Today is Groundhog Day.
For those unaware of this ‘important’ day, Groundhog Day is a popular tradition mainly celebrated in the United States and Canada on February 2nd. It derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day sees a shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and winter will persist for six more weeks, and if it does not, due to cloudiness, spring season will arrive early!
So not much to do with Torah then!
However, we need to pay attention to the dictum in the Talmud ‘Chachma b’goyim – ta’amin’ –‘If one tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe him’. There is much to learn and admire from the nations of the world, and from individual non-Jews. Whether that is a remarkable theorem in mathematics, a breath-taking novel in literature or even a powerful message in a movie.
It was 1993, I was at Leeds University and it was a Motzei Shabbat. My friend and I went to a movie. At the time, we were both heavily involved in Campus outreach within the Jewish society. Both of us had been to Yeshivat HaKotel and whether it was over Shabbat dinner, at a shiur or Oneg Shabbat, we were passionate about showing students, our friends, the beauty and relevance of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world. We had no idea how much the film would help us in this task.
The movie was a comedy. However when I came out, I was not laughing, I was inspired. I turned to my friend and said, ‘That film was Torah in a nutshell’.
What was the film? Groundhog Day, which I am now going to spoil for you – but still worth seeing it!
Phil Connors, a weatherman, is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. However, on his way out of town, Phil is caught in a giant blizzard, which he failed to predict, and finds himself in small town hell. Just when things couldn’t get worse, Phil wakes up the next morning to find it’s Groundhog Day all over again… and again… and again.
At first, Phil is a little freaked, wouldn’t we all be? However, he soon realises what he can do – what this ‘gift’ has given him, as he tells his friend ‘We could do anything we want today and it wouldn’t matter one bit. Absolutely no consequences’. Complete and total freedom as far as he is concerned.
Therefore in the next part of the film he drink-drives and smashes up the police force, goes to jail, falls asleep and wakes up – Feb 2nd. He uses information he gradually learns about women to seduce them – wakes up Feb 2nd. He calculates how to rob the Securicor van by knowing its exact movements – still wakes up Feb 2nd.
Yet eventually he begins to view the blessing as a curse – a bit like Shlomo HaMelech in Kohelet. He begins to realise that all this is meaningless, he is not achieving anything and it is all purely hedonistic pleasures. He gradually gets more and more depressed and eventually commits suicide… and wakes up Feb 2nd. He tries to leave this world again and again, it’s still Feb 2nd!
Then he changes his mind set to the following idea. If I have the same day over and over again, I can use that to become something, to give, to contribute, to create. He begins to learn to play piano, ice sculpt, help out in the community. Day after day he gets better and better at all his creative talents and gets to know the day extremely well.
We then see one of these days in full. He knows this day so well, he makes sure he is in place to save a kid who falls out of the tree and to save a guy choking on a chicken bone. He produces the most amazing ice sculptures and plays the piano brilliantly for the town celebration. He finally goes to bed and wakes up and it’s now Feb 3rd.
To me, watching this film, what was the message? How do you break out of the curse? You had to live that day the best way possible, live the perfect day. Perfection is measured by what we give, what we share, what we contribute and what we do.
That is why I came out and said that the movie can relate to Torah. Our challenge is from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep, we should aim to live the perfect day according to the Torah. The Torah governs how to eat, what to say, what not to say, interpersonal relations, business, how to dress and how to treat our families. It is not easy, but that is the challenge – a daily challenge.
We read this week, in regard to the Aseret HaDibrot ‘Hashem spoke all these things, saying’. The Talmud makes a remarkable comment: “We learn that The Holy One, Blessed is He, spoke all of the Ten Commandments in one word, in a way that is impossible for a man to do”.
The question is, what is the point? The most important aspect of commandments is that we understand them for what they are, so that we can actually do them properly. Hashem was demonstrating that all the details of Torah are really aspects of more general, all-encompassing concepts. Of course, we must keep all the details but never fail to be inspired by the holistic whole.
Hillel implied this idea with his famous comment to the potential convert: “Do not do to others as you would not want done to you. The rest is commentary; now go and learn”. What did Hillel mean? He was being extremely insightful, telling the would-be convert that living by Torah requires a change in attitude toward the commandments: we should not look not upon the details when weighing Torah, but upon the Klal, the overall goal of Torah.
Therefore, at Mt. Sinai, Hashem spoke all ten Commandments at one time to hint at the concept that all areas of knowledge, and all the mitzvot and their details converge into one concept: a profound need to mirror the Creator.
“The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
To me Groundhog Day links back to that one central idea. We have a guidebook to life, an Eternal covenant that has survived over 3000 years. It has been the basis of our supernatural survival, at which even our enemies have marvelled. The Sinai experience lives on within all of us, forever, everyday –not just Feb 2nd.
Happy Groundhog Day, but more importantly, Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Andrew Shaw