Monthly Archives: August 2013

Zombies for Peace

This was the summer to end the world. While the Mayans incorrectly predicted that 2012 would bring the apocalypse, it seems that Hollywood decided that Summer 2013 was the time to tell their end of the world tales. This is true for comedy, with the Simon Pegg-penned The World’s End recently released in theaters and the Seth Rogen comedy, This is the End, having a successful run throughout the summer. The most talked about ‘end of the world‘ film of the summer though was the zombie blockbuster headlined by Brad Pitt, World War Z. 

WorldWarZImagePopElulWorld War Z was one of the most hyped films going into the summer, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The troubled production stories, reshoots, and plot changes had become legendary in the entertainment world. Brad Pitt produced the film and acquired the movie rights from the author of the book of the same name (authored by Max Brooks, son of comedian Mel Brooks.) The film’s release date was pushed back and an additional seven weeks of shooting in Budapest were added to the schedule, pushing the estimated $125 million budget way over! Additionally, the script had several different rewrites along the way. Still, the film, released at the beginning of the summer was a success, grossing over $500 million on a $190 million budget. Pitt had initially planned on producing a sequel, but those hopes were scrapped because of the challenging production schedule. Due to the Box Office success of the film however, a sequel is now in development.

The apocalyptic tale centers around Pitt’s character Gerry Lane as a former United Nations investigator who is brought back in to help stop a zombie virus that has spread across the world. He is reluctant to help, but agrees when the United Nations promises to keep his wife Karin (played by Mireille Enos) and his children safe in the safe zone set up on US Naval Vessels off the coast of Manhattan.

A turning point in the film comes when Lane visits Jerusalem because he hears that Israeli Mossad had set up a safe zone before the break out. He quickly learns that as a result of the calamities that have stricken the Jewish people throughout history, Israel is always prepared with a “Plan B” just in case. A magical moment happens while in the holy land. Other countries of the world closed off their borders, doing whatever they could to prevent the potentially infected from coming in. Yet, Israel had opened its doors, allowing any survivors – Israeli or Palestinian or other – to seek refuge in its land. Together, the survivors joined hands, put their arms around each other and began to sing.

I have to admit, I did not expect to get teary-eyed while watching a zombie flick (especially watching the action in 3D.) Yet, I couldn’t help myself when I saw Orthodox Jewish men with black hats and payos swaying with their arms around young teenagers wearing kafiyas singing the words of the popular Hebrew/Arabic song, Salaam (Arabic for ‘peace.’) The words, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, meaning “again peace will come upon us,” rang true and despite a zombie pandemic, peace was finally achieved between nations.

I know this fictional cinematic peace was short-lived as they all ended up being attacked by the zombies anyway, but the moment of song and celebration was a vision of what can be in this world. Unfortunately, It is only when we are in dire straits that we actually turn to our neighbors and reach out for them, embracing the words of the Psalmist, Hinei Mah Tov Umah Na’iym, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad, “How lovely is it when brothers and sisters can sit together in unity.”

During this month of reflection and repentance, we ask forgiveness to the individuals that we have wronged. Yet, how does one repent even to those that one does not know? We repent to those that are different from us, which we had previously feared as a result. We repent to those who we made assumptions about, simply because of class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion. We repent to those that we have wronged through ignorance.

We dream of a New Year, a clean slate. In this New Year, a year of possibilities, I pray that we are all able to extend our hands, to hug those who we have turned away from in the past and see everyone as our brothers and sisters. Only then will the words of the song ring true: Peace will come upon us. I just hope we don’t have to wait for a zombie attack for this to happen.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “World War Z”, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, has grossed over $500 million during its summer release. It is Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence, and disturbing images. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The Butler Did It

TheButlerImagePopElulEarly Oscar buzz has led to Lee Daniels’ The Butler leaping to #1 at the box office for the second straight week, crossing the $50 million mark in that span. According to USA Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said, “The Butler received the most enthusiastic reaction to any screening this year.” Oscar talk for main stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and critical reviews helped lead the way. However, the main force for its success is word of mouth.

Due to a law suit with Warner Bros. for the title The Butler, The Weinstein Co. was forced to remove advertisements and movie posters and change the name to Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Still, word of mouth about the powerful message worked! At a time on Hollywood’s calendar when the Summer Blockbuster season has come to a close and the Fall movie season has not yet kicked into high gear, Lee Daniels’ The Butler snuck in there and made a statement with a powerful story about how we make history, and how history makes us.

The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines (played by Whitaker) who spends over 30 years as a butler in the White House, working under many presidents. Based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, Gaines is a witness to many historical events in the 20th century. He begins as a worker on a cotton plantation in Georgia, but ends up three decades later working in the White House during President Eisenhower’s administration and continues to serve in the White House under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. The film concludes with the retired African-American butler preparing to meet the first African-American President at Obama’s inauguration.

The movie shares history through the eyes of a single person, and interprets how history impacts and is impacted by a single person. The greatest example in the film is when [SPOILER ALERT] Cecil Gaines’ son Louis decides to join a peaceful student group while at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. With this student group, Louis participates in sit-ins at segregated public places and travels on the freedom bus rides. While on the freedom rides, Louis, along with others, is attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Gaines is informed of his son’s attack by President Kennedy and according to the historical fiction of the film, Kennedy having a personal connection to one of the freedom riders that was attacked leads him to deliver a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act.

There is a well-known aggadah, a tale in Jewish tradition, based on the teaching of Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha. He teaches:

Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On the first, it should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each. 

Sometimes we think our life is the only life that matters. Sometimes we selfishly think the world revolves around us. Sometimes we are reminded that we are just a spec in the universe, but that every moment of life has the opportunity to be a historic moment. Sometimes we need to be praised and remember the divine spark within us. Sometimes we need to be humbled.

Unlike Rabbi Bunim of P’Shiksha, I believe that the the secret of living isn’t about knowing when to take out each slip of paper. Rather, it is about figuring out a way to combine these two inspirational messages about life together. While we are just a blip on the screen of history, we are also made in God’s image. We may think that our actions do not matter and have little consequence in the grand scheme of things. Yet, we forget that this world was created for our sake and thus, our action or inaction has a direct impact on the curves and turns of life’s highway. One small act by us may lead to a monumental shift by humanity. We are only dust and ashes. Yet this world was created for each of our sakes.

The actions of Cecil Gaines and his family in the film seemed small juxtaposed to the monumental events of history throughout the 20th century. Yet, the movie suggests that in a small way, much like the Butterfly Effect theory, Gaines actions and presence influenced and impacted many of these monumental events. While we think our actions don’t matter, they do! They matter to us. They matter to those we interact with. They matter to the world. As we approach the Jewish New Year and consider our own actions and inactions of the past, let us strive to make sure our actions of the future are ones that will impact the world for the better.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is currently the #1 movie at the Box Office. Produced by The Weinstein Co. and starring an ensemble cast, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, and Robin Williams. The movie is Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual references, thematic elements, and smoking.  

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Breaking Good

BreakingBadImagePopElulThis summer was the first time I saw an episode of Breaking Bad. My Twitter feed and Facebook newsfeed were consumed by comments about Jesse Pinkman and Walt White! Based on the 140 character posts, I quickly learned that this was Breaking Bad’s final season. The show would end its run with 16 season five episodes and with each episode, according to social media reaction, fans were sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping that the twists and turns of the dark plot would be resolved. I had no interest in the show; it was too dark for me. There is plenty of darkness in the world so I immediately crossed a show about drug lords and violence off my list.

Yet, with all the Twitter and Facebook excitement, and with a little help from Netflix, I gave in and started watching AMC’s hit show. What I found was a disturbing story — brilliantly acted — about love, obligation, and support. What I saw surely justified all the Emmy nominations (and victories) and the critical acclaim the show has received, some going as far as to say it is the best show on television and one of the greatest shows of all time.

The show’s central figure is Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston,) a high school chemistry teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his pregnant wife and his teenage son who has cerebral palsy. He even works in a carwash after school hours to earn extra money, to financially prepare for his new child on the way.

The show begins with White being informed that he has inoperable lung cancer. Struck with the realization that life is finite and that he has a terminal illness, he approaches a former student, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul,) to help him make methamphetamine.  Their meth lab on wheels ends up producing a potent form of the drug, leading the previously honest and selfless chemistry teacher down a path of violence, murder, and lies.

The irony is that Mr. White begins this life of crime because of his love and concern for his family. He does not initially tell his wife about his illness, instead being elusive about his drug business, hoping to stabilize his family’s financial future for the long haul. He does not want his family to worry about putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads when he dies. He wants to make sure that, in a way, he is looking after them and supporting them, even when he passes away.

Such an action begs the question: is sinning acceptable if it is a selfless act to benefit others? Much in the same vein as Robin Hood who was a thief, but donated the stolen money to the impoverished, White is a drug dealer, but only out of love for his family. When is doing bad really an act of doing good? Maybe one does wrong with good intentions, but that doesn’t change the evil that one does. Walt White eventually gets caught up in a slippery slope of evil. His good intentions led him down a dark path, with his wife that he was trying to support, [SPOILER ALERT] eventually leaving him because of his involvement in the drug world.

However, we have a choice: we can acknowledge the darkness around us and become lost in that darkness or try to find the sliver of light in the darkness. I am an optimist. I choose to find the sliver of light in each situation and in each individual. Despite this dark and sinful path, White’s intentions were good. They were rooted in benevolence. Our goal is not to look at such an individual and scorn him. Our goal is to remove the blinds and let the sliver of light, the sliver of righteousness that exists somewhere within him, radiate so that we can leave behind a life full of darkness and immorality.

As we examine ourselves in preparation for the New Year, let us all remember that there is no such thing as a “lost cause.” Those of us who make mistakes, sin, and do wrong (which is certainly all of us to some extent,) have compassion, kindness, and righteousness within us. Let us find the good within all of us, especially at times when we are only consumed with that which is bad, so that our path in the New Year will be one guided by our Yetzer HaTov, our intention to do good. The root of the Hebrew word Teshuvah, repentance, means to ‘return.’ We spend the month of Elul striving to return to our ways, to only do good. In the face of evil, let us all return to a path of righteousness.

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Please Note: AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is rated TV-MA for strong language, violence, sexual behavior and illicit drug use. It has won four Primetime Emmy Awards, including awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, and has been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Oltizky

An Important Reminder of Our Roots

In the world of Twitter, we do not judge a show, a speech, or a performance by viewership or critical reviews. Instead, we judge by spur of the moment reactionary thoughts that are 140 characters or less. That was certainly the case with Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards. Many had plenty to say about the performance of Miley Cyrus as well as Katy Perry’s finale underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet, much of the twitter hype leading up to the event was about the supposed *NSYNC reunion.

JJTImagePopElulustin Timberlake was to receive the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, MTV’s version of the “Lifetime Achievement Award.” It’s pretty impressive that Timberlake is only 32 years old and is already being awarded with the lifetime achievement moon man.

Rumors began to spread last week that the former *NSYNC members would join Timberlake at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn as part of his medley performance when a picture was taken of the former boy band members together at the Justin Timberlake/Jay Z concert in Miami. The band members denied this possibility, but in the end, it seems that this was just to throw us all off, much like what happened with the Destiny’s Child reunion this past year during Beyonce’s halftime show performance.

There is no reason they shouldn’t have joined JT on stage. If anything, it was an opportunity for them to return to the limelight. While Justin went on to become the new king of pop, other members of *NSYNC did little following the band’s break-up. JC Chasez tried to go solo as well and had one successful single, Blowin’ Me Up, from the Drumline soundtrack. He continued his “stardom” as a judge on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew until it was cancelled. Joey Fatone tried to make it in Hollywood, appearing in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, before eventually finding success in reality television, as a runner-up on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, a host of NBC’s The Singing Bee, and currently the announcer on the syndicated Family Feud. Lance Bass is less known for his post-*NSYNC musical work and more known for his attempt at becoming an astronaut, as well as revealing that he is gay in a People magazine cover story. I am pretty sure that Chris Kirkpatrick hasn’t done anything since the boy band’s break-up.

The crowd at the VMA’s went crazy as, in the middle of Timberlake’s performance, he was joined on stage by his fourNSYNCImagePopElul former bandmates for a brief rendition of Girlfriend and Bye, Bye, Bye. Performing on stage together for the first time in over a decade, *NSYNC’s slide step, jump, and hand wave dance moves seemed rusty. Timberlake is only 32, but the five of them together seemed old. Still, the crowd (and the twitterverse) appreciated the nostalgia. Rumors immediately spread that *NSYNC would soon launch a reunion tour (similar to New Kids On The Block and Backstreet Boys.)

What stood out to me was Justin Timberlake’s acknowledgement of his fellow *NSYNC members in his acceptance speech. He made it clear that he owed his entire career to them and that half of the Video Music Awards that he won as a musician were with the boy band. How appropriate that in celebrating Justin Timberlake as an individual, he acknowledged his friends, his musical family, his community that led him to stardom.

So too, no matter who we are, or who we become, we cannot forget that we are shaped by our friends, by our family, by our community. As we prepare for the New Year, we reflect on who we are. Who we are as individuals is a result of who nurtured us; we are who we are because of those who molded us along the way. In Judaism, our Hebrew names are announced as ben or bat, son of or daughter of, followed by our parents Hebrew names. We identify not just with our first and middle names, with our individual selfs, but also with our parents names, with our roots, with those who shaped us and made us who we are today.

As we re-examine who we are and who we want to be, let us not forget those who shaped us. I am who I am because of my mother, my father, my brother, my friends, my community, my wife, and even my toddler. I am unique. I am made in God’s image. Yet, they all shaped me and made me who I am. As we reflect on our own unique selfs, let us also reflect on all those who made us who we are today.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: Justin Timberlake’s current album “The 20/20 Experience” sold between 900,000 – 950,000 records in its first week of release and debuted atop the Billboard 200 Albums chart. His continuation of this album, “The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2” will be released at the end of September. The boy band *NSYNC, one of the most successful pop groups of the late 90s and early 2000s set a new standard with their “No Strings Attached” album. This album sold a record 2.42 million copies in its first week and was the best-selling record of the decade.

 

Here is a taste of Justin Timberlake and his roots, during his *NSYNC days:

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Starting our Spiritual Journeys

MonstersUImagePopElulMonsters University is easily the most successful animated film of the summer (and arguably the most successful film of the summer!) The film has grossed over $650 million at the box office and Pixar did it again by creating their first ever prequel. What is so surprising about the success of the prequel and its link to Monsters Inc. is that Monsters Inc. premiered in theaters twelve years ago. Pixar has a unique way of telling a story in their animated films that keep parents interested, but no one can ignore the fact that their films (as are all of Disney’s animated movies) are geared towards an child-dominated viewership.

If Monsters Inc. arrived in theaters twelve years ago, then most of the children who were excited about seeing Monsters University never saw the first film in theaters. Still, they came in droves to watch the tale of Mike Wazowski (voiced again by Billy Crystal) and James “Sully” Sullivan (voiced again by John Goodman,) who begin as enemies in college, but end up becoming best friends and successful professional scarers at Monsters Inc.

Mike knows that he wants to work at Monsters Inc. one day as a professional scarer, so he studies hard. A “scare major” at Monsters U, Mike is short and small and becomes agitated by Sully’s God-given ability as a large blue furry monster to scare easily. Mike studies hard and succeeds while Sully takes his talents for granted and begins to falter.

[Spoiler Alert] Their teacher, Hardscrabble, fails them, not because of their talents, but instead because of their rivalry and doubt and disrespect towards each other. They are forced to work together in the Scare Games, both being forced to enter through a door into the human world and scare kids at summer camp in order to prove themselves. While they are temporarily expelled from the university, though they eventually re-enter the specialized scare program. The movie concludes with Mike and Sully, as new friends who have both proven themselves, working at Monsters Inc. Their successful employment eventually leads to the story line of the 2001 film.

Mike is determined and destined to scare, even if he is short in size and stature. He reminds as about the importance of having faith in ourselves. Sully, on the other hand, has the talents, but he does not work hard and is not determined. From Sully, we learn the important lesson that we are God’s partners in creation. We do not sit back and wait for things to happen; we make them happen. Ultimately, we learn that as long as we are determined and try hard, no one can stop us from continuing on our journey to achieve our dreams. We also learn that we cannot get there based on talent alone. We must be determined. We must have a passion. We must have true kavannah, true intention. The journey may not always be easy. The journey may not always lead us to where we thought we were going. We may end up at a different place entirely, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” We create our own journeys. Even if we choose to scare, what we do is sacred. As we approach the New Year, let all that we do be sacred and let us be courageous enough to start a new journey, filled with our talents and our kavannah. Where that journey will end, nobody knows.

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Please Note: Disney and Pixar’s “Monsters University” is Rated G and is acceptable for all audiences. 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Making the Old New, Making the New Sacred

CupsImagePopElulEven actress and musician Anna Kendrick can’t really believe what is going on with her hit song Cups. Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone) was performed by Kendrick as part of a short scene in last year’s surprise hit Pitch Perfect. Pitch Perfect, the successful 2012 musical comedy directed by Jason Moore, follows the story of rival college a cappella groups. Main character Beca Mitchell (played by Kendrick) auditions for the Barden Bellas singing Cups, with the song getting its name from her unique ability to create rhythm and percussion for the song by tapping on and moving a small plastic cup on stage.

The movie was more successful than producers predicted and as a result, Universal Studios confirmed that they would release a sequel to the film in 2015. The music of the film was catchy and fun, like many a cappella performances are, and the soundtrack is the best selling soundtrack of 2013. Still, it is surprising that Kendrick’s Cups, which landed on the soundtrack after the buzz it created by movie-goers, is so successful. The film premiered almost one year ago in September of 2012. The soundtrack was digitally released the following month. Yet, for the past month and a half, Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone) has been sitting in the Top Ten of Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. Even Anna Kendrick herself can’t believe it!

While Cups is a popular song, with creative percussion, and even a fun music video, it is certainly not a new song. The song, with the tapping of the cups, was popularized by the band Lulu and the Lampshades in 2009, giving Kendrick inspiration for her character’s audition performance. However, the lyrics of the song were written by A.P. Carter and Luisa Gerstein and performed by the Carter Family in 1931. So not only is it remarkable that a song from last year’s hit movie is a hit this year, but it’s even more remarkable that this new hit song is actually over 80 years old.

The lyrics focus on not living in the moment and not appreciating what we have when we have it. The song, presumably about a lover who is leaving her significant other, is about missed opportunities. Such a notion is exemplified by the chorus:

When I’m gone (when I’m gone)

When I’m gone (when I’m gone)

You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

You’re gonna miss me by my walk

You’ll miss me by my talk

You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

This song reminds us that we must appreciate what we have in our lives now. It is easy for us to be so-called “Monday Morning Quarterbacks” and reflect back on moments in our lives after the fact. It’s common for us to think about how to do things better or consider whom or what we should’ve appreciated more at the time. Even the Hebrew calendar encourages us to reflect and look back. After all, the entire month of Elul is about reflecting on what we are proud of and what we should’ve done differently. Yet, looking back only matters if we are able to look forward, so that ultimately, we can appreciate the present. Elul sets us up for the New Year ahead, reflecting on the past in order to better appreciate the present as we are living in it. This song is a charge to us all: don’t wait until that which is holy to us is long gone to realize the sacred nature of that individual, that place, or that moment in time. Appreciate the kedushah, the holiness, of the moment. Live the holiness!

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, taught that “the Old should be Renewed and the New shall be made Holy.” Anna Kendrick and the writers of Pitch Perfect took a sound that is over 80 years old (although it has been covered by many) and made it new again. She made the message relevant again and in doing so, she made it sacred to a new generation. Let us not worry about missing others when they are gone, for in the year ahead, let us focus on the here and now. Let us also be reminded that that which is old can become new once again, and as long as we appreciate God’s gifts in our lives, we make it holy as well. Let us all make the old new and make the new holy in the year ahead.

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Please Note: “Cups,” sung by Anna Kendrick currently sits in the Top Ten on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. It appears on “Pitch Perfect: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which is the best-selling soundtrack of 2013. The film “Pitch Perfect” is rated PG-13 for strong language, drug references, underage drinking, and sexual innuendos. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Ugly Little Lies

I resisted watching Pretty Little Liars for as long as I could. I resisted it partially because it was on ABC Family and I assumed that the quality of the show rivaled the likes of fellow ABC Family seriesThe Secret Life of The American Teenager and a 10 Things I Hate About You television spin-off. I resisted because I suspected that the quality of acting was not up to par. Truthfully though, I resisted because the premise sounded like a cross between Desperate Housewives, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Gossip Girl with a pinch of Mean Girls. Yet, ABC Family kept renewing the series. This summer’s episodes are a part of its fourth season with the fifth season already filming. ABC Family has also announced a spin-off, Ravenswood, to premiere in October later this year. With the increase in episodes and viewership, I finally gave in.

The show, based on the teen novels of the same name, follows four teenage girls part of a clique that is lost withoutPrettyLittleLiarsImagePopElul their ring leader. The queen bee, Alison DiLaurentis (played by Sasha Pieterse,) disappears and as time passes by, the four other girls begin receiving mysterious messages from someone named “A” who threatens to expose their secrets. The girls originally think “A” is Alison as she is the only one who knows their secrets. However, when [Spoiler Alert] Alison’s body is found, they are concerned that someone else knows about their wrongdoings. The series focuses on their attempts to find out what happened to Alison, but more importantly for them, to find out who the true identity of “A.”

The whole show’s concept is based on the idea that a group of girls did something wrong, knew that they did wrong and didn’t want to get caught for doing wrong. Thus, instead of coming clean, they go to greater trouble keeping their wrongdoings a secret than presumably the trouble of the wrongdoing in the first place. If they never did wrong, maybe there would be no storyline. Obviously this is unrealistic to expect, not just from a Hollywood script, but also from real life. No one is perfect. We all are bound to make mistakes. The High Holy Days are exactly for this purpose. We have opportunities for atonement and repentance specifically meant to guide us — and push us — to admit those secrets within us. The Hebrew calendar is set up so that we start off the year by admitting our secrets, by exposing our lies and telling the truth, by admitting what we have done wrong. MIstakes are a part of life.

The error in these four girls’ ways is not the mistake. The error is the attempt after attempt to keep their secrets and hide their mistakes at all costs. Their error is in refusing to tell the truth. Lying is a slippery slope. One small lie often developments into a mound of dishonesty and deception. When we lie, our stomach ties in knots. The more lies, the worse we feel. Eventually, this mound of lies builds up and we create an alternative reality and an alternative self. We don’t even recognize ourselves anymore. In order to admit our mistakes, we have to admit that we have made mistakes. We have to come clean instead of trying to cover up.

Let us take advantage of the month of Elul to come clean to others and to ourselves. Part of this process of Teshuvah, repentance, means letting go of the lies. The New Year begins with truth, truth in who we are and who we are not, truth in what we have done and become, and truth in who we want to be. Truth allows us to appreciate ourselves, even with bumps in the road along the way. During the month of Elul, let us pledge to stop with the lies because lies only lead to greater lies and let’s be honest, there is nothing pretty about a little liar.

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Please Note: “Pretty Little Liars” is on ABC Family on Tuesday evenings at 8:00 PM EST, with the Summer Finale premiering this Tuesday. The show features sporadic violence, a fair amount of language, and physical sexual encounters that stop just before the act itself. It is rated TV-14.

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

From Hopeless to Hopeful

When a folk rock band wins the Grammy for Album of the Year, they have officially entered the world of pop Mumford&SonsImagePopElulculture. Folk rock music becomes pop music. This is certainly the case with Mumford & Sons, the successful English folk rock band getting radio airplay these days. They gained traction with their 2010 debut studio album, Sigh No More, but truly hit it big with 2012’s Babel. Released in September of last year, the album immediately debuted at number one in the United States and the United Kingdom. Their first hit single from the album, I Will Wait, was a chart topper, heard regularly on the radio. After performing the hit song at the Grammys, they won the top award for their album which propelled that song to number one.

Their latest single from that album, Hopeless Wanderer, is one of the most live-streamed (yes, that is now a category) songs of the summer, with the music video debuting two weeks ago. The music video quickly went viral online because of the four individuals in it. Ironically — and comedically — the four musicians of Mumford & Sons do not appear in the video. The viewer initially thinks that they are watching the band perform. Only once there is a close-up on their faces do we realize the gag. Comedians Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jason Bateman, and Ed Helms each play one of the four musicians of the Mumford & Sons band, highlighted by the smashing of banjos and basses, as well as the supposed comical on-screen kiss between Forte and Sudeikis. The music video is funny and the song is catchy. Most importantly though, the lyrics of the song give important insight about being hopeful during this time of year.

The song Hopeless Wanderer actually focuses on the opposite: one who refuses to give up hope. The lyrics remind us that hope is our greatest strength. They begin by suggesting that we search for God’s shelter and God’s light, rather than sitting in the dark corners of the earth, waiting for the chaos of the world to consume us. The song begins:

You heard my voice I came out of the woods by choice

Shelter also gave their shade

But in the dark I have no name

In God’s light, we find shelter. In the dark, without God, we feel alone. These lyrics are similar to the words of Psalm 27 which is traditional recited every morning and every evening during the month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days:

For God conceals me in God’s pavilion in the day of evil. God hides me in the cover of the Lord’s tent.

We can walk around this world without purpose. We can walk around this world dazed, scared, and anxious. We can walk through life apathetic. Or, alternatively, we can find meaning in what we do, in who we interact with, and in each moment of our lives. This song, and the poetry of the Psalmist, do not simply suggest that God will protect us as long as we believe in the Lord.

Rather, the words remind us that a life with God, with faith, is better and brighter than the dark alternative. The road is bumpy and full of high points and low points. However, remaining hopeful and continuing to have faith in God allows us to find purpose in life’s blessings and take solace in life’s challenges. Hope in God, and in turn, hope that life will get better, gives us the courage to take the necessary steps to make changes in our lives to make life better.

The chorus reminds us to never stop hoping, to never let the flame within us extinguish:

So when your hope’s on fire

But you know your desire

Don’t hold a glass over the flame

Don’t let your heart grow cold

I will call you by name

I will share your road

 Psalm 27 reminds us of the same thing:

Hope in the Lord. Be strong. Take Courage. Hope in the Lord.

Without hope there is only heartache, but with hope, God will call out to us and we will find comfort calling out to God. With hope, we are not alone. Continuing to hope that life with get better, that darkness will turn to light, we find purpose and meaning in our lives. During this period of reflection and introspection, let us hope that life will get better and be courageous enough to take action to make it better. As long as we believe in God and as long as we find comfort in God, we will never be hopeless wanderers.

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Please Note: “Babel” is the second studio album of folk rock band Mumford & Sons. The album was ranked the 11th best album of the 50 top albums of 2012 by Rolling Stone magazine and won the Album of the Year award at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The album has a few references to foul language, but is overall light on graphic content. 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

Be Crazy, Make a Change

Steve Jobs’ story is an incredible journey about inspiration, innovation, and taking a chance. Two years ago, immediately following Steve Jobs’ passing, I spoke about him during Kol Nidre services, reflecting on how his presence, and his willingness to dream, forever changed our world. Having such an impact on this world, I was somewhat surprised that the film Jobs, which was released on August 16th, 2013 in the United States and distributed by Open Road Films, following a showing at Sundance Film Festival last winter, bombed in the box office.

JobsMovieImagePopElulThe Steve Jobs biopic only pulled in $6.7 million during its opening weekend and movie critic website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 25% out of a 100. Many movie critics claim the film focused too much on Jobs’ role with Apple Computers instead of his own personal story of exploration and growth. Maybe the low revenue is due to the atypical casting of Ashton Kutcher as the genius Jobs. Kutcher, best known for silly comedies like Two and a Half Men, That 70’s Show, and Dude, Where’s My Car? was a surprising choice to play the tech icon. Maybe audiences are instead waiting to buy tickets for the Aaron Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs biopic currently in development.

Despite the negative reception, the film (and Jobs’ life in general) still can teach us an important lesson. The film mostly focuses on Jobs time with Apple, from his development of the first Apple 1 personal computer (with Steve Wozniak, played by Josh Gad) to his ousting from the company, concluding with his return to Apple Computers to save the company in the late 90’s.

The film concludes with Jobs’ plan to reinvent Apple computers, focusing on attractive typeface and sexy casing of the personal computer, culminating in the launch of Jobs’ Think Different campaign for Apple. The ad campaign featured history’s most influential figures, including Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, Jim Henson, Jackie Robinson, Frank Sinatra, and Alfred Hitchcock. The text of the successful campaign serves as the final dialogue of the film:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The text of this successful advertising campaign did more than just sell computers. It inspired us to dream. It inspired us to believe that we could make a change. Even after his passing, Steve Jobs’ words continue to do just that. During this month of Elul, we are reminded to make a change. We are charged to do things differently, to change our course and take a divergent path to become a change agent. We make a change for our own sake as well as the sake of others. Ultimately though, we make change for God’s sake and improve the world through such change. Through improving this world, we become closer to sharing God’s vision of a better world.

Let us not be afraid to be the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels. Let us embrace being round pegs in square holes. Let us think that we can change the world… and make that change a reality.

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Please Note: “Jobs” starring Ashton Kutcher is now in theaters. It is Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language.

 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Elysium Reminds us that Justice is for All

ElysiumImagePopElulThe sci-fi action thriller of the summer, Elysium, that stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, helps us understand truly what Tzedakah means. The film is directed by Neil Blomkamp, who last directed the critically acclaimed District 9, which focused on issues of xenophobia and social segregation through a sci-fi alien invasion story. Elysium, also a futuristic tale, helps us understand that true justice is for all, not for a limited few. While the film takes place in the future, Director Blomkamp claims that it is not science-fiction at all. This is a story about issues we are facing in the real world. He is only using the backdrop of science-fiction to teach about contemporary issues.

Taking place over 125 years from now, this futuristic story tells about the two places where humanity lives. The space station known as Elysium, funded by the Armadyme Corporation, is a utopian society for the upper class where there is no disease, no poverty, and no war. Med-pods do regular cancer scans, healing the body of any cancerous disease and everyone there lives in peace and harmony. The opposite is the reality for those left on Earth.

With our current abuse of the planet and its resources, in the year 2154, Earth is a ruined place, a place left for the poor who do not have the same rights as the privileged living on Elysium. The plot of the movie follows ex-con Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) as he attempts to illegally infiltrate Elysium in order to receive the medical treatment for himself as well as for a friend’s daughter who is dying of Leukemia while in dystopian Los Angeles. Da Costa was exposed to lethal levels of radiation while working at the Armadyme plant and given only days to live. Jodie Foster plays Jessica Delacourt, the high-ranking government minister of Elysium who attempts to prevent any citizens of Earth from taking advantage of the privileges previously reserved for the upper class of the space station.

The movie has clear undertones focused on so-called political issues of immigration, health care, and class. However, the ultimate message of the film is justice. We do not pursue justice by hijacking a computer system that is wired to our minds and infiltrating a space station – at least, not in the year 2013. We pursue justice by being a voice for those who are silent, by standing up for those who are downtrodden. The High Holy Day liturgy reminds us that Tzedakah, true justice, allows us to have a clean slate, to be written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year ahead.

It is easy to stand up for justice for ourselves. It is easy to see how we are being mistreated and do something about it. It is even easier though to stay on the sidelines and keep to ourselves when injustice doesn’t directly impact us. Those are the injustices we need to end. That is the justice we need to pursue. We are commanded to help the underprivileged, even when it doesn’t effect us or impact us. That is the justice we pursue in the New Year. Let us not wait until the year 2154 when we are forced by such issues in a dystopian society. That us use the New Year as a spring board to stand up for justice for all.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “Elysium” is co-produced by Media Rights Capitol and TriStar Pictures and was released in theaters on August 9, 2013. This film starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster is Rated R for strong bloody violence and inappropriate language throughout the film. 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky