BI-TWT Kol Nidre Sermon
September 25, 2012 – 10 Tishre 5773
I do not get to go to the movies very often – and lately, Harry and I have been visiting the library and selecting films that we missed during their first-run status. We had heard much about the film Avatar – as well as all the hoopla about the super-advanced technology used to film it and the 3-D aspect that makes the figures jump off the screen… It was time to see it – and we did… on our very not-up-to-date television and without the 3-D glasses. And despite the absence of super-technology – or maybe because of it – I was very moved by this movie and knew that it would make its way into one of my sermons. And so it has.
As it came out a while ago, a short synopsis of the of the film is in order: Avatar tells the story of Pandora, a distant moon in the year 2154 where there is a conflict between human colonialists of the Crusher Corporation, who are mining Pandora’s resources because they have exhausted earth’s, and the indigenous inhabitants called the Na’vi, who are trying to expel the foreigners.
The film follows Jake Sully, a former marine who is paralyzed during combat on Earth. His twin brother was working for the Avatar Program on Pandora which constructed genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrids that allow the humans to control these “avatars” with their minds while their own bodies sleep. An avatar can only be controlled by a person who shares its unique genetic material and when Sully’s twin brother dies, he is asked to take his place and join the squad, as he is the only one who has the genetic make-up to control that particular avatar.
On his first assignment, Jake’s avatar gets lost and is attacked by a gang of dangerous creatures. It looks like he might not make it until he is saved by a female Na’vi named Neytiri. While her people fear outsiders, Neytiri feels like there is something different about Jake – something special. So she takes him to the Na’vi Hometree, the spiritual and physical home of her clan. The Na’vi then decide to teach Jake about their culture.
However, once back at his base, Jake is ordered by Colonel Miles Quaritch to initiate a diplomatic mission, in order to obtain the trust of the Na’vi tribe and is given three months to convince them to abandon their Hometree, which sits above a large deposit of unobtainium – the valuable substance that the humans are mining. [And, as you can tell from its name, it is fairly unobtainable.] As Jake learns the way of the Na’vi, he gradually finds himself caught between the military-industrial forces of Earth and a new found love for his adopted home and people. In fact, Jake is successfully initiated into the tribe after passing their rites of passage to become a man of the Na’vi .
At the end of Jake’s three months, because he has not convinced the Na’vi to abandon Hometree, Colonel Quaritch leads a military campaign and destroys the Na’vi’s beloved home. The Na’vi are devastated and when they find out that Jake knew of the plan, they are furious and abandon him. Faced with a decision of fighting with his race, the people who are destroying Pandora and wiping out the Na’vi, or his newfound tribe whom he has come to love, he chooses the Na’vi and leads them in a revolt against Colonel Quaritch. With the help of the Na’vi, the other tribes on Pandora, and even all of the Pandorian wildlife, Jake is successful in fending off the attack and sending the human mission home.
And, finally, Jake decides that he has become more Na’vi than human, so he agrees to have his soul transplanted from his human body into his Na’vi avatar at the “holy” Tree of Souls. As in all good Hollywood films, Jake ends up marrying Neytiri, the Na’vi princess who discovered him three months prior.
Yes, it’s very Hollywood. But there are some subtle – and not so subtle – themes that are quite moving. Indeed, it shouldn’t escape us that as one of those rare films meant to be watched ideally in 3-D, it literally begs to be viewed in every dimension, with keener vision and deeper understanding. And, indeed, as we examine certain aspects of the movie, the themes of vision, understanding and community come into focus.
The name of the heroic people who live in the Garden-of-Eden-like moon of Pandora is Na’vi. Interestingly, the Hebrew word navi means prophet; but not in the sense of prophet able to predict the future. The root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.
With all the technological prowess of the earthly invaders, the humans who came to despoil this new-found planet simply could not see – they did not have the vision; they could not see what the far simpler and “less civilized” inhabitants recognized so clearly. The inhabitants of Pandora lived together in a balanced system – a balanced eco-system – with their environment. Their Hometree was indeed their Tree of Life, the center of their system. James Cameron, the movie’s director, explained that he saw his movie as a metaphor for our presence here on our own planet Earth. “We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains; we therefore are entitled to every thing on this planet and beyond. But… that’s not how it works, and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth.”
Along with vision, comes understanding – a deeper understanding of one’s surroundings and those who are in it.
The Na’vi, when they are in a total reciprocal relationship with someone, will say “I see you.” This is a deep type of seeing, the type that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber would have called an “I-Thou” relationship and explicitly makes the act of seeing into a spiritual discipline. For Pandora’s people, the Na’vi, these words “I see you” express what, in Hebrew is “yode’a,” an interactive “knowing” that is emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, and spiritual all at once.
In contrast, the invading business and military presence is completely blind to the presence of others – seeing only their needs and making it very evident that when we do not truly see another, when another is seen only as “other,” [Martin Buber would call that kind of relationship “I-It”] – we will indeed become destructive toward them.
Dr. Michael Rand, a member of our congregation and professor of Communications at Cleveland State University, focuses on this “I-It” relationship in his documentary film “Defining Race.” When a person (or a group of people) is seen as “other” (as not human) that enables the haters, the bigots, the Nazis – to negate the humanity of that person or group. And in their disregard of the humanity of that person (or group of people), they in turn, think nothing about destroying that person (or group of people).
With true vision comes an awareness of, an appreciation of, and an understanding of one’s surroundings. And with this larger, fuller understanding comes a true sense of community. For the Na’vi, this sense of community is found in the sense of interconnectedness they feel with their environment, with each other, and with their goddess – Eywa – all are truly part of the Pandoran web of life.
Set against the uber-technology of the earthly invaders, the Na’vi appear to have no technological resources. But that is not true. They have a technology, but it is not mechanical. It is organic. The Pandoran ecology forms a vast neural network spanning the entire lunar surface into which the Na’vi and other creatures can connect.
The biological fringes with which they connect to each other are living, pulsating versions of the tzitziot, the fringes on the corners of the tallit. Rabbi Arthur Waskow describes them as “… the technology of organic intimacy.” There is even a point in the film when one of the Crusher Corporation’s engineers sees, in an uncharacteristic moment of deep vision, that their biological fringes make possible a “global network.”
I must admit, when I saw these fringes and how they were used to connect to fellow Na’vi-im, and to the creatures they rode upon, and to the Tree of Souls to connect to their goddess – I saw tzitzit. Through their fringes they made their connections, they made their community. Through our fringes, through our tzitzit, we, too, have the spiritual technology to make connections – to each other, to our environment, and to the Holy Presence in our lives.
In the book of Numbers (chapter 15, verses 37-41), we are instructed to make tzitzit on the corners of our garments and to look at – to see – the tzitzit and be reminded of what we are called upon to do.
Traditionally, the collective number of strands and knots of the four tzitzit on our prayer shawl equals 613, the traditional number of mitzvot – of holy actions that connect us to each other, to our world, and to God.
When we visit the sick, we are connecting to each other through the mitzvah of bikkur holim.
When we recycle and re-use, we are connecting to our world through the mitzvah of baal taschhit, in helping to sustain our planet.
When we light Shabbat candles, when we hang the mezuzah on our doorpost, when we study Torah – we are connecting to the Holy Presence in our lives through the mitzvot of l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat, lichbo’ah mezuzah, and la’asok b’divrei Torah.
Am I asking you to take on all 613? No. It would be impossible, anyway, since many of the mitzvoth have to do with the Temple and the ritual of offerings and sacrifices.
I am not talking about those.
The English translation of Yom Kippur is “Day of Atonement.” The word “Atonement” can also be read as “at one-ment”… and, indeed, that is what we are to seek on this day… on this day and throughout the coming year. As we think of the tzitzit as symbolizing the mitzvot – the holy actions in our lives – they can provide us with the spiritual technology to truly be at-one with each other, with our world, and with the divine. Our goal is to connect broadly and deeply, by seeking out what is truly important in our lives.
Although many of us recognize the word avatar as a representation of the self in computer games (a “mini-me,” so to speak), in fact the term originates in Hindu mythology. An avatar is a personification or an embodiment of a divine principle.
So, let us take Avatar’s themes to heart and make the conscious effort:
- to see and appreciate each other and the world around us,
- to more deeply understand each other, and
- to connect with each other and build our community in a richer and more meaningful way… in a holy way.
Then, truly, each of us will embody the divine.
L’Shanah Tovah u’Metukhah Tikateivu v’ Chotmeinu – May we all be written and sealed for a good and sweet year.