One of the things I look forward to on long international flights is catching up on my movies. Between work, kids, and academic study, my wife and I don’t get much time to go to the cinema. So our recent trip to Israel allowed me to stay a little more current with Hollywood.

After I got through the movies I actually wanted to see, I was left with a few others, and still several hours on the plane ride. So I wound up watching a Jim Carrey movie, ‘Yes Man.’ I’ve never really watched a Jim Carrey movie before, besides ‘The Truman Show,’ and my expectations were low–slapstick comedy, cheesy plot, Carrey’s facial gimmicks. So I was pleasantly surprised at the simple yet profound question of the movie: To what do you say no?

Carrey plays a character named Carl, a guy whose life has stalled. He’s been divorced for three years and seems to be a shattered soul. He does little at his bank job all day long, and avoids his friends or meeting new people. One day he is dragged by an acquaintance to a motivational seminar on the philosophy of saying yes to everything that comes along: whenever someone asks you to do something, whenever a new experience presents itself, you are to say yes. And you’ll see how life unfolds.

Of course, from that moment on, good and exciting things start to happen to Carl. He gives a ride to a homeless man, runs out of gas, and meets a woman named Allison at the gas station. She gives him a lift back to his car, and the story runs its course. Along the way, Carl advances at the bank (because he’s taking risks on loaning small amounts to anyone who comes along–a potentially dubious premise given our current financial situation; but this is Hollywood), he learns Korean and takes guitar lessons, he travels.

And of course he falls in love with Allison. The problem comes when she floats the idea of moving in together, and Carl really doesn’t want to say yes yet. He feels that it’s premature. But he says yes anyway, bound by his obligation to the seminar. When Allison finds out that all of his yeses in their relationship were rooted in his seminar commitment, she doubts the truth of their love. At this point, Carl has to learn how to say no, in order to restore his relationship with Allison. In the end, of course, he learns how to say both yes and no, and live a balanced and fulfilled life.

The Torah portion this week, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, is centered on the question: What is holiness? “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” says the Torah. The commentators Rashi and Ramban have a famous disagreement about the meaning of this verse. Rashi explains that being holy means separating ourselves from sin, in other words, saying no to the bad: whether in the form of actions we should not take or relationships we should not enter, Rashi’s impulse is to say that holiness is fundamentally about saying no. “Kedusha,” holiness in Hebrew, is often understood as separation, and for Rashi, remaining separate–saying no–is the essence of holiness.

Ramban argues that Rashi is only telling half the story. Of course we’re supposed to say no to the bad things, but Ramban insists that holiness also involves saying yes to the good things. “Make yourself holy within that which is permitted to you.” For Ramban, we display holiness not only in not eating unkosher food, but also in savoring and appreciating the food we eat. Holiness comes not only in our refusal to engage in prohibited sexual activity, but also in our maintainig a rich and fulfilling relationship with the person with our sexual partner. And so on.

These questions, of what we say yes to and what we refuse, are the basic 0’s and 1’s of the code that is our lives. As a Holy People, our mission is to get it right: to say no in order that we can say yes. Holiness begins with saying no, with carving out space (the Temple, the land of Israel) and time (Shabbat). But it doesn’t stop there. Deeper holiness, richer holiness, comes after we say no and turn around to say yes.

Shabbat shalom.

Advertisements