''The Hangover'' High Holy Day Sermon I could never give at Temple (which I wrote while procrastinating writing my REAL High Holy Day Sermon this year)
Scratch the surface of this summer’s blockbuster hit, “The Hangover” and you will find much more than what film critic Robert Davis deems as “pointless, goofy fun.” From this rabbi’s point of view, “The Hangover” is a soon-to-be –High Holy Day Movie Classic, chock full of important lessons and values for anyone who is old enough to see an “R” rated movie.
Believe it or not, I saw “The Hangover” with eight rabbi friends of mine. Though some of us were initially hesitant to check it out (given its raunchy reputation), we took comfort in a Talmudic passage that permits a Jew to view a gladiator contest (despite the inane nature of the event) with the thought that, in a moment of peril, such as, if a lion were to creep up behind a gladiator, the Jew might shout out a warning thereby saving the gladiator’s life. Since this movie was rumored to feature an angry tiger, we thought that perhaps we too might get a chance to save a life with a well-placed shout in a crowded theater. This being said, I admit that we, like you, assumed correctly that this film would be hilarious and we didn’t want to miss out on the fun.
This is not to say that there weren’t scenes in “The Hangover” that made us wince, and that there weren’t moments when we each took offense. But overall, the film had (as I have already mentioned) some redeeming qualities.
From my humble point of view, “the Hangover” is more than a simple story of a road trip bachelor party gone awry. It is a profound tale documenting the transformative power of t’shuvah, the process of repentance and return to our best selves and to God that we Jews undertake each year before the High Holy Days.
Think about it. As the old saying goes, “sometimes you have to go far away to discover that which is very near.” Soon after the four men wake up from their night of debauchery, a night they were to never forget… the t’shuvah journey begins…
Awake you sleepers, for your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber! Examine your deeds and turn to God in repentance…Look closely at yourselves, improve your ways and your deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you! (High Holy Day Liturgy)
The great Jewish thinker Maimonides teaches that the first step of t’shuvah is recognition. At this time of year, we undertake a process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. It is a process of introspection, of looking back on our past deeds and assessing where we may have gone astray so that we may right our wrongs. Our three heroes, Phil, Alan and Stu, recognize that something is wrong the moment they wake up from their slumber. Phil accurately assesses the situation when he says: “What the F*%ck happened last night?” Similar to Phil, at this time of year, we too, must rouse ourselves from our sleep and begin to ask ourselves similar questions about our entire year of misdeeds. And, like Stu, we too must hold up a mirror (or a silver platter-whatever’s available) to look deeply into our reflection and examine ourselves. Sometimes we smile and we like what we see. More often than not, we witness the damage we have done to ourselves and the damage we have done to others. Our High Holy Day liturgy asks: “Who among us is righteous enough to say: I have not sinned?” Today we take this thought one step further. Today we ask: “Who among us has not over the course of the year forgotten about someone with whom you were once close?” and given how crazy hectic our lives can all be, “Who among us has not left a newborn baby in a cabinet after a rocking party, and who here hasn’t at one time or another stuffed a naked guy in a car trunk?” I assure you, we are all human. Surely we all have.
Sometimes we err because we are selfish, heartless, or just plain cruel. Other times, we err because someone spiked our drinks with roofies in an effort to get closer to us. Regardless of our reasons, we must always remember that “the gates of repentance are never barred.” Therefore we must endeavor to complete our journey of t’shuvah. We must regret and renounce our evil behavior, we must reconcile with those we have hurt, and we must resolve never to make the same mistakes again. Not to do so could, as our High Holiday liturgy suggests, yield terrible outcomes. On Yom Kippur we read the Unetanneh Tokef which asks: “Who shall live and who shall die?” and we read: “Who by fire and who by water?” To this I might add: “Who by taser and who by crowbar?” and: “Who by Tyson’s fist and who by sunburn?” As our tradition teaches, when we have erred, it is only through repentance, prayer and charity that such evil decrees can be tempered. Therefore, friends, let us endeavor to learn from our past mistakes, from our own personal hangovers and let these past missteps remind us where not to go, so that we can become our best selves.
At this point, I would like to share with you a second level of interpretation. Bear with me. Not only does the film teach of the transformative power of t’shuvah in a generic sense, it also provides us with specific and practical ways that you too can make changes in your lives based on your personality type. This is why in the movie, Alan, Stu, Phil and Doug all clearly represent well-established and relatable Jewish archetypes. I know I am stating the obvious when I tell you that the four men in this movie are really the Four Sons of the Passover Seder Haggadah.
Alan is the “Child who knows not how to ask the question.” He is unaware of himself and his surroundings. As his own father describes him, “there is something wrong with him.” And as Stu mentions, Alan is “too stupid to insult.” A creative interpretation of the Unetanneh tokef, asks the following: “Who shall strangle for lack of friends?” To Alan, who has experienced profound loss in his life (he lost his grandfather in WWII in a skiing accident in Vermont) to find friends, to be included and to be noticed, means the world to him. His life’s dream is to add three more friends to his “wolf pack.” Clearly by the conclusion of this film, both by owning up to his mistake of spiking the drinks to gain friends, and by winning eighty thousand dollars, Alan for once in his life earns his place as an equal among friends. This is his journey of t’shuvah.
Stu is the “Wise Child.” He knows what is right and wrong. He knows the rules and laws and is fearful from straying. The problem is that these rules, whether they be self-imposed, the laws of the land or the rules imposed by his shrewd girlfriend, constrict him and prevent him from enjoying his life and getting what he ultimately wants—a loving relationship. At the same time Stu possesses strong values and a tradition that means something to him. This is why, for Stu, when he finds Jade, a stripper with a heart of gold, he finds someone who on the one hand wants to reform her life to play by the rules, but at the same time, enjoys having fun and is willing to give Stu the freedom to be himself. Because she too (in her heart of hearts) values tradition, she returns the ring and they agree to meet again, to see how things go. Soon, I imagine, Stu will pop the all important question to her. Not the “will you marry me?” question but rather: “Would you be willing to convert to Judaism?”
Phil is the wicked child. He is less mature than his high school students. He is unconcerned about the consequences of his actions for himself or others. Case in point:
Stu: We don’t want to call attention to ourselves!
Phil: [while driving a squad car and using the loudspeaker] Attention! Attention!
Most of all Phil is a finagler. He is someone who will try to squirm out of any situation. He will do almost anything to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. Phil’s moment of t’shuvah comes when he finally owns up to his actions and makes the painful phone call to Doug’s fiancé.
Phil Wenneck: Tracy, it's Phil.
Tracy Garner: Phil, where the hell are you guys?
Phil Wenneck: Listen, we f&*ed up. We lost Doug.
Tracy Garner: What? We're getting married in *five hours*.
Phil Wenneck: Yeah... that's not gonna happen.
And while it didn’t play out as such in the movie, I am convinced that had he not been tackled by Stu, Phil would have apologized to Tracy and asked forgiveness thereby completing his t’shuvah journey, assuming she were to grant him forgiveness.
Finally, though the simple child, Doug beautifully models forgiveness. The text we read on Yom Kippur at our Temple states, I set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life. By refusing to curse his friends for nearly ruining his wedding and for making such a mess, and by blessing his friends with one last pictorial look at their misdeeds before forgetting the night forever, Doug surely chooses life. Of course, when the slideshow ends, someone says aloud the words: “Oh Dear Lord.” I interpret this to be the movie’s way of saying that each of the four characters also ask God for forgiveness. To this Alan concludes: “That’s classic” meaning that the traditional process of t’shuvah followed by Jews for countless generations of the past will continue on for countless generations to come.
Forgiven for the past, renewed for tomorrow, may we go forth with rejoicing to a year of great goodness!