I began reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables during the summer, around the time that my wife started rehearsing for the Jewish Women’s Reparatory Company’s production of the musical version. (The show was staged a month ago. I’m still reading…). Naturally, we rushed right out to the theater when the movie version came out a few weekends ago. The film is mercilessly true to its title, of course. I never drink, but I really felt that I could have used a shot of something as the credits were rolling.
But the story also features a great redemptive theme of course. And although Jean Valjean’s fall and rise is a great Christian drama of grace and self-sacrifice, Jews can easily enough transpose it into a story of profound teshuva, repentance. The sort of teshuva that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described as “redemptive”. It was for this reason that I was disappointed that one particular scene from Hugo’s tome was not chosen for the film (nor for the show I presume, but who can remember that far back?) I’m referring to the scene which portrays the essential moment and the primal power of teshuva, in a way that rivals and indeed exceeds almost any composition on the topic.
After leaving the bishop of Digne’s home with the additional gift of the silver candlesticks in tow, having been granted another chance and having been told by the bishop that his soul no longer belonged to evil but to good, Jean Valjean comes across a child who is in possession of a forty-sou piece. When the coin drops from the child’s hand and rolls toward Jean Valjean, he brings his heavy boot down upon it, and is deaf to the child’s pathetic pleadings that he lift his boot and return the coin to him. Soon enough, the child runs away, weeping. Jean Valjean watches until the child disappears into the darkness. And then, a moment later,
"…he shuddered; he had begun to feel the cold night air. He pulled his cap over his forehead, fumbling mechanically to do up his smock, took a step forward and stooped to pick his stick up off the ground. At that moment he spotted the forty-sou coin that he had half-ground into the dirt with his foot, and that was glistening among the pebbles. The sight of it was a bolt from the blue. “What the hell is that?” he hissed between clenched teeth."
Jean Valjean searches frantically for the child, screaming his name like a wildman and asking every passer-by if they had seen him. But all this proves futile, and the child is nowhere to be found.
"…his legs suddenly gave way beneath him as if an invisible power had suddenly bowled him over with the weight of his guilty conscience. He dropped, exhausted, onto a big slab of rock, his hands balled into fists and buried in his hair, his head propped on his knees, And he cried, “I am a miserable bastard”.
He burst into tears. It was the first time he had cried in nineteen years."
And the story of course pivots right there. This is teshuva’s primal essence.
All of us have felt regret over particular deeds that we’ve done. But how often do we part the clouds and see that it’s not the deeds, but the doer that is twisted and corrupt. How often does our introspection and reflection bore through the layer of specific actions we wish we could retrieve, and touch the heart the matter, the person who we are? It’s not that we don’t know that this is what we need to do if we hope to change, to redeem, ourselves. But we are often frightened by the sheer amount of courage and inner strength that parting the clouds requires.
Maybe it’s better that this scene didn’t make it from the page to the screen. This way, I have the freedom to imagine myself within it, rather than only having the image of its happening to 24601.