A Few Words from Rabbi Ben…
"It's not true that life is one damn thing after another -- it's one damn thing over and over." -- Edna St. Vincent Millay
In my family, we have a tradition. Every year on Groundhog Day we cuddle up on the couch, make some popcorn, and watch Groundhog Day--the famous movie starring Bill Murray. On the surface, this movie is a cute comedic masterpiece. If one looks just a bit deeper, however, they see that this simple comedy contains some very profound messages about how to live a meaningful life.
It is no coincidence that Groundhog day and T”u Bishvat fall around the same time of year. Both holidays contain the idea of the promise of spring slumbering within the depth of winter. T”u Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees marks the time that the sap begins to rise in the almond trees in Israel. The core of the holiday is this idea that under the cold bitter exterior of winter, nature has already begun stirring, preparing itself for the renewal of spring. This message shared by T”u Bishvat and Groundhog Day is relevant not only to this time of year, but can apply to any time in our lives when it feels that we are stuck in a seemingly endless “winter.”
Danny Rubin, who wrote Groundhog Day, said the question that inspired the script was, "If a person could live forever, if a person was immortal, how would they change over time?"
Phil lives the same day, but each time the day’s events are altered by his actions. All the while, Connor slowly learns to be more caring and cognizant of what’s important in life. He is finally freed from his daily cycle when he loses his ego and discovers the power of selflessness.
This central premise of the movie has been compared to an idea called “Eternal Recurrence” discussed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Eternal Recurrence was an effort to create a simple formula for life that could cause people to thrive and live a life of meaning and satisfaction.
He thought that if people were convinced they would have to live the same life eternally, they would decide to live the kind of life that would be worth living eternally, having come to fear the soul-deadening, spirit-crushing, weight of complacency more than any other danger in life. He wanted us to live the kind of life that would make us rejoice at having to repeat eternally.
Nietzsche’s passage is presented as a story.
“The greatest weight.-- What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
from Nietzsche's The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.
This story is a spiritual metaphor for life. Often the same types of situations and problems come back to us. We get the chance to repeat our mistakes, or try different ones, until we learn to get it right.
In the beginning of the movie Phil is living in a very ego driven way, centered around his own pleasures and enjoyment. The one thing he does desire, to obtain the affections of “Rita”, seems elusive no matter how hard he tries to win her over. It is not until he learns “"the lesson” of life, (that you will get more joy with genuine concern and service to others, instead of being self absorbed), that he finally and almost paradoxically (since he is no longer concentrating on trying to get her to “like” him), does win over her affections. In a way, it’s the ephemeral nature of each “life” he experiences that makes his moments precious to him and pulls him out of his self-centeredness. Finally, after he gets it right and gives up his self indulgent way of living, life seems to magically work for him and he no longer has the same problems come back to him.
There is very little in this world we can change, that we can be a “god” over in our lives, but our attitude is something we very much can change, though we often don’t want to believe it. Perhaps in some ways it is easier to shuffle through our same old miseries over and over. We cling to evidence of the vast uncertainties of the universe and inequalities of our societies to distract ourselves from that small and powerful world we can create within ourselves. When Phil fully accept his fate, it is exactly then that he’s liberated from it. Our lives can seem repetitive and boring, an eternal winter. However, if we’re mentally free then we have achieved everything we needs. We can be happy.
T”u Bishvat, like Groundhog Day (the holiday and the movie), teaches us that though sometimes in life it seems like we our trapped in an endless winter, just beneath the surface there lies the promise of an early spring. Near the end of the movie when Phil has “learned his lesson”, he quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Work Without Hope:"
"All Nature seems at work; slugs leave their lair,
The bees are stirring; birds are on the wing,
And winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring...."
Later in the movie, Phil says the following:
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts. I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
May each of us be blessed as we stand in the coldness of winter with the realization that the spring -time of our lives is already here.