A Lesson from The Frisco Kid


This week we mourn the passing of a great Jewish comedian named Jerome Silberberg, may he be blessed, also known as Gene Wilder. We remember him for the laughter he brought to us and the humility he brought to his stardom. But as we recall his many roles, one in particular reminds us of his true roots.

As the ‘Frisco Kid’, Wilder portrayed a rabbi (“Avram”) traveling to his new pulpit in San Fancisco, facing a few complications along the way. At one point in the film, he befriends an Indian chief in an attempt to retrieve a Torah scroll. In the meantime, their conversation turns into a discussion of G-d’s role in the world. With an implicitly powerful message, Wilder explains how we, as people, never truly know G-d’s plan:

At first, the conversation seems puzzling. Do we -as Jews- believe that it is “not His department” to make rain? In fact, the Talmud tells us (Ta’anis 2a) that rain is one of the three things that only G-d has the key to! It seems like Avram says the exact opposite!

In truth, however, we must understand his statement with the backdrop of the next one:

“He doesn’t make rain! He gives us strength when we’re suffering; He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred; He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness… but He does not make rain!”

Reading into his answer, perhaps we can understand what Avram is saying. While it is true that Hashem can make rain, He chooses not to do so on His own accord. Rather, what Hashem does give us are the tools to make good decisions. When we are in a difficult situation, He provides us with the necessary coping mechanisms. They are free for us to use or to discard; the choice is ours. And similarly, Hashem gives us a general choice of how to live.

Perhaps stressing this point most in the entire Torah, is the beginning of our Parsha: “Behold, I give you today a blessing and curse. The blessing will come when you listen to the commandments…” (Devarim 11:26-27).

It is true- Hashem can make rain, but whether or not He provides it depends on our choices. As the Torah explained earlier in the same chapter, and as we say three times a day: “If you listen to my commandments… I will give the dew of the land at its appropriate time” (ibid. 13-14).

As we remember Silberberg’s skillful acting, we also remember the messages he so beautifully portrayed. Especially as we embark into the month of Elul, into the mode of repentance, we begin thinking about G-d differently. We prepare to crown Hashem as our King on Rosh HaShana by contemplating His ways. And as such we are reminded- that a coach is sometimes only as good as His players. As Silberberg reminds us, Hashem of course makes rain, He simply gives us the tools in order to earn it. God’s greatness does not lie in His ability to grant arbitrary gifts to the world. Rather, His greatness lies within the empowerment of mortal man to make supernatural decisions.