Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Soul

My daughter, Chani, sent the family the following WhatsApp message: “I thought 2020 would be the year I got everything I wanted. Now I know 2020 is the year I appreciate everything I still have.” It was an apt message for a year in which Corona raged throughout the world and made all of us more aware of the fragility of life and made us more sensitive to the connecting power of friendship and family. Soul is the story of Joe Gardner, a middle-school music teacher, who, through crisis, develops an acute sense of gratitude for the miracles of everyday life.

Joe Gardner loves jazz. Serendipitously, he gets an opportunity to get a gig at the Half Note Club playing piano with the band of Dorothea Williams, a jazz legend. Unfortunately, on the way to the club, he falls into a manhole, an accident that separates his body from his soul. He is then transported to the You Seminar, a place where newborns receive souls so that they can journey to life on earth. Joe, however, does not want to be with souls-in-training. He wants to get back to earth quickly so he can make his evening performance at the Half Note Club.

Joe befriends “22,” a soul that has mixed feelings about going to earth. Preventing her from taking the trip to earth is her lack of a “spark,” the final attribute she needs for residing in the world of the living. She tells Joe that when she finds her “spark,” she will give it to Joe so that he can return to life in the real world. Their adventurous journey to locate the “spark” raises fundamental questions about our mission on earth. How do we identify it and how do we actualize it?

Judaism gives man his general mission, which is outlined in the Torah; namely, to do God’s will as the Torah defines it. From a personal perspective, every man is created in the image of God and has a unique purpose only he can do. In God’s eyes, no one is replaceable. We all count.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an insightful way to discover your unique purpose. He states that you will know your purpose when what you want to do coincides with what needs to be done. For each person, it is different. But when these two things come together, you will know your purpose in life.

For Rabbi Sacks, that moment was the spark that inspired him to become a rabbi. In the life of Joe Gardner, he achieves that epiphany when he acknowledges the gifts that he already has in his present life: he can play the piano extremely well and he is an excellent teacher of music. Life itself is the gift that makes him treasure every moment.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller wisely writes about valuing every moment of life in relation to the celebration of birthdays: “You must realize that a birthday means that you are indebted to God. The older you are, the bigger is your obligation to serve God and to thank Him. So if God gave you another year, you’d better get busy accomplishing because life is passing you by. The wealth of life is when you’re young. The older you get, the poorer you are because you have less time to accomplish. And, therefore, as the years pass by, you should become more and more concerned about accomplishing. I know it might be a surprise to many of you, but you won’t live forever and there are all kinds of achievements that you should be striving for. Life is a happiness because it is an opportunity to achieve perfection in service of God. And it is the only opportunity you’re going to have.”

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
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