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Let Our Own Actions Define Us

I enjoy binge-watching shows. Instead of waiting from week-to-week for the latest installment, binge-watching allows a viewer to appreciate the whole arc of a storyline all at once. My young daughter has a very different view on what binge-watching means. As a preschooler, the shows and movies she watches are limited so instead of binge-watching a season, she instead opts to watch the same thing over and over and over again.

Her latest obsession is Disney’s Descendants, a Disney Channel Original Movie that we stumbled upon while searching the On-Demand menu for some of her favorite cartoons. She was excited about the premise, as it focused on the children of her favorite fairy tale Disney characters, and the concept was cute, even if it continued to reinforce Disney’s hetero-normative culture.

DescendantsDescendants is a musical about how the children of Disney royalty — the son of Belle and Beast, the daughter of Aurora and Philip, the son of Cinderella and Charming, and even Dopey’s son — interact with the children of Disney villians — the children of Malificent, the Evil Queen, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil — at a prep school. It’s the cheesiness of High School Musical meets the Magic Kingdom. And yet, my daughter loves it, and insists on watching it again and again. While it may be that these Disney Channel show tunes are stuck in my head from watching the television movie so many times, I have to admit that some of the songs are even catchy.

The story takes place in the fictional United States of Auradon. Following the marriage of Belle to the Beast, they united all kingdoms and were elected Queen and King of this united kingdom. They sent all villains and their henchmen to the Isle of the Lost, an island ghetto where they wouldn’t be able to practice their evil magic. In turn, the royalty of Auradon seemed to be at peace and didn’t have to interact with the villains or their families. When Ben, Belle and Beast’s teenage son, is about to be crowned king, he decides that his first proclamation is to allow the children of villains to return to Auradon, believing that they shouldn’t suffer for their parents crimes. The children are tasked by their parents, led by Malificent (played by Kristin Chenoweth) with stealing Fairy Godmother’s wand in order to get the villains off the island so that they can take control of Auradon. The story is a “will they or won’t they” with an always-predictable Disney ending. Instead of following in their parents’ footsteps, they decide that they want to be good and do good. They don’t want to be defined by their parents. They want to be their own selves.

While the outcome is predictable — and the ending remains the same no matter how many times my daughter and I watch it — the lesson is important. We shouldn’t be judged based on the actions of another. We are often referred to as someone’s child, sibling, or spouse. But we are not them. While our parents and families certainly nurture us and guide us, that does not mean we need to be defined by them. We strive to hold on to the blessings that family gives us and teaches us, but we cannot carry the burden of their past mistakes. The yoke of their errors is too heavy to carry. Whom they are, how they act, and what they believe is not necessarily whom we are. The Torah reaffirms such an idea. We learn in Deuteronomy 24:16 that a parent should not be punished for the transgressions of a child and a child should not be punished for the transgressions of a parent.

We spend these days leading up to the High Holy Days by letting go of our burdens. We let go of our pasts, but most importantly, we need to let go of the pasts of others that we hold on to and carry with us. Their pasts are not our pasts. We need to be our true selves and not worry about who others are.

As we begin the new year with a clean slate, may we be proud to be ourselves instead of worrying about being viewed as somebody else. May we judge all solely based on their own actions and not based on anyone else’s. After all, even the child of an evil villain can become Disney royalty.

tvpopelulimageDescendants premiered on the Disney Channel on July 21, 2015 and is available to watch on the Disney Channel or On-Demand. 

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-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