essays

Shrugging at collapse: the wisdom of “A Serious Man”

When I was first recommended the Coen brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man,” I had just been through a breakup with the woman I thought I would marry. I felt that my life was falling apart around me, and in my pain, I was longing for answers. 

A decade on, real rabbis weigh in on Coen brothers' film 'A Serious Man' |  The Times of Israel
Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik

The film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, is in a highly similar situation: a college professor going up for tenure, Larry seems to have it made until his wife informs him that she has been having an affair and wants a divorce. Meanwhile, Larry’s son gets in trouble for marijuana possession at school, and Larry receives a tip that anonymous sources have been urging the tenure committee to deny his application. Seeking some sense of a “why” behind his life’s dissolution, Larry pursues meetings with a number of rabbis. 

Much of the film’s humor arises from the fact that none of these rabbis’ discourses satisfies Larry, leading him to constantly fantasize about successive–and “wiser”–religious leaders. Most explicitly with the second rabbi, the film seems to be asking us: is it important that our spiritual questions bear answers? Or does the seeking of answers in itself lead to distress?

A Serious Man's Fred Melamed: 'I'm Trying to Bring the Pompous, Jewish,  Overweight, Rabbinic Figure Back to the Center of American Sexuality' -  Vulture
Fred Malamed as Sy Ableman (Larry’s wife’s suitor) and Sari Lennick as Judith, Larry’s wife

Adding on to this theme, another of the film’s seeming advocations is to widen our perspective on life, seeing that even in our darkest moments there is much to be grateful for. For instance, in a sequence which explicitly juxtaposes them against each other, both Larry and his wife’s suitor are driving through town and preparing to take left turns. While Larry takes his turn and arrives home safely, the suitor gets into a car crash and is killed; it doesn’t seem to occur to Larry that life has favored him in this eccentricity, and he continues to obsess over his apparent problems. 

Finally, and in compatibility with the previous theme, the film recommends extending our focus beyond the self in order to minimize our sense of suffering. When Larry visits the second rabbi, the rabbi tells him a fantastical story about a dentist who found Hebrew lettering inscribed in a patient’s teeth, spelling out the phrase “Help me.” Wondering about whether this message referred to the patient himself or some wider chunk of humanity, the dentist pursued vague leads and drove himself to the brink of insanity; finally, he gave up on fully deciphering the message, returned to his life, and heeded the rabbi’s perspective that helping others “couldn’t hurt.” In other words, the rabbi urged the dentist not to focus on the specificity of the message and instead to bow into service writ large. 

While Larry ultimately doesn’t understand these reflections and remains fixated on his problems, the film has become relevant for me again in the past few months, a time when I have struggled with my health, money, and feelings of social isolation. Suffering in these ways, I have found myself asking once again: is there something wrong with me? What patterns in my life have generated this crisis? And how can I fix those patterns? 

a-serious-man-movie-ten - Vague Visages
The infamous message-in-the-teeth

Instead, “A Serious Man” encourages me to stop asking the “why” questions, embracing what is and seeing that even the most difficult circumstances bear silver linings. For instance, in my challenges of health I have seen evidence of my relative fortune in the same domain; precisely because it is rare for me to feel unhealthy, these dips in my health have stood out to me and caused me concern. Similarly, in my sense of scarcity around money I have learned appreciation for what I have: exactly when I feel that I cannot buy new things, those things I do possess acquire all the more sheen in my eyes. 

As I look to the future with both Larry’s and my lessons in mind, I am reminded that all things change and pass, and in the end these shifts are neither “good” nor “bad,” “right” nor “wrong.” Stuff just happens, and often the meaning transcends any human eye. And oh yeah, helping people “couldn’t hurt.”

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