OK, this one got to me.
No, it’s not a “significant” birthday, i.e., it’s not one that ends with a 0 or a 5 — but at a certain age, every birthday is significant.
The number: 86.
The birthday celebrant?
Dustin Hoffman, one of the most significant American actors of our generation, turned 86 years old this past week.
You read that right. 86.
Why is that crazy? Because of the role that defined both his career and a generation. That role has helped him, in the public imagination, to stay “forever young.”
But, first: let’s play a trivia game.
Question: what is the most important one-word quote in motion picture history?
In my mind’s eye, I can see some of you getting ready to raise your hands.
Some of you would say that it is the last word from Orson Welles’ classic film, “Citizen Kane“: “rosebud.”
But, no. Sorry. That is not the answer that I am looking for.
Come with me to one of the great American movies of our time – “The Graduate.”
Now, in fact, there was either nothing Jewish about this movie – or there was everything Jewish about this movie.
It is not only that it starred Dustin Hoffman – which is about as Jewish as it gets.
It is not only that Simon and Garfunkel provided the soundtrack – which is also about as Jewish as it gets.
Benjamin Bradock could have been Benjamin Bronstein. Mrs. Robinson could have been Mrs. Rubinstein. The final scene could have happened in a synagogue, and not in a church (though, without a cross, what would Ben have used to, symbolically, barricade the doors?).
Let us remember the movie together.
Ben Braddock is a product of southern California’s upper middle class. He has just graduated from college. He is lost. He does not know what he wants out of life.
At his graduation party, he tells his father: “I’m just worried about my future…I want it to be different.”
A few moments later, a family friend approaches Benjamin.
“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?”
You know the word that comes next.
There you have it. Perhaps the single most important one word line in all of motion picture history.
Here is the peshat (the literal interpretation) of this encounter.
The family friend is counseling Ben on his future, urging him to go into plastics.
But, that was not how we interpreted that scene.
In the 1960s, we used the word “plastics” to describe people, and it was not a compliment. “She is so totally plastic.” (Some of you might remember “Plastic People” by the Mothers of Invention).
“Plastic” described people who were artificial.
Let me say something about being artificial. In several weeks, as the Jewish New Year approaches, Jews will be hearing the blasts of the shofar.
According to Jewish law, a shofar is only suitable for blowing if it has nothing foreign, extraneous, or artificial attached to it.
I remember my childhood synagogue. Every year on Rosh Hashanah, Mr. Grossman had the honor of blowing the shofar.
But, Mr. Grossman “cheated.”
He attached a trumpet mouthpiece to the shofar.
Yes, it made it easier for him to blow. But, by doing that his act of doing that actually rendered the shofar invalid.
The Hasidic Rebbe, Mordechai of Lekhovitz, once attended the brit, the circumcision, of a friend’s son. The friend asked him: “Rebbe, would you impart some life wisdom to my son?”
What didn’t the rebbe say to the newborn child?
No – the rebbe said these words to the infant, and to all those who were there: “May you not fool God, may you not fool yourself, and may you not fool people.”
Many of us expend a great deal of energy in trying to do at least one or more of those fooling exercises.
That is one version of being plastic.
But, there is another way to be plastic — to twist yourself into being whatever others think you should be, or into being what society thinks you should be.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in being flexible.
So does Judaism.
Why does a sofer, a scribe, use a quill made out of a reed – to write a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll.
Because, a person should always be as flexible as a reed – and as unyielding as a cedar.
Yes, be flexible.
But, you cannot be so flexible that you forget the core of who you are. When that happens, you break. Or, your soul breaks.
When it comes to the core of who you are; when it comes to your innermost principles and values — you need to be as unyielding as a cedar, even and especially as you remain flexible about how to express and live those principles.
I love the opening number from the musical “Hamilton,” “Aaron Burr, Sir.”
New York City. 1776. It is Hamilton’s first encounter with Aaron Burr, the man who would ultimately kill him in a duel.
Aaron Burr offers Hamilton some free advice: “Talk less; smile more; don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
Is this any way to live? To live in a way so that no one knows what you’re against or what you’re for?
To me, one of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that it celebrates self-definition, which means celebrating difference.
In the words of the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Judaism taught “the dignity of difference.”
Judaism mandated that Jews live differently — not only that they might be different, holy, set aside, but also to model the fact that all peoples and cultures have the right — in fact, the duty — to be different and to celebrate those differences.
That is the true meaning of multi-culturalism — not to create a unified world, but to create worlds of differences, in which we can live with those differences and to celebrate them.
Judaism can teach Jews, and others, how not to be “plastic” — how to be real, and how to be authentic.
And. a happy belated 86th birthday to Dustin Hoffman.
I am still trying to get my mind around that.