A Torah Perspective on Darth Vader

by Morah Yehudis Fishman

The Star Wars saga continues! One of the most intriguing aspects of the previous films in the series, was the radicalization of sweet, savvy, sensitive, Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. From a Torah outlook, his journey raises so many interesting issues- psychologically, spiritually, religiously. On one hand, we are taught that few are born into this world with a Tabula Rasa- a clean slate. For example, the sages state that even in the womb, Jacob was drawn to a place of monotheism while Esav was attracted to a place of idolatry. On the other hand the Talmud points out that, "Hakol Bidei Shamaim Chutz M'Yirat Shamaim, Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven." The resolution seems to be that whatever baggage we come into the world with, we have a moral and ethical range of possible responses from which to choose.

The film industry, both in its classic greats and not so greats, often explore this theme. Successful fiction often involves-or used to involve- characters who are clearly good or evil, as well as featured 'stars' who can go back and forth, or express ambiguity, like Snapes in Harry Potter. The philosophical gamut runs on one hand, through an approach from Greek tragedy that we are helpless against our destiny no matter what good choices we make. I would cite a movie like 'The Pledge' as an example of a nice guy tragically going insane in an attempt to help someone. On the other end, there is more of a Horatio Alger perspective that whatever a person wants to accomplish, there is nothing stopping the person. 'Rudy' is a great model of that. I think the Torah's perspective would be a mixture of the two: we are all dealt a particular hand at birth, but how we play that hand can make all the difference. So when we look closely at the life patterns of Anakin, what do we see that leads him down the morally less desirable path? It seems all about not just his actual choices - at least not at the beginning- but the feelings and attitudes that certain events trigger in him, that are aligned or misaligned with Torah values.

One major area is his inner impatience and fury at his lack of control of negative circumstances in his life. First there are the minor disturbances that face everyone in the course of growing up. For him, above all, is the death of his mother which seems to evoke the decision that leading a good life does not mean that you will be happy, and things will go your way. Then later there is the proverbial temptation of a 'pact with the devil,' where the lord of darkness offers him the chance to save his righteous, dying wife, in return for becoming a master of the 'dark arts.'

The obvious Torah reference that comes to mind is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is jealous of his brother whose offering is accepted by G-d while his own is not. G-d, the 'Light Side,' offers him a second chance. "Is it not so that if you do well, you will be lifted up (which later in the Torah means forgiven) but if not, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is to you, but (if you desire-Rashi's comment) you may rule over it." I think this highlights the possibilities facing everyone who slips morally at any given time. Within whatever bandwidth of options that each individual has, one can climb up or down the rungs of holiness, according to his or her choices. As in the now famous line from the other Jedi-like master, Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, "It is not our abilities that show what we truly are, it is our choices."
How does Cain respond? G-d reflects his inner state: "Why are you angry-literally, seething- and why is your face fallen?" These feelings are very similar to Anakin's rage about not being able to control life according to his will, and his sense of despair and hopelessness when he is hurt. As Yoda says, "Fear is the path to the dark side…leads to anger and to hate and to aggression…" What is missing is a lack of faith in the justice of the Force and the hope that he can rise above his distress without consorting with the Dark Side.'

And then there is sadness to which at times strikes both the heroes and the villains of Star Wars. Hassidic masters say that sadness in not a sin, but it can lead one to much worse than sin. Where the Jedi counsel, and even perhaps Yoda, lets Anakin down is their equating possibility with certainty or destiny. In other words, once they sense that there is something dangerous about him, he also feels their mistrust and recoils from fully accepting their guidance. From this perspective, Cain would actually be less culpable because his parents had no experience with parents of their own. On the affirmative side, if there is faith in the positive potential of a child, student, etc. it is much more likely that the recipient will also be more open and therefore benefit from direction and support from those who truly care. The Talmud insists that G-d does not place excessive burdens upon a person. That is similar to the idea that whatever the limitations in people's area of free choice, there is always somewhere that the tug of war between right and wrong is not overly weighed to one side.
The greatest leaders in the Bible are not 'perfect people' but often people who have made serious blunders, owned up to their mistakes, and gone on to be better because of them. "Sheva yipol Tzadik V'kam"- As the inspiring sign I saw at a hairpin bike turn at camp Ramah of the Rockies. "A righteous person falls seven times- and rises." Though it may be true that pride and his refusal to listen to good advice was a major factor in Anakin's downfall, I think it was also his false humility in thinking he could not do better. Even Luke falls into despair at times, but is more willing to learn. As in the classic scene where he is unable to raise the ship from the swamp and Yoda does. Luke reacts, "I can't believe it!" And Yoda comes back with his brilliant understatement: "That is why you fail."

Once several years ago, I spoke to a prominent Jewish personality about how drained I was feeling when teaching a lot. He quietly replied, "That's because you think it's all coming from you." I've thought about that a lot. Our sense of being self-sufficient can block the infinite flow of the Force that keeps us continually renewed. And to keep those channels open, we need the right combination of appropriate humility and suitable pride. I feel that Anakin's troubles were a combination of his own false pride and humility as well as a lack of proper guidance. Some of his mentors saw his flaws, others denied them, but, again more in the chord of a Greek tragedy, no one really told him that, yes, you have this tendency, but here's what you can and should do to bring out the good. No one, that is, until, ironically his own son at the very end of Vader's life!
Returning to Cain, there is a fascinating observation from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had a wonderful ability to find the good even in flawed personalities. The Midrash tells us that Cain eventually repented. The Rebbe elaborates on the steps of his Teshuva: 1-he confessed. 2-he accepted his exile 3-he took positive constructive action. "The challenge of the penitent is when his repentance is complete, he must propel himself 'outward' into the world. He must free himself from his feelings of inadequacy…" What did Cain do? He fathered a son, he built a city, and named it after his son. All this was not for his own glory, but for repair, Tikun olam, literally. How do we know? His son's name was Chanoch, which means education-a corrective measure for fixing one's mistakes.

For Darth Vader's own future, it may have been too late, but by saving his son at his last moment of life, Anakin saved his soul- his essence- in the process. The Jewish takeaway? Torah is hereditary-you can get it from your children- or anyone upon whom you have a positive influence. Don't let your failings keep you down; use them as the sequel to your past. May the Force be with you!

This article appeared originally in the Boulder Jewish News.



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