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Soul: A Film for the Soul of this Moment

05/01/2021 04:26:59 PM


When I was a child, I had a favourite book of Jewish folk tales and stories, which I would love to read aloud to company. Apparently, my parents didn’t curb this propensity, which may have laid the groundwork for some of my current professional activities [insert winking rabbi emoji].
My all-time favourite section of the book was devoted to stories of Chelm. Whether or not I understood it as a real place or a fictional variant – both are true – I was captivated by the tales of the wise fools whose antics reflected profound faith tinged with the sensibility of the Three Stooges.
The foundational story is one of angels dispatched to earth to distribute souls, all kinds of souls, and scatted them about equally.  On the way, the angel carrying the sack of foolish souls was distracted by the sight of a beautiful flower. The sack snagged on a mountain peak, spilling all the foolish souls in one benighted little spot in Poland – the Yiddish-speaking town of Chelm.
This idea of souls with different qualities, and souls being scattered and planted across the planet, has stayed with me all my life. It offers a narrative framework for me to consider my place – in my family, in the world, in specific circumstances. It doesn’t reflect a full-fledged theology; it just packs an otherwise massive scope of intellectually ponderous theorizing into – well, into a neat little sack.
The people of Pixar must know the Chelm story. They don’t exactly depict angels in their newly released full-length feature film Soul, nor are the character in any way fools. Yet it does address the question of what creates our uniqueness, and how we manifest or live into our purpose in life.
This delightful and lively animated spectacle totally captivated my attention, both with the story line and beautiful images. At various junctures, I couldn’t help wondering how this very adult film would be received by children. And yet, if I think about my child self, captivated by the Chelm stories, I shouldn’t really wonder. Only the medium differs, really. After all, who isn’t, at some time in their life and perhaps over and over again, confounded by The Big Questions.
A social media post shows the image that resulted from a five-year-old, activating his tablet using the voice feature, asking: “how many days is in Corona going to be gone” [insert weeping rabbi emoji]. Big ups, though, for the glorious music, from my go-to genre so far this pandemic winter – jazz. Maybe Soul really is the right film for the moment.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my colleagues made use of this film and its themes in forthcoming educational and ritual events. It brings to mind movies like the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, or the television series The Good Place. From different starting places and utilizing varied genres, all these works address Big Ideas About the Universe. They form a new kind of canon, a toyreh, as the Wise Fools of Chelm would have pronounced Torah, or perhaps more properly a rasheh, a commentary like Rashi’s, to explicate the otherwise impenetrable complexities of the sacred, and of our pre-knowable beginnings.
Soul is a great film for the moment for other reasons. While it offers a satisfying scene of redemption, it still signals that the journey to seek meaning is not over, and perhaps may never conclude. What persists is the quest to understand, to find our place, and to situate ourselves in our tiny little corner of the world while knowing that somehow, we are connected to all the souls of the planet, wherever they landed.
Let 2021 bring safety, hope, comfort, and justice to kol yoshvey tevel, all who dwell on earth.

Thu, 26 May 2022