“Forrest Gump” is one of my favorite movies. There were so many things to like about the film. I am particularly fascinated by the main character, Forrest (played by the always incredible Tom Hanks).
There are so many sides to Forrest: Forrest the everyman with the low IQ; Forrest, the Elvis inspiration; Forrest, the ever-loyal friend; Forrest, the Jewish philosopher.
What? Forrest, the Jewish philosopher?
Now, I know you won’t see this in many movie reviews, but it’s true. Forrest Gump spins a particularly Jewish philosophy when he offers this heart-wrenching monologue at Jenny’s grave.
“You died on a Saturday morning. And I had you placed here under our tree. And I had that house of your father’s bulldozed to the ground. Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t ….
“Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lt. Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you, Jenny. If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away.”
Is life a circle or is life a line? Is life circular — just going round and round, accidental-like, repeating mistakes, repeating accomplishments, always winding up in the same place? Or is life linear — improving, progressing, learning from mistakes, moving forward, fulfilling our destiny?
Perhaps it’s both.
Like Forrest, this is the conclusion we Jews reach when we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths at this time of year.
On the one hand, Sukkot is about harvest, sustenance, joy and forgiveness, starting over, journeying through the wilderness to the Promised land, saying “Hallel” (praising God’s goodness) moving forward — life with a purpose. Yes, on the one hand, Sukkot is about life being linear.
And yet, on the other hand, Sukkot is also about the coming of winter, about life and death, about wandering aimlessly in the wilderness.
Sukkot is when we read Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the sobering wisdom attributed to King Solomon in his old age: ”Ayn chadash tachat hashemesh/There is nothing new under the sun.” On the other hand, Sukkot is about life being circular, like floating on a breeze
So on this holiday, when circle and line converge, what do we Jews do? We come to understand, as our ancestors did, that life is both circular and linear at the same time.
Life is a spiral. Going round and round, yet, at the same time, going upward and inward. Yes, Rabbi Gump, it’s both, both are happening at the same time.
In fact, this spiral of life is found throughout Jewish tradition. The Torah scroll is a spiral, wound around spindles of wood. Challah (the braided Sabbath bread) is a spiral. The shofar, the ram’s horn blown at the new year, is a spiral.
Our holiday cycle is, at best, a spiral, going over and over the Holy Days, but each time elevating and deepening our connection to God and to our people.
We read the same Torah — the five books of Moses — every year and yet, with each reading, we find something new about the text and about ourselves.
Our life cycle is a spiral, going over the same ceremonies, but each time elevating and deepening our connection.
The spiral of life is, in fact, reflected in nature itself — the double helix of DNA, our spiral galaxyl.
At this time in our lives — when we struggle for meaning and hope in the face of adversity, in the face of personal trauma, in the face of collective pain, in the face of confusion and conflict — I offer this bit of wisdom from the Jewish tradition: Life is a spiral.
Yes, it can be repetitive and aimless and yet, at the same time, with God’s faith in us and our faith in God, life is filled with purpose and meaning.
Forrest was right; it’s both. And so, like Forrest, let us never give in to despair, and let’s appreciate that next piece of chocolate.
Yes, life is like a box of chocolates as well — you never know what you’re gonna get till you bite into the next one. Thank God for that.