Screenwriting, Salvation, and Splitting of the Sea — By Ben

Sea Ocean Art - Free photo on Pixabay
Photo from Pixabay

It can be difficult to wrap our heads around the concept of salvation. Sure we’ve all had moments where we feel like we’ve dodged a bullet. We didn’t study enough for a test, but then class is cancelled. Maybe we get pulled over but the officer lets us go. Some of us may have experienced salvation on a more profound level, such as surviving a car crash or recovering from something like cancer. We all have a notion of salvation, but how much do we actually hope or expect for it to come? And if we did experience the life threatening events, did it change us? Or did we forget it and return to life as normal?

In Parsha Beshallach, the Jews experience a salvation so magnificent, it brought them to the highest level of prophecy, after which they sang. How are we supposed to connect to that? That realm of true salvation seems to be the stuff of fantasy. In fact, that’s exactly where we all are most familiar with the concept. Movies! In Avengers Endgame, Captain America is beaten by Thanos, his shield in pieces. But Steve Rogers refuses to give up, despite the fact that an army stands ready to conquer the planet. Just then we hear “On your left” and to our amazement all the dusted heroes have returned, ready to take on the fight.

Captain America "Avengers Assemble" Scene - Portal Scene - Avengers :  Endgame (2019) Scene - YouTube

Countless other movies contain brilliant variations of this moment. A darkness so hopeless, followed by an unexpected turning of the tides which then leads to victory. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker, The Matrix. Granted some of these salvations are more satisfying than others. What makes the good salvations work and the bad salvations flop? Two answers, both having to do with the screenwriting craft. But if we look closer, they are critical to the Jewish concept of the ultimate salvation, the prophesied coming of Moshiach.

Deus Ex Machina

When a salvation ending is done poorly, many times it is because of a device known as a deus ex machina. The Latin phrase literally means “god out of the machine.” In the theater of ancient Greece, sometimes the situation for the hero was so dire, there was no possible way for them to achieve victory. At that point, abruptly and unexpectedly, an actor playing one of the Greek gods (usually suspended in air by a crane) would come and save the day. Thus, god out of the machine.

Though modern cinema rarely uses God or other deities as the solution to unsolvable problems, the term is still used to describe any salvation that is unearned. I.e. suddenly when the cavalry arrives. Stories are about characters we invest in going through troubles to change so that they can overcome those troubles. If the hero is saved by something external, it isn’t satisfying because the victory is detached from the hero. So why does the sudden appearance of an army of heroes saving Captain America work in Avengers Endgame?

External salvation can work when it is earned. Captain America and the rest of the Avengers spend almost the entire movie recovering the Infinity Stones to resurrect half of humanity. So ultimately he is saved because of the work he has already done. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has almost an identical moment in its climax when various space ships arrive as an armada to save the resistance. However, little more than a line of dialogue establishes these other fighters and the heroes’ efforts to rally them. We have almost no idea who these other ships are, opposed to the heroes in Avengers Endgame who we’ve had movies to develop a connection with.

So how does this relate to the splitting of the sea? This moment should be the ultimate deus ex machina. God literally comes to save the day from an impossible situation. However, the story of the exodus differs because God is an established character. There are expectations given (mitzvahs, plagues, a covenant) and there’s even conflict between His relationship and that of Moses and the Israelites. Moments before the sea splits, as the Egyptians are charging towards them, the Israelites say, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert?” If there was ever a story where the characters themselves should have expected miraculous salvation it would be this one.

The irony is that they don’t. To me, that makes the story more real. As I said above, we’ve all experienced miracles but we quickly forget them. How much more so is that for a nation who literally witnessed earth shattering miracles. To separate this story further from the deus ex machina concept, according to the Midrash, the sea didn’t split until one man, Nachson ben Aminadav walked straight into the sea. It wasn’t until the water was up to his nose that the miracle occurred. So in that sense, the miracle didn’t come because the situation was too dire, but because an Israelite had enough trust and belief in Hashem to warrant the miracle.

The Twist

The other aspect of a good story is that of the plot twist. How many times has a critic knocked a movie for being predictable? If you know what’s going to happen, why bother watching? But when a movie wows you with a surprise, that makes a truly memorable experience. However, if a plot twist is arbitrary, it too can be as unsatisfying as a deus ex machina. You’re watching a murder mystery and the detective (as well as you as the audience) has analyzed the motives and alibis of every suspect. But then you find out the killer was a character you’ve never met with a motive completely out of right field. The revelation is such a let down, it’s almost insulting.

The Sixth Sense - Plugged In
The Sixth Sense

However, take for example The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist trying to reach a troubled boy, Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment. When Cole reveals to Willis’s Dr. Crowe that he sees dead people as ghosts, Dr. Crowe believes he is in over his head. The twist comes (big spoiler) that after helping Cole with his trauma, Dr. Crowe learns that he himself is one of the ghosts that Cole has been seeing the whole movie. The twist is brilliant because when you go back to watch the movie a second time, the clues stick out like sore thumbs as you kick yourself for not having noticed them. The essence of a good plot twist is that if you knew what to look for, there are enough clues in the story that you could have figured out the mystery all by yourself.

What Does this have to do with Salvation?

Psalm 116 is known as Shir Hamalos. If you’ve ever participated in grace after meals (birchas hamazon) on a Shabbos, you’ve probably heard it. The song depicts what the experience will be like when Hashem’s salvation finally reigns over the world. “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with glad song.” Song? Sure, such salvation will surely inspire the songs of victory and joy. But laughter? Why laughter? To this someone shared with me that what makes a really good joke is a twist.

I’ve invented a new word. Plagiarism.

Have you heard about this new restaurant Karma? There’s no menu, you get what you deserve.

Why don’t scientists trust atoms? Because they make up everything.

Jokes essentially do two things. They either point out an absurdity via a truth we all are somewhat aware of but haven’t articulated. Or they are little clever twists that make connections that aren’t immediately obvious to us. The ones listed above are done in the riddle format. What’s a riddle? Essentially a mystery with a twist. Hence the connection to the story driven plot twist. The comedic riddles and a good plot twist both contain that, “I should have thought of that” feeling.

What is a bigger mystery than where is God in our lives? We are troubled by our own difficulties, by the fact that many good people suffer while many bad people prosper, and we are constantly asking if there is God where is justice? How could so much bad that has happened in human history ever justify the end? We’re all waiting to hear the end of the story.

So many of the biggest stories; movie, book, tv show, or whatever, have these themes of salvation and plot twist embedded in their DNA. It is impossible not to think of our lives within the framework of a story. It’s almost not worth sharing the events of your day unless it makes a good story. And it’s those twists, those subverted expectations which make it worth telling. To me it is so clear why we think this way and why the Torah is framed in a narrative opposed to simply being a book of rules.

And so according to Jewish thought, not only will the good of God win out via a supreme salvation and victory, the answer of why will be answered. When we hear that answer, it will be a twist that will make reason out of human history. It will all make so much sense that in retrospect it will be so obvious, that everyone will laugh with the thought, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!?”

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