Over my winter vacation, I did something that I don’t often do. I went to an actual theater to see a movie. One of the films I saw was Rocky 7. Of course, it’s not called Rocky 7. It’s called Creed. And, when I first heard about the movie, I had no intention of seeing it, even though I have seen all six of the previous Rocky movies and loved them.
But, I was skeptical. I thought to myself: how can Sylvester Stallone possibly make yet another sequel to Rocky and make it work? I mean Stallone is 69 years old. That’s a little old to get in the ring. But, I read a review of the movie that changed my mind, so I went to see Creed. And, I really liked the movie. And, I marveled at the fact that in an industry where you’re lucky if you get 15 minutes of fame, Stallone is still relevant forty years after his breakthrough hit.
And, the reason Stallone was successful with Creed was that he made ‘irrelevance’ the theme of the movie. The fear of irrelevance is a universal theme that clearly touches a deep chord in all of us, because it’s all over world literature across the ages. Here is how the story typically looks. There is a once relevant person who experiences a fall from grace. That is, someone who was once highly appreciated and acclaimed loses their status and becomes a nobody and wanders in obscurity. Then there is a return to grace, a return to the person’s previous glory.
In Creed, the late Apollo Creed, heavyweight champion of the world, revered celebrity, had a child out of wedlock. This child was never acknowledged publicly. And, so he is reared in poverty and seems destined for a life of frustration and failure in obscurity. The movie is the story of his return to favor.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s the story of Harry Potter. Harry carries within him the seeds of royalty. He is the lost prince, the prince nobody knows is a prince. His parents were a big deal. But, at the beginning of the story, Harry is in exile, unrecognized for his uniqueness, thought to be a nothing.
In our Tradition, especially in Hasidic literature, we the Jewish people are the lost prince, the beloved child of the King, God. We wander history in obscurity. No one recognizes us as the prince. Even we have forgotten our royal status. But, we are destined to return to our former glory.
This story has its roots in a much older story, our foundational story. We were once a proud people with a glorious destiny chosen for us by God. We were welcomed to Egypt by a Pharoah who was grateful to Joseph for saving his nation.
But, then there was a fall from grace. A new Pharoah arose who didn’t know Joseph, who didn’t see us the way the old Pharoah did. And, so we were reduced to insignificance, an obscure people with an obscure God. When Moses first speaks to Pharoah in God’s name, Pharoah responds with contempt: ‘Who is this God? I’ve never even heard of him.” Even our God was a nobody.
And, that pain of irrelevance, the pain of feeling like a nobody is at the core of today’s parasha. In last week’s parasha, Moses says to God: “Mi anochi?” Who am I to go to Pharoah. As Rocky famously said, ‘I’m nobody. I’m just a ham and egg.’ Well, maybe Moses didn’t use those words. But, the sentiment was the same. In today’s parasha Moses says:
Hein b’nei yisrael lo sham’u eilai, v’eich yishma’einu par’oh
Even the jewish people aren’t listening to me – why should Pharoah listen?
This is a universal fear, the fear of being shut out. Every human being who has ever lived has always been plagued by this fear many times in the course of her life: Am I relevant? Do I matter? Are people taken me seriously? Is the world hearing the message I want to deliver?
It’s the fear of the 7th grader who worries whether he will get invited to the party. It’s the fear of the college applicant who has to put his life into an essay and hope that someone out there will find it worthwhile. It’s the fear of parents whose children have left the house that we are no longer needed the way we used to be. And, it’s the fear of the retiree who worries that now that she is no longer president of the company, she will not be looked at in the same way.
The genius of the Rocky movies, including Creed, is the heroes do not have to win in order to achieve what they are after. All they really have to do is put up a good fight. Ingeniously, in Creed, Stallone picks an opponent that cannot possibly be defeated. The opponent is time. Rocky says time is undefeated. Everyone has to face their old age. No one wins this battle.
But, Rocky’s heroes don’t have to win to be heroes. All they have to do is to show that they are a force to be reckoned with. In the universe of Rocky, all we have to do is stay in the ring with the seemingly indomitable champ – whether the champ is a real person, or Father Time, or some serious illness that saps our strength.
All we have to do is to do far better than expected, to show that we are far more than we appear, that we have been mis-judged and underestimated, and that we are worthy of the world’s attention and admiration. We matter. We are relevant. We are somebody.
And, the stories which inspire us the most are the ones that not only encourage us to find our own voice, but also show us a path to help other people find their voices. In Creed, Rocky Balboa and his young protege are both encouragees and encouragers. Joy Mangano whose life story inspired the film ‘Joy’ is a person who not only rises from obscurity herself, but becomes sensitive to others who want to break through but can’t get anyone to pay attention. “I understand,” she says to a young hopeful. “I once sat in your chair.”
For us, the Jewish people, this idea is captured in the Torah’s words: ‘v’atem yedatem et nefesh ha’ger’ – you know the heart of the stranger/you know what it is like to be shut out – you know what it feels like to be reduced to insignificance – so be sensitive to other people’s need to be heard, to matter, to be relevant.
This is not an old story for us. The appeal of Israel for us since 1948 is that it fits this paradigm perfectly. A people despised, a people deemed irrelevant and insignificant, rises up to command the world’s attention and respect, if not yet affection. We are attached to Israel, we send our children to Israel, because Israel’s story speaks to our lives personally in the same way that Harry Potter, and Joy and Rocky speak to our personal struggles. And, we hope that in some way, Israel’s stardust will transform our own lives.
And, that is the key to our relevance as a Jewish people and as a religious faith. We will be alive and attractive as long as we are bearers of a story that speaks to our deepest hopes and fears. The fact that our redemption story courses through everything Jewish we do from Chanukah to Pesach to Havdalah tells us that the battle for personal redemption is one we are fighting all the time, every day of our lives.
But, it’s a story that needs to be told with variations. That’s the genius of Rocky. Stallone tells the same story every time, but it gets to us every time, because he has applied it to a slightly different situation. So, a story about overcoming economic adversity is the same at its core as the struggle to overcome old age. But, there is enough difference in the latest Rocky midrash for us to see the story as new and fresh.
And, Rocky’s ability to preserve his underdog status even after he becomes the champion suggests that it’s possible for us to do that, too. There is always an opponent out there that is bigger and stronger than us. It’s all in how we frame the battle.
That’s our challenge as a Jewish people – to find new ways of connecting our national story of faith and courage to the changing struggles and dreams of our personal lives. If that story speaks to our fragile faith in ourselves, and our very human need for reassurance and encouragement, we will continue to defy all expectation and produce sequels to our story that are compelling and inspiring – inspiring for us and for the world.