February 18, 2020

Movies that Stirred My Passovers

The best Bible stories are religious epics. The best Hollywood filmmakers are some of the greatest storytellers in the world, and I have been spiritually moved and inspired by Hollywood retellings of our ancient religious stories.

With Passover upon us, I’m reminded of three specific movies that opened my eyes anew to the story of the Exodus.

“The Prince of Egypt”

This 1998 kid-friendly animated version of the Passover story from Dreamworks focuses on two brothers — Moses and Rameses, the eventual Pharaoh of the Passover story. I never even thought of this sibling dynamic until I saw this movie. It is the simplest insight but profoundly transformative.

Moses knows Rameses and the royal family better than he knows his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam. Imagine Moses’ inner conflict. He is being pulled in opposite directions as his Jewish and Egyptian identities wrestle for control of his destiny. That inner struggle sounds like every inner monologue of every Jewish American I know. Moses becomes more relatable through “The Prince of Egypt.”

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

This 2014 movie starring Christian Bale as Moses was awful, but it still transformed the Exodus story for me.

One of the film’s biggest flaws is how we are made to empathize more with Rameses than with Moses. Like “The Prince of Egypt,” the two brothers are set on a collision course for control of the dynasty. Moses does not want the position, but he is superior to Rameses in every way. Rameses is fueled by jealousy, which turns to rage.

My then 4-year-old said, “How could a movie about this story not be amazing? It’s the greatest story of all time!”

The most emotional part of the story is Rameses losing his son to the plague of the first born. It’s a jarring feeling but it awakened a part of the story in me that is usually too easy to ignore. Pharaoh and the Egyptians had families and lives. Even if many of them deserved to be punished, their suffering should tug at our heartstrings.

“The Lion King”

This 1994 animated film is about a prince who is exiled because he is afraid of being prosecuted for murder. He has a supernatural vision that convinces him to return to his birthplace and rescue his tribe. It sounds just like the story of Moses to me.

The twist is that Simba is convinced to return to Pride Rock only when Nala mentions his family back home is hoping for his return. God does the same for Moses when he tells him that his brother, Aaron, is waiting for him back home. I find this especially meaningful because Passover has become the holiday of family.

Hollywood showed me the depth of the Exodus story as a story, and now I relate to it as a child hearing the story for the first time. I’ll never forget my then 4-year-old son’s shock when I told him “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was a flop. He said, “How could a movie about this story not be amazing? It’s the greatest story of all time!”

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.