Joseph’s Avatar

In this week’s Torah portion we see Joseph faced with a choice as to whether or not he will reveal himself to his brothers. Is he the little kid they tormented and put in a pit or the second most powerful person in Egypt. The text reads, “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2). He had closeted his identity as a son of Jacob to become the second most powerful man in the known world. When he finally opens up to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone finds out about his secret identity. Joseph’s life is informed by all of his experiences. He is more than the sum of these parts. In this intimate engagement with his brothers he is able to find a voice to fuse his identities.

It is hard to be reading this and not to reflect on the movie phenomena of Avatar. The crippled savior has to determine who he is. Is he the man with the mask or the man behind the mask? (Spoiler Alert!!)Like Joseph, when faced with the challenge to identify his true self he finds his voice in acting for a just cause. Like Joseph he goes native realizing his “true” nature.

A pleasant but otherwise hackneyed plotline, that seems to have been lifted from Joseph Campbell,  is redeemed the moment the viewer straps on his or her own 3-D glasses to experience the movie. In Aristotle’s terminology, the logos (the logical content of a speech) of Avatar is not that interesting but it becomes compelling in its lexis (the style and delivery of the message).  It is a science fiction version of having a Hassidic story in another Hassidic story. In watching the 3-D movie we join the main character’s exploration of a virtual reality and we experience the intersection of form and content. In this contemporary synesthesia the hero is revealed and in some way we too are transformed.  So to, when we read the Torah we are asked to put ourselves in as the 3-D and reread the narrative of our lives.

Like Pandora, the utopian backdrop of Avatar, Jewish camp is a unique place where we can become in tune with nature, try on new masks, leave wounds at home, and even “go native”. Like this week’s Torah portion, camp is a safe place where we can discern who we are in a safe family environment. By putting ourselves in the story we too can fuse together our narratives and become more than the sum of our parts. In retelling the story, there is no mask. People always say that camp is not a real place, it is too much like Pandora. I say, if it helps us reveal our inner nature and transforms us, it is as real as it gets.


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