Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader
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Power, powerlessness, and Sukkot in ‘Borgen’

Like the stars shining through the sukkah, my new favorite fictional head of state reminds me that we are at the mercy of nature, feeling our way through the dark

Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg will not be sitting in a sukkah this year. It’s not just that the Staatsminister is a fictional figure on Borgen, which leapt into my top five TV series of all-time this past month. Nyborg is not Jewish. Her life has nothing to do with Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, which harkens back to the temporary dwellings of the ancient Israelites in the desert and concludes this week.

With fair warning for a spoiler alert for those in the midst of Borgen’s intrigue as well as much empathy for shared fatigue after a triumphant night of binging, in the final episode of Season Three, Birgitte Nyborg teaches a powerful, personal, resonant message for Sukkot and the end of the holiday cycle that begins the Jewish year.

Our favorite fictional head of state since President Jed Bartlett of The West Wing faces a serious health scare in Season Three. Driving to an emergency visit with her doctor on the eve of a bitter election fight, she explodes with frustration and anger not only at the cancer in her body, but the barrage of threats and worries cutting across the path of a women who is both eminently cool and strategic, and, above all else, profoundly relatable and human, despite her power and achievements.

“I am back where I started,” she moans as her lover looks on, unable to comfort her. 

Why do I even bother to help or pray or anything?… Of course, I’m not making any sense. This doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I can’t bloody stand it. I have strived all my life to make things important and valuable and meaningful, but in the end it’s just meaningless. It’s just a big hole and I can’t. It’s tearing me apart.

Yes, this is only a scene from the movies, but it’s also an incredibly moving moment. And this is what the best of film or any art is supposed to do. Kolnoa, the word for a movie in Hebrew, can be translated literally as a “moving voice,” not a “motion picture” as in English, but a moving voice — a voice that moves us. Art is meant to take us someplace we need to go, to change our perspective, to make us feel.

No one would deny, particularly during the lockdowns of COVID-19, that Netflix has become a primary window and mirror framing or reflecting intimacies globally, registering voices internal and external that moves us, particularly when we are feeling stuck.

“Stop the car,” Nyborg screams, and the taxi cab pulls to the side of a city street. She is overwhelmed. She has no answer for the unexpected force that might not only topple her and her party’s political ambitions, but also the life of her and her family.  

Season Four of Borgen is slated to be released in 2022, so you can do the math on how this crisis is resolved. But reflecting on this amazing scene through a Jewish lens frames a profound lesson for the culminating moments of these Jewish holidays.

From reflection to repentance and coronation to celebration, our exposure to the elements as the stars trip their light through the brush and bamboo of the sukkah roof reminds us that, like beloved Brigitte, we are back to where we started. We are at the mercy of nature, dependent on the mysteries of our bodies, and always feeling our way through the dark.

I’d like to think that for Prime Minister Nyborg and for all of us, opening to our powerlessness is in fact a very profound and healthy way to enter into the power of a new year dawning. There is Simchat Torahan affirmation of law — at the end of the holiday cycle. So too (spoiler alert number two) the Danes get a new government thanks to Birgitte’s bravery. And then the work begins. The cycle of life, community, and purpose blossoms anew. Another year in another episode in another season of beauty, passion, guts, laughter, and tears awaits us, our power deepened by recognizing how little we control.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center. His book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan will be released in May 2022. Find out more at www.mangodlaw.com.
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