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Oh boy!

Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s Selichot service will start with a look at ‘Quantum Leap’

Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett in “Quantum Leap”, back in 1989, left, is with Dean Stockwell, who played his best friend, Al Calavicci, who shows up as a hologram to help him get information about each leap.
Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett in “Quantum Leap”, back in 1989, left, is with Dean Stockwell, who played his best friend, Al Calavicci, who shows up as a hologram to help him get information about each leap.

If you were watching television at any time between 1989 to 1993, you could have watched “Quantum Leap” when it was new.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes did watch it then, and the show’s premise and the story as it worked out has fermented in his fertile imagination ever since.

For Selichot this year — the first one back in person for three years — before the davening that’s set to start at 10:15, Rabbi Prouser will screen a few excerpts from the show, and then he and the congregation will think out loud about the questions it asked.

(Coincidentally, NBC is rebooting the series; entirely new episodes will air, most likely this fall. He had no idea that this was happening when he thought of using “Quantum Leap” to spark Selichot discussions, Rabbi Prouser said.)

So what is “Quantum Leap”?

“The series starred Scott Bakula, who played Dr. Sam Beckett,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He was a Renaissance man, a polymath, an academic giant who has an IQ of 276, knows six modern languages and four ancient ones, and has six or seven doctorates — they say different numbers at different times. He’s the kind of guy who has great appeal for me.”

One of the bodies Dr. Beckett enters belongs to a rabbi, Rabbi Prouser said, and it’s clear that neither ancient nor modern Hebrew is among the languages he speaks.

The series’ conceit is that “he travels through time and becomes different people; he is in their bodies and their lives, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with them.” He’s in each new body and life for either one or two episodes.

“You have to find out everything about the character from the inside out,” Rabbi Prouser said. Dr. Beckett, according to the show, “went to MIT, and won a Nobel prize in physics.”

The premise also specifies that Dr. Beckett’s time travel is limited to his lifetime, and that he can go only backward in time; he’s free to go any place, though.

“He has spent his whole life developing this theory, and he never goes back to his own life,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It seems throughout the series that he goes into lives randomly, but in the final episode we learn that he chooses subconsciously. In the final episode, we find out that he never makes it home.

“There is definitely a sad element in it, but the idea is that he discovers that he has some control.

“It’s one of the themes that is at the base of Selichot.

“We are in control of our lives. We are in control of our leaps. We have the capacity for self-control and self-correction. A big part of the Selichot theme, and of ‘Quantum Leap,’ is that it is his job, traveling through time and assuming these different personas and lives, to correct that which is wrong over the course of his lifetime. He can set wrongs right.”

Rabbi Joseph Prouser

In one of his time travels, Dr. Beckett is unable to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but he is able to change the course of what would have been history by stopping another of Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets from killing his wife. Dr. Beckett “could change history; Jackie survived, and held the country together during the mourning period,” Rabbi Prouser said. According to the show, at first she was killed, until Dr. Beckett fixed it, and when that happened, “the country really fell apart. But she was able to present strength and dignity,” and the country took strength and dignity from her.

“That is the question,” he continued. “What wrong would we set right if we could? If we could go back and change things in ourselves and others, what would they be? That’s really the heart of teshuva. What would we set right?”

That matters because “we might be able to do more than we think we could.” Of course, we have to try.

“Another ongoing theme is about who is driving the process. Is it God? Is it fate? Is it chance?” (And what’s the difference between fate and chance? “Fate implies destiny, and chance is more random,” Rabbi Prouser said.) “Is there an ultimate mysterious, unseen Force that guides our life’s journey? (That’s force with a capital F.)  And if there is, how do we relate to that Force?”

“Quantum Leap,” with its academic hero, also touches on the questions of how “continued learning and intellectual inquiry — in other words, Jewish study — connect us to that Force.”

There are two more themes, he added. “Using the image of a quantum leap, what leap forward, a leap in which direction, would we seek in the new year?

“And how do we get back to where we are supposed to be?” Because, he said, “that’s the definition of teshuva.” It means return.

There are two catchphrases in “Quantum Leap,” and they’re both important, Rabbi Prouser said. “One is ‘Hoping each time that your next leap will be the leap home.’

“It never is,” he added. “We keep working at it, but we never are finished. We never get to a perfect teshuva.”

And the other catch phrase, “which he says whenever he materializes in a new life and a new body, when he looks around, he says, ‘Oh boy.’

“Except when he leaps into the rabbi. Then he says, ‘Oy vey.’”

One of the excerpts he plans to show is from the finale, Rabbi Prouser said. “There he is, in a bar, and there is an all-knowing bartender, who, it is suggested, is the force behind the whole thing. All the leaping around. Is he God? Or fate? Or destiny? Or embodied change?

“I find it such an appealing model for the Divine. The bartender acts as a confidant, and he slakes your thirst.

“And it’s there that Dr. Beckett learns that he’s really in control.”

As he does every year for Selichot, “I try to find an entertaining premise or lens, and through that lens we focus on the central ideas of teshuva, Jewish identity and meaning, and what the High Holidays are here to do,” Rabbi Prouser said. His programs usually touch on popular culture, either current or not; in other years he’s taught using the works of Gene Wilder and Allan Sherman. (Oh boy!)

After the discussion, cantorial student Lori Weber will lead the service. “I am looking forward to sitting with the congregation and enjoying her leadership,” Rabbi Prouser said.

The discussion and service are open to the community; the discussion starts at 8:15 p.m. and the Selichot service will begin at 10:15. To learn more, go to Temple Emanuel’s website, www.tenjfl.org.

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