Monday, November 30, 2009

The Secrets (Ha-Sodot) -- compassion, connection and change

Director: Avi Nesher, 2007.

Who doesn't have some secret that should not be revealed? In Nesher's film three women have secrets that slowly emerge to transform their lives.

At the heart of the Israeli film The Secrets is Naomi (Ania Bukstein), the daughter of a prominent rabbi. With her mother dead, she is to be married off to an arrogant rabbi-wannabe. But she is not ready for that. A devout orthodox Jew and brilliant student, she imagines herself the first female rabbi. That would be quite something in the traditional, yet repressive culture that she is immersed in. To postpone marriage, she suggests to her father that she spend a year in Jewish seminary in the mountains studying. Surprisingly he agrees.

When she arrives at the "Truth and Knowledge" seminary in the ancient Kabalistic town of Safed she meets Michel (Michal Shtamler in her film debut), a free-spirited student who is set on challenging all the rules and maintaining her individuality. These two will forge an unlikely friendship that will change both.

The third key female is Anouk (the iconic French actress, Fanny Ardant). A middle-aged woman, she has returned to this isolated town to die. She has terminal cancer, and a shocking secret. Assigned to bring her groceries as a mission of compassion, Michel and Naomi come to terms with one another through these visits. Michel is the only French-speaker, and since Anouk cannot speak Hebrew, that leaves Naomi isolated.

Their approach to this ministry underscores the differences between Naomi and Michel. Naomi's desire is to perform the ministry by the letter of the law: deliver the groceries, store them and go. This is much as her religion dictates. In contrast, Michel goes further. She sees compassion as reaching the inner person, not just the outer shell. She befriends Anouk, and their conversations begin to unpack the secret that has been spiritually eating Anouk up like the cancer that has ravaged her body.

This introduces two ethical insights. First, it challenges the notion of religion as a simple list of rules and regulations. Noami has lived her life religiously, doing what is defined as right. She does the grocery chore at the command of the head of the seminary. But in keeping the letter of the law she is missing the underlying spirit of the law. Michal, the non-traditionalist, understands this. She ministers to the heart and in doing so initiates change: in Anouk and in the two students.

How often do we, even Bible-affirming followers of Jesus, seek to live our disciplined lives by keeping rules? We may have our own lists of dos and don'ts, or they may be suggested by our ministers. But Jesus said there is really only one commandment: to love God completely (Lk. 10:27). There is no complicated series of laws to ponder and strive to attain. Just love God. This is so much bigger than our little lists; it is a holistic lifestyle.

The second insight is centered on compassion. Michal reached Anouk by caring for her, by listening to her story. And as she did so, Anouk shared her guilty secret. Jesus realized this, too, when he added an appendix to the one law: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lk. 10:27). We do not love ourselves by simply keeping a list. We go beyond this. We look at our inner person, and feed and nurture our souls. Likewise, ministry that is focused on performance and numbers is often legalistic. Life-changing ministry focuses on compassion, on care, communicating love. This changes both giver and receiver alike.

As Anouk's friendship with these two students blossoms, she reveals her desire to come right with God before her death. Naomi, the more learned of the two, researches and creates several tikkun, Kabbalistic Jewish purification rituals that would cleanse her and restore her relationship with God. One, a cleansing in a sacred pool, seems similar to the Christian sacrament of baptism. Anouk emerges from her submerging with a renewed zeal.

Indeed, Anouk's desperate desire for redemption parallels that of most people, if truth be told. We are all, in some way or another, separated from God (Isa. 59:2). When death comes knocking and we know we have little time left, this desire, dormant for decades perhaps, rises to the surface. Like soldiers offering foxhole prayers, people staring mortality in the eyes often realize their need to get right with God. Redemption is a heart-beat and simple prayer away. It does not require the elaborate rituals that Naomi takes Anouk through. Simply accepting the gift of grace that our savior Jesus offers is enough (Rev. 3:20). We can become children of God through a prayer of faith (Rom. 10:9-10), when we believe in his payment of our sin on the cross on our behalf (Heb. 9:15).

Instead of dealing with sin in this fashion, an alternate approach is evident in Naomi's life. As her secret emerges, she seeks the Jewish Scriptures for an answer and "finds" one. She rationalizes her sin away. We do this, too, when we find our answers, ignoring the clear and crisp words of God. Rationalizing sin is our way to create and control a god who is smaller than Yahweh, the one and only true God found in Scripture (Deut. 6:4).

As the movie winds towards its non-Hollywood ending, we find Naomi liberated from her repressive beliefs. The black clothes of her student days in the first half of the film are replaced with white garments. She is no longer repressed but is rejected by family and society. What a a price to pay for her "freedom." In contrast, we see Michel willing to compromise her individuality and accept a more traditional role in society. Their roles have been reversed.

The Secrets is a slow-paced yet poignantly moving story of repression and forbidden love. But it leaves us focused on change. Are we changing for the better or the worse? Are we more like Naomi or Michel? Either way, have we come to terms with our God like Anouk? That may be our own most important secret.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

No comments:

Post a Comment