Lincoln’s Time Machine
The most difficult part of truly understanding history is that we inevitably view the historical figures through our modern sensibilities. Since we didn’t live in the times they were living, it is impossible to fully comprehend the conventional wisdom of that time and the culture they lived in. It is unfair to look back fifty years, let alone a hundred and fifty years, and ask “How could they have done that?” Much like fifty years from now people might look back at our generation and ask things like, “Why was it such a big deal that an African American was elected President?”, “Why did they allow children to play tackle football?” or “They used to sell cigarettes in supermarkets?” You have to live in the times to understand the mindset of those times.
Two years ago I was watching an old “Meet the Press” episode with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was shocked by some of the questions, as they asked him if the restaurant sit-ins were doing more harm than good and whether they had a right to break the law since segregation was legal in much of the south. My immediate visceral response was abject shock. How could they ask Dr. King these questions? Why weren’t they thanking him for his work? Why weren’t they supporting him?
In order to understand the entire dialogue I needed to put myself in their times and to understand their mindset. This was a country that still was unsure about the immorality of segregation.
This same difficulty applies to the Torah. As we try to understand the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs, we need to understand their mindset. Take, for example, the difficult story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. It seems incomprehensible and unconscionable. Yet, to fully understand their actions we need to put ourselves in their shoes. The first two generations of the Jewish people had seen a succession of father to son. Avraham handed the reins to Yitzchak, and Yitchak to Yaakov.
Yaakov now prepared himself for a similar transition. He had to fight for his father’s recognition as the next leader, and it made his life exceedingly difficult. So he figured that by declaring his intentions from the outset it would simplify the process. Yosef would be the next leader, and that was that.
However, Yaakov’s eleven other sons were not a collective Eisav to be dismissed. Their actions were not spurred on by petty jealousy and sibling rivalry. They were not young children, they were adults. They saw that Yaakov was trying to recreate the leadership structure he had inherited, but that leadership structure was now obsolete. The twelve sons would become twelve equal partners. They were right, they saw the future. They should not have sold Yosef, this could have been handled in a much more peaceful manner, but to understand the issue we need to understand their collective mindset.
To me, that’s what struck me about Lincoln. I found myself thinking and feeling as they did. The heroes of the movie are pushing for the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, but in no way support voting rights for African Americans or women. They are not ready to declare that people are truly equal, merely that everyone should be equal before the law. Lincoln himself openly supported the idea of colonizing the freed slaves in Liberia or Haiti. At times I felt guilty seeing them as paragons of virtue, when today their views would be virulently racist.
Yet, the power of film is that we are truly transported into their times. You begin to feel as they feel and take their world at face value. Even though some of their ideas would be anathema to us, when you understand the times they lived in you can appreciate the courage they showed in espousing controversial beliefs.
I thank Lincoln for providing me with that experience and allowing me to live in that world, even if only for two and a half hours.
Sometimes the movie is better than the book, because it can help us think and feel as they did. The vivid presentation and incredible acting act as a time machine into a forgotten world. Lincoln teaches us the most valuable of lessons, to understand another’s thoughts and actions you truly need to put yourself in their shoes.
Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul