Prayer in Ushpizin

April 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Communication is essential. In the communication discipline, there is a maxim, “You are never not communicating.” At every point in time, through words, facial expressions and body language we are communicating and although we have all this practice at communication it still is one of the hardest and most convoluted things in our existence. And that’s just when talking to other humans. Communication is even more difficult when relegated to the realm of the supernatural. How do we talk to God, who we can’t see and from whom we hardly ever receive verbal reciprocation?

I know that my dialogue with God is often fraught with distractions and other concerns because of the lack of a physical presence. God sometimes doesn’t seem as real as my friends around me or even the people I walk past in my everyday life. One of the ways I’ve learned to overcome this in small ways is by following the example of those who pray like God is sitting right next to them. I think that these examples are crucial to helping us become people who better communicate with others and with God.

One such example is Ushpizin (Dar, 2004), an Israeli film, that follows Moshe, a rabbi, and his wife, Mali, during the Jewish holiday of Succoth as they welcome unexpected ushpizin (guests) to their house. There are three specific scenes I want to focus on that provides some stunning examples of prayer that bleeds emotion and authenticity.

Moshe and Mali don’t have any money to pay their bills let alone celebrate the holiday that is approaching. Distraught by this possibility they do the only thing they can: pray. Moshe leaves the house and goes to a park. He sits down on the bench and begins conversing with God in honest, down-to-earth terms. As his prayer continues, his emotions continue to rise as he claps his hands and eventually lets out a heart-rending cry. While he is praying, through the magic of parallel editing, we see God answering his prayer before he has concluded it by sending Moshe and Mali a gift of 1,000 dollars.

Moshe and Mali’s reaction to this gift is one of overwhelming joy. They begin to dance and sing to the Lord, praising Him for the gift. The joy in this scene is palpable and once again there is a sense of real connection to God with Moshe using “Abba” to address God from the position of a son. Once again we see a very real belief in a God who breaks into everyday life. In the Christian culture I inhabit in America, a reaction like theirs is something unusual and not seen very often. Their reaction makes me question where that joy and intense belief in God’s power is in my faith.

The final scene that sticks out to me is essentially the climax of the film. The unexpected guests have driven Mali away by their behavior and what they have brought out in Moshe. His guests have also just used a very precious lemon, which Moshe purchased for 1,000 shekels, as salad dressing. This time, instead of succumbing to his anger, like he has previously, Moshe runs from his guests. He finally stops running, out of breath, in a grove of trees and unloads his anger on God. There are tears and screams. As he prays, I can almost imagine a Psalmist in this position, laying his soul out before God. And there is Moshe, lying prostrate on the ground, pleading for God’s mercy. I’m not sure I’ve ever bared my soul to God in that manner.

Like before, God hears Moshe’s prayer and brings his wife back to him. This is not a God that is removed from his Creation, but One working in and through His people, showing them grace and mercy. Ushpizin, as you might expect from a film centered on a Jewish rabbi, is profoundly spiritual and delivers some beautiful portraits of prayer. Like I’ve learned from those who have gone before me, I hope to learn from the picture painted by this wonderful film.


The Death of Movie Gallery

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

The neighborhood video store is dying. In Grove City, PA where I go to college, two stores have closed in the past year. The first was Showtime Video, a small, dilapidated rental store that had just as many video tapes as it did DVDs. Now, the local Movie Gallery is in its death throes and will be closing soon. Recently, I paid a visit to this Movie Gallery with one of my friends because, like any good cinephile, a movie store closing means inexpensive movies.

Upon entering the Movie Gallery, I noticed that it was probably the busiest I had ever seen in the past three years. I began browsing, predominantly focusing my search in the foreign and drama sections. As I was looking through the movies, I overheard one of the employees talking to a man who had asked why the store was closing.

As she spoke about Netflix and Red Box spelling the demise of the video store I felt a twinge of sadness. It wasn’t sadness at the loss of another video store, but sadness for this woman who now must find another job. She continued to talk about why she thought that the video store still had value in this age of technology and convenience. These were some of her reasons, which I think deserve an answer:

1) They don’t have the same selection.

2) You can’t ask for movie suggestions from a Red Box.

3) There is a lack of human interaction with these ways of obtaining movies.

1) Well, this is simply untrue. Red Box may not have quite the same selection as a stocked video store, but I guarantee you that the local video store has nowhere near the selection of Netflix. As a previous Netflix member, who will soon resume his membership, and someone with rather obscure movie tastes I can tell you that Netflix has had every movie I wanted. Movie Gallery simply can’t compete with that selection.

As far as Red Box goes, it is a simple service that is not for those looking for older or more obscure movies. It is there to provide easy access to the newest movies at a reasonable price, which it does well. If you are looking for the latest foreign film or indie flick chances are it won’t be in the video store or in a Red Box.

2) I think this assertion has more credence with the older generation than with anyone under 30. I have never gone into a video store and asked an employee for a movie suggestion for two reasons. One, I am probably going to the video store for a specific movie that I have heard of from a friend or online, and have researched it to see if it is something I would enjoy. Two, the internet is a much better way for finding out if you would enjoy a movie than asking a random person who you don’t know. What if they love mediocre action movies and that simply isn’t your taste? Most people now use the internet to determine whether or not they want to watch a film.

3) And here we arrive on the last reason given by this woman, and the most valid. Is technology taking over our lives so much that we are removing the human factor from every facet of our lives? In the future will every interaction I have be with a box or a faceless person over the internet? Is it worth sacrificing some efficiency and convenience to keep some modicum of human dignity in the way I conduct my everyday life?

I think Up in the Air (2009, Reitman) touched on this very aspect of our modern life. Playing a jetsetter who flies around the country to fire people face-to-face, Ryan Bingham(George Clooney) is on the verge of being replaced by technology that will allow his company to fire people over the internet. This will save the company money and make them more efficient, but at the same time it takes away the dignity of a human interaction for those being fired. The company sends the creator of this technology Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) with him on what appears to be his final tour of firings. Natalie soon learns that there is a difference between firing someone face-to-face than over a computer screen, and this is driven home for her when her boyfriend breaks up with her via text message.

I don’t want to be a part of a society that eschews personal interaction and relies solely on technology to communicate. As life moves forward and technology continues to make things more efficient we must be careful to not completely condemn advances in technology, while striking a balance that prioritizes personal interaction.

In the end, it’s not a question of the ability of small town video stores to compete with Netflix and Red Box, because honestly Netflix and Red Box both have advantages over the likes of Movie Gallery and Blockbuster, but a question of how I interact with people. Am I striving to be personal with people or would I rather sit at my computer and communicate through Facebook, Twitter and email? Personal interactions with people need to be a priority in my life.

As for Movie Gallery, may it rest in peace.

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