The recently released film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a profound statement on the isolating, tormenting nature of inconsolable grief, righteous and warranted indignation, and the glimmering of hope that can emerge in even the most unexpected personal encounters.
Seven months after her daughter’s brutal murder, Mildred Hayes buys advertising space on three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, as a way of calling the police department to attention for their negligence, seeming disinterest, and utter inability to bring anyone to justice for this heinous crime. Beyond her daughter’s murder, Mildred discovers her ex-husband Charlie has begun a new relationship with a nineteen-year-old named Penelope. In witnessing the fraught relationship between Mildred and Charlie, and the shared pain over their murdered daughter, Penelope offers one of the movie’s most memorable lines when she says, seemingly innocently, “Anger begets anger.”
To be fair, this comment comes across as an “outsider’s observation” in the movie and it is not the intent of this d’var Torah to do anything but offer an observation. As “Three Billboards” more than adequately depicts, grief is harrowing and real, the death of a child in such a tragic, violent way is shattering, and little redemption and comfort are to be found in the subsequent months, or from life in general. While it would be fair to say “there are no words for this,” and leave it at that, Penelope’s comment still rings true, especially in our world, where anger appears to breed more anger, and we find ourselves approaching the tipping point.
That one of the only sources of comfort that Mildred receives comes posthumously from the chief of police, expressing how hard he worked to find Mildred’s daughter’s murderer, is telling, as if to say, “If we had found a way to sit down and talk this through, perhaps, we could have navigated this crisis better.” Anger seems to beget anger, and it seems to make it impossible for us to talk to one another openly, thoughtfully, and constructively.
Torah tries to provide us with similar guidance in Parashat Vayigash. After rising to prominence in Egypt, Joseph encounters his brothers who have come to Egypt in search of food to sustain their family during the long period of famine. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but the brothers do not know that Joseph stands before them. Their original relationship was fraught — Joseph the narcissistic dreamer and the angry brothers tossing Joseph into a pit and leaving him for dead before selling him into slavery. Time has passed but as of yet, the wounds have not healed. When Joseph first encounters his brothers, he continues to trick them, placing money in Benjamin’s bag, accusing the brothers of stealing from him.
And then, at the opening of this parashah, the tides change. Judah approaches Joseph, pleading for his brothers, and their father, which serves as an appeal to Joseph’s sense of compassion and mercy. Joseph breaks down sobbing, and reveals his true identity to his brothers in two simple words, Ani yosef, “I am Joseph.” He then asks if his father is still alive and tries to establish trust with his brothers, explaining that there is some larger purpose to the brother’s actions, which will lead to the redemption of their people. Judah and Joseph, together with the other brothers, attempt to break the cycle of anger. They look each other in the eye, they see one another’s broken humanity, and in this brief instant, they begin the painful process of trying to heal, even if they know that full healing will never be possible.
What is to be learned from the actions of Joseph and the brothers, and the message of “Three Billboards”? Anger can beget anger, we can allow ourselves to be destroyed by life’s inexplicably damning madness, or somehow, even when life destroys us (as it sometimes does), we can embark on the journey of rising higher, which can often present itself as an unscalable mountain. “Three Billboards” doesn’t get there in the end. The story remains tragically and appropriately unresolved, but the question the movie is asking is clear. What choice do we make when life’s events confound us? How do we react? Do we seek vengeance? Do we collapse under the weight of life’s pressures? Do we lean in for the support of others to bolster and nurture us? Do we speak with honesty and integrity, offering the depth of ourselves, our pain, and our humanity by owning who we are and saying Ani yosef? Or do we allow anger to beget anger? The choice, like that of Joseph, Judah, and Mildred Hayes, remains ours.