Shtisel, Our Flawed ‘Characters,’ and the Day of Judgment
I recently attended an event at which members of the cast of the hit Israeli series Shtisel appeared to talk about the show. The show’s tremendous international success has been a surprise to everyone, including its creators. One of the actresses, Neta Riskin (Giti Weiss on the show), related that during production, she had been upset by how quickly one of her scenes had to be shot due to budgetary pressures. Afterwards, she was comforted by one of the crew members who assured her, “Don’t worry, no one is going to see it.”
The moderator of the event asked what it is about this show that has allowed it to exceed everyone’s expectations and reach a global audience — in spite of its Hebrew language and its seemingly parochial focus on a cloistered community of Hasidic Jews. Riskin responded that she believes the reason people fall in love with these flawed characters is because we generally judge people by their actions, but this show allows us to delve so deeply into the characters’ psyches that we come to judge them instead by their intentions.
Riskin identified herself as a strictly secular Jew, but she touched here on a profoundly Divine idea — a notion that is highly relevant to this moment as we approach the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment: We are ultimately “judged” not merely by what we do, but by what we intend deep within us. We are ultimately seen not only by those whose vision is limited to the surface, but by the One who can witness our innermost thoughts and desires.
If we adore the Shtisel characters because we can see their inner workings, empathize with their longings, and thus forgive their failings, we can therefore understand that when our own souls are bared, and our own failures are traced back to their source, we too are worthy of forgiveness and love.
God is able to see our “backstory.” He loves us because regardless of the things we do, He knows that what we wanted was ultimately pure. We wanted to be loved, to protect the ones we love, to feel safe, and to matter. These desires and motivations often translate into actions that are unsuccessful and misguided, but that is not a reflection of their intention or a function of their inherent innocence.
The question is not whether God can perceive our underlying worth and essence, but whether we are aware of it ourselves. As the Day of Judgment nears, there is a sense of trepidation and self-recrimination. We begin to review our spiritual accounts from the past year, and we remember our many shortcomings and failures. Our day in court is looming, and our record is not nearly as clean as we would have liked it to be.
But God does not judge us solely by our record of actions. He sees far deeper than what we have done. He has watched the entire show, so to speak. He understands the entirety of our character, and He perceives what we intended. He sees what we are; and what we are is Godly. He knows that, because He created us that way. He infused Himself deep within us. We tend to be unaware of our essential Godliness because the nature of the world is that it covers the truth and challenges us to discover it.
“Lecha amar libi bakshu panai, es panecha Hashem avakeish” — “For You my heart says seek my face, Your face Hashem do I seek” (Psalms 27).
We recite this verse twice daily throughout these weeks leading up to and through the Days of Awe. The Chassidic masters reveal its secret: our task at this time is not to chastise ourselves for our failings and identify with all that we have done wrong, but rather to unburden ourselves of all the soiled garments that are covering our most inward image, and there we will find the image of God.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Likkutei Torah that the judgment of Rosh Hashana is not, as simply understood, whether we are good or bad, and whether we will be rewarded or punished in the year ahead. Rather, what is determined is the extent to which God will be revealed to us, in us, and through us in our future. God knows our intentions and our essential goodness. He “watches the show religiously.” He adores all of the characters regardless of our flaws, and He is anxiously awaiting the big reveal in the coming season when each of us has our dramatic epiphany and comes to understand that we are simply complex and sublime expressions of our Creator.
Marc Erlbaum is a filmmaker and social activist. He is the founder of Common Party (www.thecommonparty.com), a non-political social movement that is working to bring the country back together in these divisive times through the celebration of our overwhelming commonality.