What Tolstoy can teach us about Tishrei

Several weeks ago my wife and I went to see Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Tolstoy’s great love story Anna Karenina staring Jude law and Keira Knightly.

It was a magnificent production although for those hoping to see a film you may be disappointed as it is more of a play with very stylized acting and almost the entire thing was shot in a dilapidated Russian theatre.

Yet, despite being a  wonderful production it inevitably cuts out huge swathes of the book (it has to reduce a 900 page tome to a 130 page script.) in the process one loses not just key elements of the story but crucially the nuance of Tolstoy’s brilliant writing which just cannot be captured in a film.

One of the major themes of the book that gets overlooked in the film is the contrast between two relationships: Anna and count Vronsky and Konstantine Levin and Kitty Sherbatsky.

Anna and Vronsky fall deeply and madly in love almost as soon as they first set eyes on each other. Yet as the years move on their relationship begins to fracture. The reason is that it is too intense, too rarefied. There is just too much love and nothing else. They are rich, idle, unsaddled with family responsibilities (partly because they are unable to become a family) and in the end boredom and paranoia set in. The relationship begins to crack under the weight of unrealistic expectations and in the end Anna despondently throws herself under a train.

The contrast with Levin and Kitty could not be any sharper. Levin is a neurotic, self conscious, socially awkward, overly sensitive land-owner who tries, fails and eventually succeeds in winning the hand of the beautiful Kitty Sherbatsky. Their relationship is the polar opposite of Anna and Versonsky’s. The early years of their marriage are not easy. Levin is prickly, Kitty is highly strung. They misunderstand each other, they get angry with each other and they struggle to meld their lives together. Slowly however they manage to do just that and they develop deep mutual love and respect for each other.

The major difference between these two relationships is that the first is a fantasy while the second is built on reality.

The message that emerges from this is that while sparks of intense passion are good they must be harnessed to something more concrete, like everyday life, if they are to sustain a relationship over the long term.

The late Rav Shagar would often return to a key idea when addressing newlyweds under the chupah. He would point out that the western ideal of love is characterized by the two lovers looking only at each other. This is reflected in literature, film as well as in the popular saying ‘he only has eyes for her.’ The Jewish ideal however shifts the focus onto a third point; that of a shared value or ideal. Real love in Judaism is about partnering with a soul mate in pursuit of shared goals and vision. It is through working alongside a life partner that the deepest and most sustaining love develops.

A similar idea could be applied to one’s relationship with God. It is neither desirable nor possible to maintain for any length of time a passionate state of dvekut (cleaving to God.) rather Jewish mystics understood that a relationship with God necessitates a dialectical dance of advance and retreat (known in Hebrew as ratzo va-shov.)

This dialectical dance undergirds all of Jewish religious experience. It is the basic structure of Shabbat and the workweek. If we advance passionately towards God on Shabbat, we retreat (in a manner of speaking) once Shabbat passes and a new week begins. It is precisely because of this temporary retreat that our advance the next Friday evening is so meaningful. It is also because of the intensity of the advance on Shabbat that we are sustained spiritually and so able to retreat during the week that follows.

The same dynamic occurs each day with an intense connection through prayer and a relative retreat as we enter into our workday.

The Tiferet Shlomo, the Rebbe of Radomsk (who incidentally lived at the same time as Tolstoy) offered a very beautiful interpretation of a passage we read in the musaf prayer on festivals. The prayer begins bestow on us the blessing of the festival.. The Hebrew word for bestow is ve-hasi’enu which, says the Rebbe of Radomsk, has the same letters as the Hebrew word for marriage. He develops his idea further by pointing out that the end of a wedding is merely the beginning of a young couple’s future together. The same is true for Jewish festivals. They are moments of intense religious celebration and connection to God. Our prayer reminds us that when the festival ends the real work begins for sustaining a meaningful long term relationship with God.

As we say farewell to another Tishrei let’s keep that in mind.

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