White, Black, Technicolor

My guess would be that virtually everyone in the room this morning – and quite possibly just about everyone in the western hemisphere – is aware that a new Star Wars movie is playing in theaters this weekend.  I vividly remember going to see the first Star Wars film, in 1977.  The week that movie opened Star Wars was on the cover of Time magazine, and I remember the excitement I felt settling in to my seat at the movie theater.  The larger than life characters in the movie, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Darth Vadar and Princess Leia, the spectacular special effects, and the swashbuckling narrative combined to leave a deep impression on my then 13 year old brain which in some ways remains to this day.  And yes all five members of the Schwartz clan will be trekking to the theater Sunday night to see the newest version.  And we won’t be the only ones.  Early estimates are that this new Star Wars film may be the highest grossing movie of all time before all is said and done.

It is natural to wonder what is at the root of the enormous popularity of the Star Wars franchise.  It must be more than just good movie making, and in fact some of the later films were not particularly good movies at all.  Part of it I feel is the yearning that we all have in one way or another for a simpler time.  George Lucas has said that his inspiration for the initial Star Wars film, the one I saw in ’77, was in large part the classic western, with a wise and noble sheriff wearing of course what color hat?  White!  And a nasty and immoral villain, in the old westerns always dressed in black, and of course wearing a black hat.  Transfer this to Star Wars and you have Luke Skywalker, in his white tunic, the young hero who has arrived on the scene to restore order to town.  And of course you have Darth Vadar, played in the original movie by the great James Earl Jones, all in black, flowing black cape, and the black hat replaced by a black metallic helmet and mask that would become iconic.

The black and white color themes are symbolic, and we all understand how that symbolism works.  In the movies white is goodness, purity, morality, clarity, the truth and what is right.  Black is the opposite – it is dangerous, violent, evil, immoral, deceitful, whatever is disruptive to the proper order of the world.  At the heart of that color symbolism is the fundamental assumption that there is a right and a wrong that can be plainly distinguished, that it is entirely clear which is which.  Luke Skywalker is unambiguously good.  Darth Vadar clearly and completely evil.  And that also appeals to us.  We would like to believe that those distinctions are possible, that we can look at something – or someone – or some group – and know precisely what it is, good or bad, moral or immoral.  It would be easier, it would be simpler, if things were clear – and what is the phrase we use to express that? – black and white.

If you don’t mind I would like to detour from Star Wars to the Torah for a moment, and to move from Luke Skywalker’s white tunic and Darth Vadar’s black robes and mask to easily the most recognizable and famous piece of clothing in the entire Bible, Joseph’s ‘coat of many colors.’  Joseph is unquestionably the hero in the last third of Genesis, the main character who will ultimately save the Israelites from famine.  We know his story well – when he is young he is favored by his father Jacob, this brothers are jealous, they sell him into slavery, and he rises to power in Egypt to become second in command to only Pharaoh.  Finally in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, he is able to reconcile with his brothers as the Joseph narrative comes to a conclusion.

The coat of many colors plays a crucial role in Joseph’s story.  It is understood as being one of the main causes of the brother’s jealously.  Later when they capture Joseph and intend to harm him the Torah notes that the first thing the brothers do is to take the coat of many colors away from Joseph, and then it is that coat that they dip in goat’s blood and bring to Jacob – the father-  to prove to him that Joseph has been killed.  The colored coat and Joseph are clearly intertwined, connected, in the minds of the brothers, Jacob, and I would argue even Joseph himself.  And it is interesting that the coat has an ambiguity to it.  To go back to Star Wars, it is not something that could be worn by Luke Skywalker or Darth Vadar.  It is not white, or black – it is a bit of both, with other colors thrown in.  That doesn’t play very well in the movies, especially a movie like Star Wars, where you go to the theater expecting to enter a universe where things are black and white, where there is clarity about what is right and wrong, who is the hero and who is the villain.  But the coat of many colors is very much at home, very comfortable, in the Bible.  The world the Bible describes is a place where things are not clear, where right and wrong are not always easy to distinguish, where characters are complicated – not all good, and not all bad.

Joseph is a perfect example of this.  He is understood as being one of the great figures in the history of the Jewish people.  He is wise, able to interpret dreams, with a clear charisma and a talent for always winding up on top.  But at the same time he is a morally conflicted person.  Early in his life he is arrogant and insensitive.  We do see in this morning’s portion that he ultimately forgives his brothers for what they’ve done to him, and the reconciliation described at the beginning of the sedra seems heartfelt and genuine.  But he plays some nasty tricks on them along the way, and takes advantage of the fact that he has complete and total power over them.  Joseph is a complicated and conflicted person, in many ways ambiguous in his character, and the coat of many colors reflects that ambiguity.

It also of course reflects the world we live in.  It might be nice to enter the Star Wars universe for a couple of hours, but when the movie is over we return to the real world, and the real world cannot be painted in simple colors.  We live in a world where we wrestle with issues like abortion, immigration, refugees, health care, gun rights, poverty, and religious freedom just to name a few.  These issues are complicated, ambiguous, and difficult.  One of the problems with today’s political discourse is that the different sides have become so starkly oppositional, the lines so clearly defined, that people begin to look at these very complicated issues as if they were black and white, easy and clear, and totally unambiguous.  But the opposite is true, and issues like these do not have easy answers.  And if we can’t talk about them – if the minute someone says something that you disagree with, you shut it down – we’ll never be able to get anywhere.

That actually may be an opportunity that is presented to us all as we move into a presidential election year.  The issues will be on the table.  There will be debates – one after another after another.  My hope is that is that our political leaders can grapple with these issues in a real way, with all of their complexity and nuance.  If they can do that – with respect and dignity –  then they might help all of us to find a way to have meaningful dialogue about some of the most difficult, but also without question some of the most important issues of our time.  May we have the grace, the compassion, and the wisdom we need to speak about these issues not with anger, but with hope in our hearts for a better future that we can only make together.


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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, Genesis, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

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