Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Les Miserables

A friend of mine who gives parenting workshops recently counseled a parent whose teenage son was giving her lots of grief. She told her that she should give her child oodles of care and love. The parent retorted: “But what if that doesn’t work,” to which my friend replied, “Then give him a double dose of care and love.”

I thought of this interchange as I watched the 1998 version of Les Miserables, an accurate but abridged cinematic rendition of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. The well-known plot centers around Jean Valjean, a starving pauper, who is given a prison term of nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. When finally released on parole, he cannot find a place to lodge. Facing continual rejection because of his criminal past, he thinks that he will have to resort to a life of crime to survive. Fortunately, he finds refuge for the night at the home of Bishop Myriel who feeds him and offers him shelter. However, Jean responds to this kindness by stealing the bishop’s silverware. The next day Jean is caught and brought back to the bishop by the police. In a surprising gesture, Bishop Myriel tells the police that Jean is an old friend to whom he has given the silverware and he also gives Jean silver candlesticks as a further demonstration of his friendship. It is truly a double dose of love.

When the authorities depart, the bishop tells Jean that he will become a new man the next day, no longer a criminal but a person of genuine worth. Jean is overwhelmed with his kindness and resolves to change. The next scene takes place nine years later. Jean is now a wealthy businessman and mayor of the town, a man who clearly has repented and is now a new man.

The story of Jean Valjean is an epic narrative of repentance. Not only does he become an upstanding citizen, he also does charitable works that benefit the underprivileged and poor as well. His rehabilitation begins, however, when one man – the bishop—shows confidence in Jean, when he sees Jean for what he can be and not for what he was. Looking towards the future, the bishop showers Jean with respect, with kindness, and treats him as an equal and friend. He then encourages him to become a new man with a new destiny.

Jewish tradition describes Aaron, the brother of Moses, in similar terms. Aaron loved peace and pursued peace, says the Talmud, and did whatever he could to make people feel good about themselves. He even went out of his way, says the Midrash, to connect with people on the margins, the outsiders, and to befriend people of less than reputable character, all of which he did because he understood that it is easier for people to do good when they possess self-esteem, when they see themselves as people of worth and integrity. This was Aaron’s specialty: to make people feel important and valued. He was so good at this that when he passed away, the Midrash informs us that the people mourned for him more than for Moses. The character of the bishop reminds us of Aaron, the man of the people who, in his own quiet way, challenged people to become the best that they could be.

Two valuable life lessons emerge from Les Miserables. Firstly, that it is possible to change, to repent and begin life anew. Secondly, to motivate people to repent, we must show them that we believe in them, that we believe in their basic goodness and their infinite value, which transcends any mistakes they may have made. Jean Valjean’s personal odyssey is a living testament to these psychological truths.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
Related Topics
Related Posts