Part I: Parashat K’doshim Leviticus 19:1-20:27 Movie Review: Everybody Knows Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

I have published the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s song from his album, I’m Your Man, as introductions to other blogs. It requires reprinting even though it is never sung or hummed in the film, Everyone Knows, but its prophetic pessimism haunts the film.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast

Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows 

K’doshim is the heart and soul of the Holiness Code in the Torah. The section offers instructions on how to be a holy people. Parashat K’doshim also includes the commandment, “You shall surely rebuke your kinsfolk…” (Leviticus 19:17) What does becoming a holy people have to do with a commandment concerning rebuking the members of your family? And what do commandments about becoming a holy people and rebuking the members of your family have to do with a Spanish film, Everybody Knows, directed and written by the brilliant Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi? (Dancing in the Dust, 2003; Beautiful City, 2004; Fireworks Wednesday, 2006; About Elly, 2009; A Separation, 2011, that won awards around the world, including the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, the first Iranian director to win such an award; and The Salesman, 2016, his tribute to Arthur Miller) What can the parashat have to do with his first non-Iranian Spanish movie that stars such powerhouses as Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín?

Serendipitously, though I missed the film when it showed at the Toronto International Film Festival (8 September 2018), and did not see it in its general release in February when I was in Mexico, I saw it last evening on Netflix. However, isn’t the movie simply an artistic combined thriller and whodunnit, a somewhat turgid melodrama? It is all of those, but very much more. However, for a real stretch, what does the weekly Torah reading and this film have to do with Israel’s Memorial Day to its fallen soldiers and Israel’s Independence Day?

The questions alone are a challenge to comprehend. I will start with depicting the central theological problem of the Holiness Code and then connect the theme with a movie that appears simply to be a melodrama but reveals itself to be, at its core, a film with a powerful religious theme. I will end by then connecting the theological conundrum in the Torah and the theme of the movie with Memorial Day and Independence Day in Israel.

The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1-2) God also commanded, “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) As Hillel taught was the core of Judaism, “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man” (דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד), or, as in this passage in Parashat K’doshim – “love your fellow as yourself.” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ) The latter dictum offers a hint of a connection with a movie that reveals itself to be about hidden grudges within a family, resentments, rebukes and exercises in revenge. But what connection could there be about becoming a holy people?

Given his own uniqueness, God wanted his people to be set apart from the other nations of the world. That is one way to interpret the commandment. But note that the latter is surely the most difficult commandment of all if only because it is impossible for an individual to fulfill. In contrast, in all romanticism in all cultures, uniqueness is revered. Further, rules of sexual conduct, rules about eating and praying, all of these can be obeyed by an individual. But a commandment to become a holy people, kol adat B’nai Yisrael?

There is the clear implication that an individual on his or her own cannot become holy. Nor is holiness restricted to priests, those with holy ordinances, the elite who enjoy the advantages of prosperity, or to those who are reborn in God or Christ, or even to those who give of themselves for the sake of others. There are examples of all these types and more in the movie. The priest who officiates at the wedding is rebuked from the pews for always begging for more money to repair the church, implying that he neglects to tell them what they need to know to repair their communal souls. To become holy requires an extended family, a community, a nation. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

You shall be holy. It is a work in progress. Israel’s status as God’s holy people is fluid. It is an effort that most challenges us when we encounter a maelstrom in our lives. When we need it most, we are commanded to become holy. And the effort emerges in the hour-to-hour, day-to-day struggles that we all engage in as we go through life, but made all the clearer in the bright sun-dappled Spain that turns into a rainy and dark film after we are at our most celebratory and when we enter an intimately painful phase and are most emotionally torn apart in frantic desperation.

The clue about how to be holy is that we must imitate God, imitate the divine. Imitatio Dei. But what does that mean? At the very least it means caring for the other. And not just an other individual. But caring for the collective we. Not just the workers engaged in a class struggle. Not just the Democratic cosmopolitans at war with the local nationalist patriots and ethnic nationalists so that we become holy be being different than others. Make America great! No, holiness, entails becoming a holy nation that is a light unto the nations. And that effort starts with the family, starts by understanding how to rebuke the members of your family and your friends and deal with the barely hidden ghosts of the past that cast shadows and serve as specters on a film initially filled with brilliant sun-kissed light.

The Hebrews emerged as a distinct people in the early Iron Age (1200 – 1000 B.C.E.). In no other religion, in no other culture, does the requirement to be holy fall on a whole people. Does this mean simply exclusivity? Does this mean simply following a unique set of dietary and other laws? If so, how could a people then be a light unto the nations?

Becoming a community, a light unto the nations, is the most important way we sanctify our lives. That is the critical way in which we become partners with the divine. But then why is holiness defined as that which sets us apart, that which defines us as not part of a community, not part of a nation and not part of the community of nations? How can separateness be intrinsic to spirituality while the injunction insists that the only way we can become holy is through a community becoming holy?

Entitlements, literally, having title to something – a piece of land or a house or an estate or a particular vineyard or a set of unique laws – are not equated either with separating oneself from others or in obeying the command to joining with others to become a holy people. Becoming separate and holy at one and the same time has nothing to do with privileges either earned or awarded. It has almost everything to do with sharing criticisms with members of one’s family, of one’s community, with how one rebukes and how one accepts rebukes. Everybody Knows at its heart is about this failure while everyone shares in a broken feeling and everybody knows that the captain lied and that the plague is coming.

This blog is an exercise in criticism. It is really about myself before it is about the Torah portion, a movie or the sequence of Jewish holidays. I share it with others so that we can together engage in self-examination. When I write about Everybody Knows, it is to work towards bringing out in the open what everyone already knows. That was the mission of Socrates. It is not intended as an assault on my own identity, on the identity of another and certainly not on the great artistry of someone who can create a great film. Criticism is simply a craft, like knitting, an effort at sharing and giving my meagre gifts to the world, at understanding the tensions underneath the surface, and not at tearing apart the world. Most of all, it should never be about challenging one’s identity. There is no need to be defensive and every reason not to be.

I am not speaking simply of the cliché instructing us to only engage in constructive criticism. For criticism if it is real, if it is profound, has to deconstruct. But how do we deconstruct at the same time as we enhance our love for one another? The Torah provides an answer, at least in general. Hochei-ach tochi-ach et amitecha. To rebuke properly, you must do it twice. You must criticize yourself and your own shortcomings before you remonstrate others, specifically your kin. Criticism is about initiating dialogue and a more general conversation so that we do not hide from one another, so there are no longer unburied secrets and unhealed wounds.

When one mother at the Denver STEM School Highlands Ranch, where a student died this week in another shooting incident, contacted authorities in the school before the shooting to suggest that, given the evidence of her son, the school might be a pressure cooker about to explode because of reports of violence, bullying and stress, she warned of the possibility of another Columbine. The school officials subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against her.  

Everybody Knows at its heart is about this failure to rebuke oneself before turning on others. The command to love your neighbor as you love yourself is not as simple as it appears. Certainly it means taking responsibility for the stranger, for the men and women who pick the grapes on your estate in order to make wine. Certainly it means taking care of the disabled, the pater familias of the clan which is celebrating the marriage of one of his daughters even though he is an irate and resentful former gambler and alcoholic who must use a chair lift to get to the second floor of his house. Certainly, it entails that we understand that we are all God’s children, all “children of the Lord, your God’ (Deuteronomy 14:1)

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman


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