I have a friend whose favorite phrases are “would have, should have, could have.” He is always revisiting his decisions, thinking about how life would be different if he had made a different choice. If he had only gone to this restaurant instead of that one, if he had bought this car rather than the other one, if he had bought this blue shirt instead of the white one – the second guessing is never ending, and reflects a self-doubt that is at times debilitating.
I hear a similar refrain from students who receive a low test grade. They tell me what they would have written had they understood my question better. Rarely is there an acknowledgement of a mistake and a readiness to accept consequences. Instead there is prevarication and avoidance of responsibility for doing wrong. So it is refreshing to watch a film in which a character makes a moral mistake, actually acknowledges it, and attempts to correct it.
The Words is about Rory Jensen, an aspiring writer who is trying to get an agent for his first novel. After repeated rejections, he serendipitously finds an old manuscript in a used briefcase which his wife has bought for him when they honeymooned in Paris. The manuscript is extraordinary and brings tears to his eyes. It is a powerful narrative that touches his heart and soul. Rory makes a decision to present the manuscript as his own to a literary agent who, after reading the book, feels convinced that the novel will be a resounding success. The plot takes some winding turns when the real author of the book surfaces, and Rory is faced with stark moral choices.
Conversations with the real author deepen Rory’s understanding of life, and encourage him to move on with his life after failing himself and others who trusted him. The author counsels Rory: “We all make our choices in life. The hard thing to do is live with them.”
The great eighteenth century English poet Alexander Pope wrote: “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” The line evokes the Jewish approach to moral failure. We all fail on occasion but what is important is what happens in the aftermath of failure. The Biblical story of Judah and Tamar is one model to observe.
Judah is the father-in-law of Tamar. Tamar’s husband dies and she is supposed to marry the brother of her deceased husband to perpetuate her husband’s name. But Judah neglects to arrange this. Tamar, as a desperate remedy, cloaks herself as a harlot and entices Judah to have relations with her. Later when Tamar is taken out to be executed for harlotry, Judah discovers that he is the man with whom she has been intimate, and it is his irresponsible neglect that was the catalyst for Tamar’s behavior. Judah offers no excuses. He confesses publicly to his indiscretion and wants to make amends, no matter the social cost.
Another aspect of a personal moral failure that permeates the film is the consequence to friends and family who trust us. In Jewish jurisprudence, we see that part of the repentance process is to ask forgiveness from those we may have hurt. The Codes of Jewish law state unequivocally that, if asked for, we should forgive and not hold grudges that prevent us from resurrecting our love and friendship for those we have wounded.
The Words is an engaging narrative that depicts a major moral flaw and one person’s attempt to make things right, to admit a mistake, and to fashion a wiser version of oneself, ready to move onward with his life.