As a wise person once said, even good things must come to an end. Most recently, that was said by the Downton Abbey character Thomas Barrow, a self-hating, smarmy and often loathsome under-butler, who recently made a grand transformation to relative niceness after a failed attempt at suicide. Barrow sort of epitomizes all the things that, for better or worse, made Downton Abbey a must-watch on Sunday nights, for me and millions of other fans, until its concluding episode last Sunday.
Barrow was always looking out for himself. He connived against other servants and against the family that paid his wages, the Earl of Grantham and his wife and their daughters. For at least a season, he tried to get a lady’s maid to dig up dirt on them, threatening to expose her own somewhat sordid past. On the other hand, he was good at his job. And he seemed to have a soft spot for the family’s children, who adored him.
A lot of the Downton characters had good and bad traits, both upstairs and downstairs. Some were vain but successful. Some were hapless but kind. And then there was the dowager countess, played by the unsurpassed Maggie Smith, who was always ready with a quick rejoinder – sometimes sharp, often thoughtful, and always hilarious. She always got the good lines until this season, when – in an effort to wrap things up with a big bow – series creator and writer Julian Fellowes let loose a bit and stuffed some measure of real humanity and humor into characters that often had come across as stereotyped or two-dimensional.
There’s another good thing that comes to an end this week: our annual reading of the Book of Exodus, Sefer Shemot. We have been taken on a literary journey and a religious pilgrimage. We began with Moses in the river, and we end with Moses finishing up the construction and dedication of the Tent of Meeting, where the God he found in a Burning Bush would dwell among the chosen people Israel. Along the way, a rag-tag bunch of kvetching former slaves were saved at the sea, entered into a divine covenant at Sinai, practiced idolatry with a golden calf, and were chastised and then forgiven who knows how many times by the God of their salvation.
Moses has gone from a deposed prince, “slow of speech” and unsure of himself, to the self-assured leader of Israel. Like the script writer and the dowager countess, God gives Moses many of the best lines, be they cloying, critical, or wise. And, like the dowager, Moses is transformed from a man in the grip of his past to a man who not only accepts change but one who shapes the future.
Moses and the Israelites are just beginning their journey, of course. The Book of Leviticus will outline for them, and for us, many of the laws and rituals that made them a community – an extended family. Later on in the year, the Book of Numbers will pick up the narrative of their wanderings, and, in Deuteronomy, Moses will use his farewell address to both chastise and inspire the second generation he has guided through the wilderness, just to the border of the Promised Land.
We read this story every year. So we know that the people will, in turns, be faithful and then turn on their leaders and whine about their God. We know Moses will go through periods of self-doubt, and God will occasionally seem petty, sometimes vengeful, and often generous. For now, if we wipe our minds of what we know is to come, we end the Book of Exodus on the precipice of a new beginning.
There’s been much talk of a Downton Abbey movie some time in the future. But how much time will have passed? After all, the series has taken us from 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic, through the life-changing horror of World War One, to the eve of 1926, a time of relative hope and prosperity in which each character, most satisfyingly for us, finds love and happiness.
Should the saga continue, we know that happiness will be challenged by the historic events that will overtake the family and their moment of bliss: The financial crash of 1929, the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1933, and the dark death of World War Two.
But of course, the Dowager Countess pragmatically predicts clouds will roll in. At the wedding of her granddaughter – the previously ever-so unhappy Edith – she says: “With any luck they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.”
And maybe that’s the Jewish version of a happy ending, too. After all, we’re only a week away from Purim, the over-the-top holiday when we remember the murderous aims of our enemies. We know Esther will triumph. But we also know that our people will be threatened, and despised, oppressed, and even murdered, in every corner of the world, in every generation – until, and including, our own.
Just yesterday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas rejected yet another in a long string of peace offerings made on behalf of Israel. Vice President Biden reportedly offered a settlement freeze and an Arab capital in East Jerusalem, in return for the PA recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and dropping the demand for a so-called ‘right of return” for Palestinians to move back to Israel. This rejection – which was as predictable as some of the plot resolutions in the Downton Abbey finale – came after Abbas praised as martyrs this week’s latest round of Palestinian terrorists who murdered, among others, an American graduate student. After Biden publicly upbraided him and demanded he apologize, Abbas refused to do so, and offered only insincere sympathy that an American had died.
President Obama had hoped to bequeath to his successor a more promising situation in the Middle East than he’s had to deal with for eight years. But Abbas does not have the courage or the desire to say yes to peaceful coexistence. He has not prepared his people for anything but war and hatred and bloodshed. And that clearly will not change any time soon.
Israelis have showed great resilience and courage in the face of this latest intifada. They have learned to deal with the status quo, as frightening as it is. Because right now, they have no alternative. So they too will put on their costumes and their smiles for Purim this week, and be happy enough, in our Jewish way.
For now, as we approach Purim, our Torah this week gives us this vision a pleasant pause, if not a happy ending: Moses and the Israelite people, free at last, are in covenant with God, celebrating the creation of the Mishkan, the tent of meeting, that will be God’s dwelling place in their midst. We can at least take a little time to rejoice in this, no matter what the future brings. And like our brothers and sisters in Israel, who have learned to live and love in the moment, we say – in the words of cousin Isabel’s beloved Lord Merton — “how perfectly marvelous.”
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin