The 10th Commandment, Tony Kushner, And Me

Trying Not To Covet

 The author and Tony Kushner at the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

The Ten Commandments prohibit murder with just two words, while the prohibition on coveting includes fifteen. The no-coveting rule is also the 10th Commandment – the climax of God’s revelation at Sinai. It’s surprising because we all covet; we can’t help it. So why did God make a law no one can follow? And why make this law the grand finale to the greatest show of all time?

I think in terms of show business because I’m a writer-director. For years I harbored toxic envy of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. I didn’t covet their awards, money, or fame. I coveted their opportunity to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln.

My wife Nina and I set out to make a Lincoln movie 13 years ago. We’d spent two years researching and writing the script when Mr. Spielberg announced his own Lincoln project. No one would help us move our project forward while there was the least chance he might proceed.

Eventually, he brought aboard Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, who spent five years working on their Lincoln script. Meanwhile, I invented a new process called CineCollage so we could tell our epic story on an indie budget. Instead of building Civil War sets, we converted Civil War photographs into three-dimensional locations.

In the end, Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner made a studio film that covers four months of Lincoln’s life, and we made an indie that covers four years. They focused on President Lincoln twisting arms to get the 13th Amendment passed; we focused on Commander-in-Chief Lincoln leading the nation to victory, as witnessed by Ward Hill Lamon, the Illinois pal who came along to play banjo and ended up serving as Lincoln’s bodyguard and confidant.

There should have been room for both movies at the box office, but our film, Saving Lincoln, got lost in the shuffle.

It was against this background, that I journeyed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania last November for the festivities surrounding the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. I had a great time, and posted continuously for our 70,000 fans at Facebook.com/SavingLincoln.

As the final banquet neared, however, I started wrestling with the 10th Commandment. The Lincoln Forum’s guest of honor was Tony Kushner.

I met him briefly during dinner when Harold Holzer, a noted Lincoln authority who consulted on both my film and Tony’s, introduced us. Wallowing in my stew of bruised ego and conflicting emotions, I was pleased that Harold and his wife mentioned to Tony how much they loved our first film, the Passover comedy When Do We Eat?

As the speeches began, I started composing my Facebook post, but no matter how hard I tried to be classy, my words came out snarky.

I knew why. There’s a concept in Judaism called the yetzer hara – the evil inclination – that wily, inner voice that pushes for ego gratification. Mine was running amok over the 10th Commandment as I watched Tony win the Lincoln Forum’s highest prize.

“Go ahead and covet it!” screamed my yetzer hara. “Who would Lincoln himself give the prize to? The guy behind a studio behemoth, or the guy behind a scrappy, underdog film?”

“Well, actually his film is really good,” answered my yetzer tov – the good inclination. “By focusing on a narrow slice of the story, Tony allowed us to hang out with Lincoln for long stretches of time. It was great watching Lincoln think.”

“Think? Please! Thinking is not why people love Lincoln.”

Meaning people like the 300 Forum guests sitting around me, now enjoying Tony’s surprisingly touching acceptance speech.

“What people love,” continued the angry voice in my head, “is Lincoln’s humility, humor, and courage during the darkest hours. Moments that were only mentioned in Tony’s movie, but  which inform every single frame of Saving Lincoln. Moments that will never be seen by the American public because we didn’t have a $100 million marketing budget!”

“Yes,” answered my yetzer tov, “but they had all those resources because they earned them. Tony elevated himself via his pencil, much like Lincoln. And his movie is making people care about the political process by showing it through Lincoln’s eyes. We share a mission.”

“Of course we share a mission! But he presides over the whole Union army while I bring up a regiment in the rear…”

And then, even my yetzer hara had to shut up.

Earlier that day, I had snuck away from the Forum in order to walk the Gettysburg Battlefield with John Wolgamot, a gifted oral historian. John had described the courageous charge of the 1st Minnesota Regiment at the pivotal moment of the Civil War. They suffered catastrophic casualties but never flinched, and their sacrifice helped save the nation. Was the 1st Minnesota any less important for being a small outfit?

No, it was not.

Suddenly, I knew what to write. On my phone, I thumb-typed, “Sometimes God throws you a perfect opportunity to overcome petty jealousy.”

Exactly as I finished typing “jealousy,” the room erupted into a standing ovation. Tony took it in graciously, and stepped off the stage. To my shock, he walked directly up to me. Amidst the applause, he said, “How can I get a copy of When Do We Eat?”

I could not help but think that God was rewarding me for overcoming envy.

For the vast majority of us, murder is a non-issue. Conquering envy, however, is a constant battle. God ended the greatest show of all time with a ban on coveting because it is the biggest impediment to a life well lived.

May we all find the strength to observe the 10th Commandment, and to conduct ourselves with as much class as Tony Kushner, and to go about our jobs as selflessly as the men of the 1st Minnesota.

Learn more about the film at SavingLincoln.com

Originally published at The Jewish Journal

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