Judaism and the Force

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Judaism and the Force

About the Author

Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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Star Wars is one of those movies that people seem to remember ‘where they were’ when they saw for the first time. The phrases like “may the force be with you” are part of our cultural lexicon. The names of the characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader are as popular as ever.

It has drawn legions of fans of all ages from around the world. It led to a revolution in tying movies to toys and other merchandising. I must confess, I am a huge fan. I was too young to see the first two films in the theatre, but I do remember seeing them over and over again on TV or on video. I definitely remember when Return of the Jedi was released. I made my mom pick me up from school to go see it at the Eglington theatre. I remember rushing there and running late into the theatre. We actually missed the first scene. It was years before I knew about the “missing scene”. I had all the figures and toys at home, it was one of favorite Channuka presents of all time when I got a replica playset of Bespin Cloud city, where Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite and we thought he was dead.

One of my first purchases when I went left home for university was the trilogy, on VHS, to give me comfort of my star wars movies out in the wide world. When I was at Brandeis University in Boston, and the three were re-released, I remember dressing up and going to the theatre. Boston is full of college students. The theatre was packed with adoring fans, cheering and shouting.

“The force is what gives a Jedi his power…an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  Obi Wan Kenobi

Like many of you I was disappointed when the three new movies came out – the prequels as they are now called. These films seemed to lack the mystery and urgency of the original. As they were leading up to events that we already knew. It lacked any suspense as to what might happen. I will never forget when Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke’s father. The raw emotion and surprise as Vader cut off Luke’s hand sending him tumbling down the chutes of Cloud City.

But going back to see how Darth Vader dates Luke’s mom, not as compelling. The original movies were daring in their use of new technology. The viewer was taken into space ships heading into light-speed across the galaxy, meeting curious new creatures and aliens, watching battles with lightsabers. The new films went overboard trying to make it more realistic with computer imaging.

Listen, I know these spaceships are not real, so I’m not interested in a film trying new computer animation to make it even more realistic. But years have gone by and I’m ok. I’ve let it go. I hold dearly to the memories of the movies.

After all, it’s not about concrete answers and proof; it’s about faith.

As Jews we can relate to the force. What is the force? Obi Wan Kenobi in the first star wars movie describes it. “The force is what gives a Jedi his power…an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”

Is that similar to what we understand about God? God is like an energy field. We can’t see it or hear it or know it’s there, but we believe in it. God surrounds, penetrates us and binds the Jewish people together. Even Han Solo, a classic atheist, founds those who believe in the force to be part of a religion that only certain people believe in. He only became a believer after he sees the force in action, helping Luke and Obi Wan overcome Darth Vader, but he retained his skepticism. After all, it’s not about concrete answers and proof; it’s about faith.

Obi Wan also talks about how the force can lead us to the dark side or the light side. We can turn to goodness and help, or we can turn to fear and anger. In Jewish mysticism, specifically that of Lurianic Kabbalah (named for Isaac Luria, the 16th century rabbi who developed it), we learn that we live in a world fractured by fear, anger, hatred, and carelessness — emotions that drive us not to follow the mitzvot (commandments).

The mystics charge us to reassert our energy to that of honesty, compassion, love, and intent, empowering us to follow the mitzvot and become closer to a God, whose Divine sparks can be found throughout the living world. This tension between our evil inclinations, known as ‘yetzer ha-rah’, and our good inclinations, known as ‘yetzer ha-tov’, is part of our humanity. We can control these inclinations, but they are always with us. We need both in fact. We would never get a job or get married or work hard if we didn’t have some of the ‘yetzer ha-rah’. We all have fear and anger and unkind feelings inside. What’s important is how we harness it and learn to turn away from it.

When it comes to our moral compass, we must be aware of the ‘yetzer ha-rah’ and not let it control us. Same goes for Luke Skywalker; Obi Wan and Yoda teach him about the dark side and to avoid its temptations, to keep away and stay to the good side of the force. Luke constantly has to fight to avoid the dark side and hold on to his pursuit of the light side.

What fascinating is that Darth Vader is not pure evil. Rabbi PJ Shwarz writes,  “Vader feels that he is using the force in the dark path to ultimately lead to a more ordered world out of chaos. He believes in it so strongly, based on his training by his mentor the Emperor, that he wants his son and others to join his way to bring unity to the galaxy. But Luke explains that it is love that ultimately triumphs, and won’t give in to revenge and hate. Vader only realizes this at the end when the Emperor tries to kill Luke, and Vader sacrifices himself to save his son”.

This ending to Return of the Jedi also gives us a glimpse into the Jewish value of ‘teshuvah‘. Throughout the movies Darth Vader kills those who get in his way, from Ewoks to sand people, to jawas, to the entire planet of Alderaan, to various rebel force leaders – at the very end Luke forces him to confront his evil ways and shows him that the dark path is not the way. Finally, Darth Vader does turn on the Emperor and saves Luke.

But does Darth Vader do ‘teshuva’, a full repentance? He apologizes to Luke for not listening to him and tells him that indeed he was right; there was goodness in him all along. But Vader does not repent for all the evil and mayhem he committed throughout this career with the galactic empire. Of course that was basically impossible as he died then and there. Vader did not have time to go to every person he harmed.

Our sources teach us that a Jewish person can repent even at the very last minute before dying. I think Vader did turn away from his evil ways, and this is validated at the very end of the movie when Luke sees the hazy spiritual outline of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (Darth’s real name), all standing together in peace and harmony. This final moment of reconciliation is what God wants from all of us, not just at Yom Kippur, the annual “Day of Atonement”, but throughout our lives.

And so this weekend as the saga continues and millions flock to the movie theater, to see the Force Awakens, me included, we will discover once again who is able to follow the right path, who succumbs to the dark side, and who will feel the force guiding the way.

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