I was thinking about the film A Serious Man, made by the Coen brothers. The film is unusual because it begins with a short film shot in sepia about a poor Jewish couple in nineteenth century Russia who are visited by a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) that has inhabited the body of a recently deceased rabbi.
The wife is fearful and practical. The husband is ambivalent and hesitant. There is not much to a story but the nub of the story is that the wife is certain that she and her husband will be visited by more bad luck.
Then we segue into the main film A Serious Man about a man who watches his life fall apart around him. Set in the present day, the main protagonist is a middle-aged man, a lecturer at a college somewhere on the East Coast of the U.S. – an intelligent man with a responsible job.
His wife is having an affair right under his nose. Now she tells him she is leaving with her lover.
His daughter ignores and derides him. His son, who is soon to be bar-mitzvah’d, seems to be in a world of his own. His boss at work is enigmatic and disconcerting. His wife’s new boyfriend patronises him.
In the middle of all of this one of his students tries to bribe him to change his grade on a paper. The hero refuses to take the bribe. The student threatens him. The hero talks to the father of the student and the father also threatens him.
Still our hero refuses. He will not take a bribe.
And then he looks around and everything seems to tell him that the smart money is on the people who have no conscience. They prosper.
The student comes to see him again. Sitting in his office, and after saying no, no, no, repeatedly, he gives in and says yes and takes the bribe.
He wants to be seen. He wants to be heard. Taking the bribe is payback time for the pain of being left behind and ignored.
Taking the bribe makes him feel like he joined the human race.
And immediately after the student departs, the phone rings and it is his doctor saying he should come in right away to discuss the results of his latest tests.
Right there he sees the punishment for his sin of accepting the bribe. His life has immediately changed for the worse and he will probably die.
When Bad Things Happen To Good People
He is basically a good man. He has a moral conscience. He tries to do right. He falters and does something he knows he should not.
And this is his reward! That he should be struck down with a serious illness and probably die!
How can this be fair when there are people who do much worse things and don’t suffer any consequences?
They even prosper!
What Is The Answer
Let me ask you something. When you read this sub-heading ‘What Is The Answer’, did you wonder what the answer was? I bet you did. I would. We are all going around in smaller or bigger circles. We think we have it sorted out. We know what is right and wrong, but still…
The protagonist in A Serious Man is Jewish and so are the film’s directors – so it seems fitting to examine the question from the point of view of the touchstone of their beliefs.
There is a thread in the Jewish tradition that teaches that the inclination to do evil is a strange beast. For a man who does what he wants without a thought as to whether it is right or wrong, the inclination to do evil has no work to do and so it becomes lazy, and weak.
But with a man who is striving to do good, the inclination to do evil is really stretched. It is in tip-top condition, so it waits for its moment, and then it slips in and does its work.
And the nearer that a man gets to being a good man, the finer the balance and the greater the consequences for doing a bad thing.
That same thing if done by a bad man will not bring about serious consequences or perhaps even any consequences at all.
Whether this is all true of course, is another question, but we can at least accept that there is logic in the system of thought that holds it together. It is not crazy and illogical, at least.
Of course, a person may accept all this and conclude he can be really bad. Then the chances are that he will get away with just about anything without serious consequences. At least he will do not worse than someone trying to do good.
Way to go!
And that is really the test, isn’t it? – whether one can be a fool when everyone around you is being smart.