THE POWER OF A FRIEND’S BELIEF

When I was in elementary school, I was an outstanding student, but in sixth grade, my neighborhood changed with the building of low-income housing only a block away. As a result, the school’s population also changed, and I had to make new friends.

Due to the influence of these new friends, I now wanted to be “cool,” not just smart. I consequently became a mediocre student during junior high school and stayed mediocre as I attended high school; because I came from a low-performing school, my high school teachers always saw me as average, and I was invariably placed in classes with students of average ability.

Fortunately, my mother and my local rabbi perceived me as a serious and intelligent student, and it was their encouragement that motivated me eventually to shed my cool exterior and focus on academics later in life. Both of those individuals were present at critical points in my life, encouraging me to spread my wings and fly intellectually; they believed in me and in my potential.

I thought of this as I watched “War Horse,” a poetic narrative about a boy and the horse that he trained from childhood. Although the film is about a horse, metaphorically it is about learning to cope with new situations and having people in your life who believe you are capable of being successful despite the odds.

The story begins in England in 1914: Ted Narracott needs a plough horse to work his farm but impetuously buys a racing horse, using the little money he has to seal the deal. When the landlord comes to collect his rent for the farm, he cannot pay and is in jeopardy of losing his farm.

Ted’s son Albert offers to train the horse (named Joey) to plow the field, and – miraculously – the two do it. Although Albert knows the animal was born to be a race horse, he believes Joey can meet the challenges of being a plough horse, and, with great care and gentle instruction, Joey becomes what is needed and saves the family from poverty.

Then, when war breaks out, Joey is recruited to transport heavy armament. Again, it is Albert’s belief in Joey’s adaptability and innate strength that enables the horse to survive and to endure adversities that cripple other horses.

Switching to the human metaphor: It is a truism that negative experiences often create opportunities, and – to paraphrase an author who has written a self-help book – we become stronger at the broken places. What at first is a disappointment may in hindsight be a blessing that enables us to grow and be strong to face a future challenge.

What emerges from “War Horse” is a valuable message. Setbacks are a part of life, but we can use them to make us stronger if we believe in ourselves and in our potential. Sometimes, a friend helps us through the darkness to return to the light.

Along these same lines, there is a powerful story in the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva. This illiterate 40-year-old shepherd works for a wealthy man, but the employer’s daughter Rachel sees something special in Akiva, and she offers to marry him if he begins to study the holy texts. Thus, with Rachel’s belief, Akiva becomes one of the greatest of Talmudic sages.

Sometimes we need a friend to encourage us to fulfill our potential. The friendship of one who mentors you and is there for you at the time of crisis can be transformational; when people believe in you, you can often do what you thought was impossible.

By Rabbi Herbert Cohen / AJT Contributor

Editor’s note: Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit koshermovies.com for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.