Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve committed to filling in what I call my “pop culture blindspots,” making a point to watch movies with a significant cultural footprint that I, for various reasons, haven’t seen.
One of the best films I’ve seen along this journey was Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s award-winning World War II epic. I’m assuming that most of you have seen it, since it came out nearly 25 years ago to widespread critical acclaim and tremendous box office success; but otherwise, consider this your official spoiler alert!
The film centers on a squad of Army Rangers led by Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks), who, surviving the bloody American invasion of Normandy, are sent behind enemy lines to find a paratrooper, Private James Ryan (played by Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers have already been killed in combat, and bringing Private Ryan home would prevent his mother from having to bear the terrible burden of losing all her sons in the war.
The orders come directly from central command, but virtually every other character in the movie, even Private Ryan himself, thinks the mission is either immoral, unwise, or both. Of course, no one wants to see a mother have to bury her children. But the soldiers tasked with saving Private Ryan have mothers, too. What is the sense in risking their lives just to save him, one unexceptional private? Underscoring this haunting question is the fact that most of Captain Miller’s squad is killed in the course of carrying out their mission. Even Miller himself dies in the climactic battle.
Throughout the movie, the viewer is forced to sit with the painful reminder that Miller (and hundreds of thousands of others just like him) died so Ryan (and countless others) could live. That message is underscored by the final order Miller gives Ryan right before dying. With his final breath, Miller tells Ryan to “earn this…earn it.”
The movie’s final scene takes place years later, when an elderly Ryan visits Miller’s grave, he says to his fallen captain, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me,” that he has tried to live in such a way that justified the sacrifice Miller and others made for him. Ryan then turns to his wife and implores her, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
By concluding the movie with this emotional scene, it seems to me that Spielberg is making a statement that he essentially intended his entire film as a question: What is our responsibility to those who have gone before us? Specifically, what do we owe to those who have died so that we might be spared? How must we live in order to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for ours?
Passover confronts us with a similar question.
In yesterday’s Torah reading, we encounter the climactic moment of the Exodus story, the dramatic salvation of the Children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds. Following the horror of the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh lets the enslaved Israelite nation leave Egypt. But soon after, he has a change of heart and sends his army into the wilderness after them. The Children of Israel find themselves trapped between the charging Egyptian horde behind them and a seemingly impassable sea in front of them. But God miraculously splits the sea, enabling the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians chase after them, God sends the walls of water crashing down, wiping out the entire host. Safe on the other side, we are told, “va-yar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al s’fat ha-yam,” that “the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea,” and then Moses, Miriam, and the rest of the Israelites burst into song.
Typically, the Israelite mood here is read as joyous and jubilant. After centuries of brutal enslavement, they had finally secured their freedom; confronted with what seemed to have been certain death, their lives were miraculously saved; justice was done, with the oppressors meeting their doom, and the oppressed finally knowing liberation.
But that’s not what the Torah says. Rather than depict the Israelites as exultant, the Torah reports, “va-yar Yisrael et ha-yad ha-g’dolah asher asah Adonai b’Mitzrayim, va-yi’iru ha-am et Adonai, va-ya’aminu ba-Adonai uv’Moshe av’do” that “the Israelites saw the great power which the Infinite had wielded against the Egyptians, and the people became afraid of (or were awed by) the Infinite, and they affirmed God and Moses, God’s servant.”
The people’s reaction to seeing thousands of Egyptian corpses wash up on the shore was not celebration, but rather recognition – recognition of the awful magnitude of what had just occurred.
Indeed, even the song they sing in the aftermath of this event does not express joy per se. Rather, they sing of God’s power to save, but also of God’s power to destroy. They acknowledge with amazement and appreciation that their lives were spared and that their freedom was secured. And they express their belief, or at least their hope, that God will continue to deliver them in the future.
But they also sing at length of the extraordinary costs of their good fortune, even if those costs were just and necessary. Perhaps the Song of the Sea is best read less as a hymn than as a dirge. It is less an exuberant celebration of victory, and more a somber acknowledgement – that the Israelites only live because Egyptians have died.
It turns out that this reading isn’t as against-the-grain as it might seem. Many of us are familiar with the famous midrash attributed to the ancient sage Rabbi Yohanan, that when the angels saw the Egyptians drowning in the Sea of Reeds, they wanted to sing in celebration. But God rebuked them, saying, “ מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי טוֹבְעִין בַּיָּם, וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה? / My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you sing songs?!” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b).
To God, according to this midrash, the destruction of any of God’s creations, no matter how wicked they are or how deserving they might be of retribution, is a tragedy. After all, our tradition reminds us, every human being is unique, infinitely valuable, and so the destruction of one human life is nothing less than the destruction of an entire world.
We give expression to this principle at the Passover Seder. During Magid, the portion of the Seder in which we discuss the Exodus story, we pour out some of our wine as we name each of the plagues that God wrought upon Egypt in order to secure our freedom. The full cup of wine symbolizes the joy of our redemption, but since people died in the course of our liberation, our joy must be subdued. The death of any human being, even those on the wrong side of a moral divide, is tragic.
We human beings, of course, are not angels; and we are certainly not gods. We might experience joy, or at least relief, when bad people get what they deserve. Our instinct for vengeance, our desire for justice – heck, our schadenfreude – is not only natural, it can serve a useful function, reinforcing and sharpening our moral red lines, our sense of right and wrong, good and bad.
However, by telling us that our ancestors’ joy at the Sea of Reeds about their salvation was tempered by the shock and awe of seeing the terrible sight of thousands of drowned Egyptians, and by directing us to diminish our celebration by mourning the Egyptian casualties of the Exodus, our tradition goes out of its way to remind us that our liberation came at an incalculable cost.
There are several reasons for this: one is to inculcate humility, to teach us to be extremely careful when we possess the power to administer justice or wage war. While our tradition doubtlessly believes that there is such a thing as right and wrong and good and evil, that people ought to be held accountable for the crimes they commit, and that sometimes violence – even war – is justified, it tempers its insistence on pursuing justice with the reminder that a human life is as valuable as an entire world. Since we human beings are not gods, we must recognize that our knowledge and understanding is inherently imperfect and our judgment inescapably flawed. We therefore must exercise great caution in our administration of justice, especially when a person’s life hangs in the balance, and in the prosecution of even the most righteous of wars.
But there is another, arguably more important, reason our tradition directs us to remember the terrible cost of our redemption, particularly when we are most exultant: Like Private Ryan, we must remember that we live only because others have died, that our freedom isn’t free. Bearing the burden of this reminder is meant to cause us to question whether we have “earned it”, whether we have lived in a way that would make us worthy of such sacrifice. And like Private Ryan, we are confronted with the ongoing challenge of justifying that sacrifice by striving to live our lives as well and as fully as we are able, and to do as much good as we can do – for others, for our community, for our world.
Memory is such a major theme of this holiday. It is the essence of the haggadah, a book that literally means “telling,” because the purpose of the Seder is to recount the extraordinary events of the Exodus. It is a reason that we recite Yizkor, the service for remembering our ancestors, on Passover (and also on the two other pilgrimage festivals that are tied to the Exodus narrative). Beyond Passover, the Torah commands us to recall our ancient liberation each and every day, with rituals like laying tefillin and observances like Shabbat and holidays serving as additional regular reminders.
Our tradition enjoins us to repeatedly remember the Exodus at least in part because whenever we remember the story of our people’s redemption, we will invariably face not only its joyful outcome, but also its awful price. In confronting the cost of our freedom, we also confront the fact that we owe a debt to those who paid for our redemption with their lives, a debt that can only be repaid by making the most of the lives we have been given.
This, of course, is not just a question posed by Passover. It’s not even necessarily a uniquely Jewish question. Rather, our tradition calls us to a fundamentally human question: What responsibility do each and every one of us living today have to those who have gone before us? Like Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, our tradition answers with a simple but substantial commandment: earn this.
With the way we live our lives, we must earn the sacrifices of our ancestors, our martyrs, and our survivors. In how we treat others, we must earn the sacrifices of those who have been oppressed and killed for their otherness. In the way we strengthen our communities, in the way we contribute to the common welfare of our nation, in the way we pursue justice and make a more perfect union, we must earn the sacrifices of those who have lost their lives in the ongoing struggle of freedom against tyranny.
Today, we imagine ourselves like our ancient ancestors, standing at the shore of the Red Sea with a mix of relief and awe. Are we worthy of the cost of our liberation? Can we be? The answer, today and every day, is up to us.