And in the end,
The love you take
Is equal to the love
—The Beatles, Abbey Road
Karma. In Sanskrit, karma translates as “deed” or “action,” but in the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, the term is bound up with the consequences of one’s actions, both in this life and in one’s next incarnation. Good deeds make for good karma; skulduggery will catch up with you. The concept migrated to Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Taoism. In popular culture, karma refers to a fate or destiny premised upon a person’s actions.
I’d like to believe in a cosmic accounting system of spiritual credits and debits, as well as a collection and allocation agency which balances the books in this life or a future one, but so many monsters (let alone mere scoundrels) get to pop off in their sleep while far too many wonderful people die young, painfully, and needlessly.
No, I don’t think there’s any power “out there” maintaining the Ledgers of Life except us—in this one go-round, in this world, here and now.
Maybe that’s what John Lennon meant by “Instant Karma.”
And then there’s mitzvah. The first usage of the word occurs in the Book of Genesis. In Hebrew, this feminine noun means “commandment”—as in something one is compelled to do out of religious duty—and has many complex interpretations in rabbinical law. As with karma, the notion has come down to us as a good deed or kind act performed as a favor, unselfishly, without expectation of repayment or even acknowledgment.
My introduction to mitzvah came when I watched a 1998 film about the lives of some very serious poker players in and around New York City called Rounders. Matt Damon plays Mike McDermott, a promising young law student but an even more talented card player. It co-stars John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, Edward Norton, and John Turturro.
Rounders is not a great film, but it has scenes that entertain, inform, and amuse (John Malkovich as Russian mobster “Teddy KGB” with his over-the-top Moscow accent and his USSR track suit will have you in stitches.) It has also gathered a cult following on the heels of the poker boom it just happened to precede.
But the co-star who brings memorable transcendence to an otherwise okay movie is Martin Landau as law professor Abe Petrovsky. It’s one of several fine roles from the inspired twilight of Landau’s career, most notably his portrayal of the aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, for which he won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (now there’s some well-deserved, human-made karma in action!)
For many years I’ve had a concept I call the Mini-Oscar. An Academy Award ought to be given for a riveting performance in one or two scenes, recognition for a moving, often electrifying moment, such as Robert Shaw’s soliloquy as Quint in Jaws which sobers up his two companions post-haste when he tells them of how he survived the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis (the incident a true story, by the way, and the soliloquy one which Shaw himself wrote for the script.)
My Mini-Oscar for 1998 would have gone to Martin Landau for two scenes in Rounders, one about karma and one about mitzvah.
In the karma scene, Damon and Landau have a heart-to-heart over gin at a table in a lower Manhattan bar. Landau compels your attention with his near-whisper, his accent pitch-perfect having been raised in a Jewish family in Brooklyn.
Professor Petrovsky tells McDermott how the men in his family for generations had been rabbis. He’d been a prodigy as a young yeshiva student—“the elders said I had a 40 year-old’s understanding of the Midrash by the time I was 12!”—but by the time he was 13 he knew he couldn’t be a rabbi because, as he explains, for “all I understood of the Talmud, I never saw God there.”
Petrovsky describes how he took up a career in law, throwing all his talent and energy into it. Damon, as the young law student, conveys believable naiveté when he expects to hear that Petrovsky’s parents came around to supporting his choice. The old professor disabuses him; his parents disapproved, “devastated” by his decision. A meditative Landau adds, “they were inconsolable—my father never spoke to me again.”
Once again, Damon does a good job with his expressions, subtly registering shock and sadness. After some reflection, he asks his professor: “If you had to do it all over again, would you make the same choices?”
And then Landau, after an artful pause, hits him with karma:
What choice? The last thing I took away from the yeshiva is this: we can’t run from who we are—our destiny chooses us.
Later in the film, McDermott, running out of options to pay off a potentially fatal gambling debt, turns up at Professor Petrovsky’s office for help. It’s time to learn about mitzvah:
Petrovsky: “You’re in trouble?”
McDermott: “Yes sir, I am. Not with the law. I owe.
Petrovsky: “Gambling debt?”
McDermott: “Yes, it’s not mine. I vouched for the wrong guy, now it’s on me.”
Petrovsky: “I understand. What will it take to be free of this?”
McDermott: “I need fifteen thousand tonight.”
Petrovsky: “You know I want to help you but I’m not a wealthy man.”
McDermott: “I know, it kills me to ask you this. I don’t have any other play. If you can help me at all….”
Petrovsky: “I hate to see you like this and I want to help you—if it must be tonight, ten is the best I can do.”
McDermott: “Will you do that?”
Petrovsky: [With tears visibly welling] “When my mother let me leave the yeshiva it nearly broke her, but she knew the life I had to lead and to do that for another is a mitzvah . . . and for that I owe.
[Petrovsky begins writing a check.] “So you take this money and get yourself out of this trouble, you hear me?”
Tears are welling in my eyes too.
Sometimes I think that all the kindnesses that people do for each other each day, the generosities big and small that go largely unseen and unheralded are like the work of the myriad pollinators, the hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and ladybugs, and the thousands of other species without whom our world would cease to bloom and soon die.
The news, an endless torrent of psychological carcinogens, enfeebles our minds and sickens our souls; each dousing leaves us feeling insignificant, trivial, helpless. We forget our own formidable powers, how happy we can make others—and ourselves—by doing some small but thoughtful act. It doesn’t have to be ten grand. The person behind you in the grocery check-out line has just a few items, so let them go ahead of you; reach out to a friend or a relative with whom you’ve lost touch and wish them well; look a stranger in the eye, smile, say “good morning,” and mean it.
Karma and mitzvah. We all owe. And we all have a checkbook, even if we don’t have two dimes to rub together and life has dealt us a losing hand.