rain for the land at the proper time and we will gather in the grain, wine and oil. But if we turn aside and worship alien gods, the Lord’s anger will flare up against us, God will close up the heavens so that there will be no rain, the earth will not yield its produce, and we will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gave us.
At one time, this type of theology might have made sense, but as modern individuals living in the 21st century, we have very different ideas and understandings about how the world works. Eating ham and cheese sandwiches or playing golf on Yom Kippur probably won’t bring on a drought or create world strife, but it’s a good bet that if you get your car washed in the morning, it will rain in the afternoon.
We live in a random world, and as we grow and get older, as the world continues to evolve, we learn the difference between what we can and can’t control, what we can and can’t change. This kind of knowledge – the ability to be discerning – is called binah in Hebrew. It’s part of what makes us human and helps us – in some ways – to understand and cope with our world.
I was recently sent an email from an organization called LabShul which was offering “God optional High Holidays.” The person who forwarded it to me wondered if it offended me, and I said that it didn’t. And it doesn’t. I think it’s intriguing… and oxymoronic. After all, the whole point of the High Holidays is to appeal to God’s favor as both parent and sovereign – avinu malkeinu – in order to make amends for any wrongs in the previous year, with the hope that we will be blessed to do better in the coming year, even as we make some of the same mistakes, and add some new ones.
I went to LabShul’s website, and clicked on the FAQs to see what they meant by “God optional.” Part of their explanation was that they wanted to embrace “a relationship that ‘is with us instead of over us, a partner in dialogue who ever and again summons us to responsible action.’”
This definitely doesn’t sound “God optional” to me, it sounds like a very mature and adult way of understanding and perhaps defining God, if God can be defined. I was taught that God is all over, not just a deity sitting on throne in the sky with a big staff looking very similar to Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments. We reinforce the idea of God being everywhere on Sukkot, when we wave the Lulav and Etrog in all 6 directions.I like the idea of God sheltering me and enveloping me. I think of the Hashkiveinu prayer that we say in our evening services, asking God to protect us with sukkat sh’lomekha, “your canopy of peace,” and I feel comfort.
I’m not so sure about the portrayal of God in Rabbi Belinsky’s final comment, that “just like that, he changes his mind.” Of course, the thunder and lightning were exactly on cue, and there for the comedic effect, but it suggests a god that’s capricious, able to bestow or remove favor on a whim, impossible to truly placate. The best comedy comes from real life, and the Torah and our liturgy contain the idea that there are many facets to God’s behavior and personality. Those 40 years in the wilderness gave the Israelites plenty of opportunities to deal with God’s jealously, anger and threats.
That’s not the God I want in my life, although like the people in my life, I have to take the good with the bad, the happy with the sad, the criticism with the compliments. Not only that, they have to accept me with all my positive and negative traits. Contrary to the God concept I was raised with, I have chosen to embrace a flawed God that’s more like me. I still see God as all-encompassing and involved with the world, whether or not God chooses to interfere or intervene, or we feel it. I feel that God is at work in my life, and I choose to behave as though God exists, to, as it says in the Torah, halach l’darko, to walk in God’s ways.
Walking in God’s ways means caring for others, caring for our planet globally and locally, and being a positive force in making the world a better place. It also means caring for ourselves, and accepting ourselves the way we accept others – and hope others accept us. Forgiveness is part of that equation, and as I said on Rosh Hashanah, forgiving ourselves is as important as forgiving others and wanting their forgiveness.
Today and every day, we pray for peace and prosperity, for health and happiness. We pray that we will behave properly and do the right thing most of the time, and hope that when we fall short, we can rectify the situation and that we will be forgiven.
May God shower us with a downpour of blessing and thanksgiving, and may we be sealed for a good year and a good life.
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
Malverne Jewish Center