Monthly Archives: September 2013

Life is a House of Cards

I began the Pop Elul Project reflecting on one of Netflix’s top shows of the summer, Orange is the New Black. I figured that it was only appropriate to conclude the month of Elul reflecting on Netflix’s other binge-worthy show, House of CardsHouse of Cards, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, tells the tale of corrupt Washington politics. The story centers around House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey, who was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for this role,) a democrat from South Carolina who abuses his power by using individuals and taking advantage of others.

HouseofCardsImagePopElulThe essence of the story though is a story of revenge. At the beginning of the series, we learn that Underwood gets overlooked for the Secretary of State position that he believed he was a shoe-in for. He keeps a smile on his face and the viewer is led to believe that he is a man who puts government first and country first. We are supposed to believe that he will not get caught up with the small stuff. As the season progresses though, we learn that his smile and southern charm is all just a part of his strategy.

Frank plays the long game, plotting and planning a revenge to get more than he wanted in the first place. In a carefully staged plot (which the viewer does not even realize was part of his plan until the conclusion of the season) Underwood’s plot comes to fruition. [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT] Frank uses his knowledge of a Pennsylvanian congressman’s addiction to drugs and sex to use that congressman to run for the vacant Pennsylvania Governorship. He then forces the congressman to relapse, essentially knocking him out of the race and forcing him to an emotional point of no return, thus convincing the Vice President (and former Pennsylvania Governor) to step back in his role for the sake of the state. He then makes a bee line for the vacant Vice Presidency, and sets himself up perfectly to be the second most powerful man in the world.

This is a story about power, the struggle for power, and the great lengths one will go to in order to gain power, even at another’s expense. Yet, the essence of the show is still revenge. He uses his power to get revenge. The essence of the show is Frank Underwood’s willingness to ruin other people’s lives to get wanted he wanted, to get revenge. The problem isn’t the trickery. The problem isn’t the lying or cheating. Unfortunately, we have come to expect that as the norm in the District. The problem is revenge.

When we are scorned, when we are insulted, or when we are hurt, we want to retaliate. We want to hurt another in the same way that we’ve been hurt. Taking the Bible’s “eye for an eye” command literally, we seek vengeance. Ultimately though, vengeance is what holds us back. Vengeance is what prevents us from moving on. We have spent so much time during the month of Elul repenting. We do Teshuvah, we repent, and ask for forgiveness from others and from God. We attempt to right our wrongs. Yet, we are often our own greatest barriers to true repentance. We must also be willing to forgive as well as ask for forgiveness. We must also be willing to forget. We must be willing to move on.

Life is a house of cards. When we get caught up in a world of lies, and specifically a world of vengeance, life will come tumbling down around us. That is, unless we are willing to not just hope for a clean slate for ourselves, but give those that have wronged us a clean slate as well.

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Please Note: “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara is available to live stream on Netflix. The Emmy-nominated show is Rated TV-MA for profanity, sex, nudity, illegal drug use, and violence.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

 

The Blasts Wake Me Up!

I admit that I do not have the best sleeping habits. I often stay up late, either catching up on work, or winding down from a long day by watching whatever is recorded on my DVR. For this reason, I set my alarm clock a wee bit earlier than I need to in order to ensure that I don’t oversleep at all. Many mornings, I’ll set my alarm a full forty-five minutes to an hour before I actually plan on waking up in the morning because I love pressing the snooze button. It is almost like a game I play between my groggy self still half asleep and dreaming and the alarm clock to see if I can fall back asleep and continue dreaming for the next nine minutes until the alarm goes off again and I, in turn, once again hit snooze. I find joy and satisfaction in knowing that when the alarm goes off I can sleep a little bit later, even if my wife doesn’t find joy in my alarm waking her up! I find joy in knowing that I don’t have to wake up. I appreciate staying in my dream world. However, I also know that this is not reality.

I find a similar message in Swedish disc jockey Avicii’s self-described 2013 “summer anthem,” Wake Me Up! This song suggests that when we are younger, we live in a dream world. We are content not dealing with real life or real life struggles. We feel invincible. The lyrics reveal such a message:

So wake me up when it’s all over

When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself

And I didn’t know I was lost

WakeMeUpImagePopElulThe conclusion to the chorus, and to the song, is telling: I didn’t know that I was lost. The lyrics suggest that this is a realization not only limited our youth. Also as adults, we are lost and don’t even realize it. Sometimes, we think life is fine and we continue on the course we are on. However, it is only after “the alarm” goes off that we become aware to the fact that we must make a change. We do not always know where the journey will take us, but we realize that we are going in the wrong direction. To accept this takes a lot of strength and courage. To hear the alarm, the wake up call, takes even greater awareness.

During the Hebrew month of Elul, which we are about to conclude, Jewish tradition instructs us to blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, every morning. While the shofar is blown one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, participating in this ritual during this month would suggest that hearing it on the New Year would not be a new thing; the staccato blasts would not surprise us, for we heard the same sound every morning this past month. The reason we are taught to hear such a powerful cry each morning is because the shofar, like my alarm, and like this summer anthem, is meant to be our wake up call. It is meant to help us realize that something is not right in this world and something is not right with ourselves. Once we are awake and aware, we can change. Rosh Hashanah is not about becoming awake and aware. That is what this month leading up to the New Year and new beginning has been for. Now that we are awake and aware, as the New Year begins, let us no longer be lost. Let us be willing to change our paths.

We each could use a wake up call. We could each benefit from waking up from our personal and collective slumber, being aware of where we are and where we need to be. Let the sounds of the shofar, the long blasts, the short cries, and the broken staccato, be our alarm. Let us be aware enough to no longer press the snooze button. As we approach the New Year and we become a little bit older, let us also feel wiser. No longer feeling lost, let us find ourselves.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: “Wake Me Up!” by Avicii was released in the United States in June 2013. It has peaked at #1 in twenty-two countries including, Australia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Israel. The song peaked at #7 in the United States while soaring to #1 on Billboard’s Dance/Mix Show Airplay Chart. 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Out of My League

TheLeagueImagePopElulThe League is meant to be the perfect sitcom for guys who hate typical sitcoms. The show focuses around a group of friends in a fantasy football league and prides itself on raunchy inappropriate humor. While I hate to make gender-stereotype assumptions, statistics prove that the show attracts mostly a male audience, although my wife is embarrassed to admit that she enjoys watching the show with me (even if the humor makes her uncomfortable and she doesn’t understand any of the football references.) The show has a sort of cult following, with it already renewed for a sixth season, even though the fifth season hasn’t even premiered yet. The League (along with other shows for a more mature audience, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Legit) will be a part of Fox’s new network, FXX, for the upcoming season, which premieres September 4th of this week. The premiere of the show is on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the first night of the Jewish New Year. This of course means I’ll be DVR’ing the season premiere, but I think there is a greater connection between this show and goals for the Jewish New Year than just sharing a date on the calendar.

The show is all about winning. The goal of each character is to win their fantasy football league. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am all for winning. I am a huge sports fan and very competitive and emotional when watching my favorite teams. I also play fantasy football, although the others in my league will be the first to tell you that I don’t play well! What is troubling about this show (although I also understand that it is intentionally ridiculous) is not the competition, but rather the extreme limits that one will go to for the sake of competition. The league members aren’t just interested in winning. They are interested in crushing their competition. They trash talk. They mock. They embarrass. They make fun. They shame the loser and celebrate at the other’s expense.

Such acts made me realize: do we laugh at people or with people? Do we enjoy the failures of others? Is our success determined by another’s failure? So many of us work in a world where we can only succeed if others fail. Yet, such a cutthroat lifestyle isn’t healthy. If we truly strive to live in a world of peace and harmony, then why must some of us succeed while others fail? Why can’t we work towards success while simultaneously supporting the success of others? Imagine if we all supported each other. Imagine if generosity took over jealousy.

As a child at Jewish summer camp, I used to joke with my peers about the camp’s slogan, “everybody wins.” It’s unrealistic, I thought. Camp is just setting us up to fail. Yet, there is something beautiful about this message, a message that encourages unity and brotherhood, a message that encourages supporting one another instead of destroying one another.

As we conclude the month of Elul and prepare to enter the New Year, let us each take the time to think about the possibility of peace. A big picture vision of world peace may seem impossible and out of our reach, but true peace begins at home. Peace begins with us, when we stop competing and stop always trying to win. Peace does not come from beating the other. Peace comes from helping the other.

I knew by the seventh round of my fantasy football draft that I wasn’t going to win this year. I still laughed and I joked and I had a good time. Life isn’t about winning. Life is about growing. Life is about becoming the best version of ourselves, and doing so as others do the same, instead of doing so at the expense of others. Maybe Jewish summer camp got it right with a vision of “everybody wins.” That is the vision that I will certainly be carrying with me in the year ahead, just maybe not when it comes to fantasy football.

tvpopelulimagePlease Note: “The League,” starring Mark Duplass, Stephen Rannazzisi, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Jon Lajoie, and Katie Aselton, will begin its fifth season on the new network, FXX, on September 4th at 10:30 PM EST. The show is Rated TV-M for sexual encounters, strong language, and drinking, drugs, and smoking. 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Safe and Sound with God

There are those who strive to enter a room, a meeting, or a party fashionably late – not too late to miss out on all the fun, but just late enough to give off the impression that one is so busy doing other things that he or she got delayed. How does a band arrive fashionably late to the music scene? Well for starters, they release a single digitally and then wait two and a half years for it to blow up on radio stations everywhere! Yes, you read that correctly – two and a half years! Capital Cities, the American indie pop pair based out of Los Angeles, California, digitally released their single, Safe and Sound, in February 2011 yet somehow two and a half years later, it finally got air play during the summer of 2013.

CapitalCitiesImagePopElulThis fashionably late arrival to the music scene may be because the song is included on the duo’s debut studio album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, which was released in June at the beginning of summer, thus reintroducing the song to the music world for a second time. Finally, it was included as a track on the Now That’s What I Call Music! Volume 45, the definition of having made it in pop music. So, here they are, two in a half years later and Capital Cities’ Safe and Sound is getting daily airplay on the radio.

 

While the theater performance style of the music video is a little odd (and probably intentionally so,) the song itself, like many pop anthems, is love poetry. The lyrics speak to that love that one has for another:

I could lift you up

I could show you what you wanna see

And take you where you wanna be

You could be my luck

Even if the sky is falling down

I know that we’ll be safe and sound

While some may think that the lyrics of this song are an example of silly puppy love, I see a spiritual statement for I choose to read these lyrics not as a promise between two lovers, but rather as a testament of faith between man and God.

Jewish thought and ritual has a tendency to link romantic symbols and text with God’s relationship to humanity. For example, rabbinic commentary interprets the love poetry of the biblical Song of Songs as speaking of the love between God and the People of Israel. Furthermore, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is observed only weeks from now, we participate in many of the traditional Jewish wedding rituals (wearing white, fasting, saying the liturgical confessional) as if we are renewing our vows to the divine.

Many of us grew up in our respective Houses of Worship being taught that God is our Heavenly Parent, watching over us, rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we do wrong. Not only is such an explanation of our relationship with the divine theologically problematic, it also is not the right analogy of that relationship. I believe that our relationship with whatever our understanding of God is should be defined as a partnership, a spousal relationship, and a mutual commitment to each other. We often turn to God specifically in our time of need, following heartache, illness, or hardship. We are disappointed if we think that God doesn’t answer our prayers or even hear our call. Yet, at the same time, God is also calling out to us, searching for us.

Even at the darkest of moments I prefer to find the light of God. With an understanding and appreciation of the divine, I know that “even if the sky is falling down, I know that we’ll be safe and sound.” This is a statement of faith I make in God, but also a statement of faith that God makes in us.

One of the most revered thinkers and theologians of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, published one of his many works of theology in 1955. The title was not Man in Search of God. Rather, it was more appropriately titled, God in Search of Man. We search for each other in our attempt to have personal revelatory experiences. Even in our darkest moments, we will be safe and sound, comforted in God’s eternal presence. We emphasize this belief in the Psalm for the Season of Repentance, Psalm 27, during this Hebrew month of Elul:

God will hide me in God’s shrine, safe from peril.

The Lord will shelter me beyond the reach of disaster.

Throughout the Season of Repentance, and all year, we turn to God and hope that God turns to us, knowing that with faith in God, and belief that God is by our side, even during the most tumultuous moments of our lives, we will be safe and sound. During these days leading up to the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days, we focus on prayer, Tefillah in Hebrew. The Hebrew verb ‘to pray’ is L’Hitpalel, a reflexive verb, suggesting that to truly find God, we must find ourselves. As the New Year approaches, let us find God and find ourselves.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: Capital Cities hit single, “Safe and Sound” appears on their debut album, “In a Tidal Wave of Mystery.” released this summer under Capitol Records. As of August, the single has sold over a million copies in the United States.

 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The Spectacular Future

TheSpectacularNowImagePopElulThe Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley has been the “indie favorite” of the summer for movie critics. It was warmly received earlier in the year at the 2013 Sundance  Film Festival. I’m not sure what classifies it as “indie.” It may be because Woodley is the film’s biggest star (although she was praised for her role in The Descendants, most wouldn’t consider her headliner material just yet.) It may be that after over a month in limited release, the film still hasn’t even outgrossed its minuscule $2.5 million budget.

Either way, the film has gained much praise from critics and movie-goers, rated 93% out of 100 on the Rotten Tomatoes film review website. Adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, the comedy-drama begins with a character typical of any teenage story. Teller plays Sutter Keely, a high school senior who loves to party and always seems to be the life of the party. After being dumped by his girlfriend, he parties a little too hard, passes out on a lawn, awoken by Aimee Finecky (played superbly by Woodley) figuring out who he is, what he is doing, and if he is okay.

Aimee is the complete opposite of Sutter and the girls that Sutter has previously been romantically involved with. Sutter is the typical example of the “YOLO” culture of milennials. He lives in the now, the spectacular now as the title suggests, and does not worry about the future. He enjoys the present, instead of worrying about college, a career, and a life ahead of him. Aimee meanwhile is a quiet nice girl who spends your time with science fiction books. They attend the same school and he had never noticed her before. Yet, he takes a notice now, and she ends up as the party animal’s ‘rebound’ girlfriend.

Viewers might be confused by the partnership, with one focused on the present and the other dreaming of the future, yet it works. I am sure many of the film waited for the moment that Sutter would break lovable Aimee’s heart, as is typical in many teenage romance dramas. This coming of age story though teaches us an important lesson. As adult, we often need to remind ourselves that we cannot dwell in the past and we cannot only focus on the future because we will miss the present, we will miss experiencing life as we are living it. Yet this film reminds us of the unfortunate reality of only living in the present and not worrying about tomorrow.

To not worry about tomorrow is to not worry about others and not worry about how our actions impact others. While we learn that actions of others (and his challenging relationship with family) has led Teller’s character to only live in the now, he forgets that his own actions have consequences. Aimee helps him realize that and think about the path that he wishes to create for himself.

Late Saturday night, we listened to the equally awe-inspiring and chilling melodies of the Selichot service. This service recited late night on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, is our introduction to liturgy of forgiveness and prayers of a better future. We cannot only live in the now because the now is based on the past. Who we are now and how we act now is a direct result of previous action or inaction. Furthermore, our actions now lead us to who we want to be in the future. So, we reflect and ask ourselves: who do we want to be? What do we want to do? Where do we want to go? The path to get us there must start somewhere. That path begins now.

As we reflect on the future, on the year ahead, and what we want that year to look like, may we also focus on the now, for ultimately, the future begins with now. Now is when we begin to change. Now is when we strive to be the best version of ourselves. We focus on the now not because we do not care about the future. We focus on the now specifically because we care about the future. A spectacular now leads to a spectacular future.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “The Spectacular Now” stars Shailene Woodley, Miles teller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kyle Chandler. Following rave reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the film was produced by 21 Laps Entertainment and distributed by A24. The film is Rated R, for alcohol use, language, and some sexuality, all by teens. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky