Last week, the film “Tolkien” was released in theaters. I admit, I was excited. I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” A movie exploring Tolkien as a young student, imagining what early life experiences contributed to and inspired him to write those great body of works, was interesting to me.
The story of “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the great myths of literature. A reluctant hero, in this case the Hobbit, Frodo, is called away from his day-to-day peaceful life and sent on a difficult quest. He overcomes numerous obstacles, both external and internal, to successfully complete the quest — in this case, to destroy the ring. He is successful, but in his success he is profoundly changed. He can never go back and live the life he once lived.
The story of Frodo and the ring is a classic myth. By myth, I do not mean something make-believe. On the contrary, a myth teaches profound truths about the human condition. A myth may not be literally true, but it reflects a real human truth. A person is called on a quest, reluctantly leaves, faces great personal dangers, eventually succeeds and is forever changed by the experience.
In a sense, stories from our Torah are built around the same myth. Again, a myth is not necessarily a falsehood. It may be literally true, but it always reflects human truths. Moses, for example, was a very successful family man. He was married and working as a shepherd, raising two sons far from his birthplace in Egypt. He was seemingly satisfied with his life. One day he spotted a bush, which burned but was not consumed. He approached the bush to see what a wonder it was. God called to him from the bush, sending him on a quest. He would appear before Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. Moses tried every argument to avoid the quest. He stuttered and could not speak, he argued that the people would not believe him. He begged God to send someone else. But when God sends us on a quest, it is difficult to say no. In the end, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery to freedom. He led them to Mt. Sinai and became the great lawgiver.
It is the same story as Frodo and the ring. This should not be surprising, for J.R.R. Tolkien was deeply Christian, and saw his epic as reflecting truths about good and evil in the religious world.
There is something universal about this myth. Each of us is called to a quest or mission in our lives. Often, we have to leave what is familiar or comfortable to succeed at our particular mission. We face obstacles and setbacks, and are often discouraged. In the end, we succeed. However, the quest itself changes us in profound ways. We are never the same person we were before we began our mission.
Our particular quests may not be the material for great works of literature. We may not be called to destroy a ring of evil, or to lead a people from slavery to freedom. It may be something simpler: raising a particular child, starting a particular business, doing some act of goodness in the world, volunteering or pursuing some God-given talent or gift. But, in pursuing our particular quests we come out changed. Perhaps that is the reason why this myth is so appealing. In the end, “The Lord of the Rings” is not about Frodo, and our Torah portion is not about Moses. We watch these movies and read these books, because they are both about us and our quests to find and make meaning for ourselves in this world! JN
Rabbi Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami and the immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.