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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

Getting the Train back on Track

Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, was really everything I expected it to be – and more. As a fan of Apatow’s previous films and Schumer’s Comedy Central show, I anticipated the crude and vulgar humor. Still, the movie had heart. The film was truly laugh-out-loud funny and yet, I even got a little teary-eyed at the end. The film, the first that Apatow directed that he did not write himself, stars Schumer as a magazine columnist and Bill Hader – who brilliantly transitions from sidekick to leading man – as a sports physician. Schumer’s character profiles Hader’s Aaron — and the career-saving knee surgery he performs for athletes — for the stereotypical men’s magazine that she writes for. Amy sleeps with Aaron, but unexpectedly ends up falling for him.

TrainwreckAmy is the titular trainwreck. Following a speech from her father (played by Colin Quinn) who tells his children that monogamy is impossible, she grows up to drink a lot and sleep around. Not only does she think that true love is impossible, she focuses on “one night stands” because she doesn’t want to get too close to anyone. She worries about what will happen if she lets her guard down and lets other people into her life. If she never lets anyone in, then she will never get hurt.

Aaron refuses to let their relationship be a one night stand and has her stay the night, calls her the next day, and wants to see her again. She doesn’t know what to do. Amy begins to let her guard down, but having never cared for another, she still waits for them to breakup, eventually causing the breakup herself. The film concludes [spoiler alert] as so many romantic comedies do, with her realizing that she loves Aaron and works to reunite with him and get back together. She comes to understand that no relationship is easy or perfect, but she is still willing to try to make it work and attempts to change her ways.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, one thing stood out to me – besides the brilliant comedic turns of John Cena and LeBron James: how others can help us change. Amy refuses to change, but it is only once Aaron enters her life that she realizes, because of him, that change is possible. The Hebrew month of Elul is focused change. This is our opportunity to do teshuvah, to let go of the past and change our ways. This is our opportunity to have a fresh start and be better in the year ahead. However, we often focus on self-reflection during this time of year. We are taught to do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul, and focus on how we can change ourselves. Yet, we forget the impact that our actions have on others.

We are taught that we can’t control others; we can only control ourselves, so we should focus on ourselves. But we live in a world of interconnectivity, a world where we touch each other’s lives, a world where every interaction has consequences. As we seek to change, we have the ability to help others change. Every conversation, every interaction, every moment we experience with another –  those who we are closest to and those who are complete strangers – may influence us, and those we interact with, for the better.

Never underestimate your power to change and never underestimate your power to help others change as well.

moviepopelulimageTrainwreck, written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, was released in the United States by Universal Pictures on July 17, 2015. The film has already grossed over $100 million in North America and its opening weekend was the second biggest debut for Apatow. The film is Rated R for sexual content, partial nudity, and language. Viewer discretion advised.  

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

A Small Step Can Lead to a Big Change

Please excuse me for a second while I geek out. I got rid of my childhood comic book collection over a decade ago, but still love the comic book tales of my youth. I’ve loved seeing these stories come to life on the big screen over the past decade as Marvel launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing movies about incredible – and under appreciated characters – like Ironman, Thor, Captain America, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention bringing them together for mega-event motion pictures like the Avengers films. I have seen each of the Marvel films in theaters – some more than once!

Yet, I admittedly questioned the studio’s decision to give Ant-Man a stand-alone movie. Ant-Man is certainly not one of the most popular Marvel superheroes, even if he was an integral part of the initial Avenger comic books. Funnyman Paul Rudd was an interesting choice to play the lead, but with rumors of turmoil in the writers’ room and on the set, with director Edgar Wright leaving the film over “creative differences,” this movie seemed destined to fail. I couldn’t see how Marvel could make an epic, interesting, action-packed, and funny film about a hero who shrinks down to the size of an insect to save the day. Boy, was I wrong!

AntManMarvel made the right move by having the film focus on Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the second incarnation of Ant-Man, while still choosing to keep Dr. Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) as an integral part of the story as well. The film tells the tale of Lang, a down on his luck ex-con, recently released from prison who attempts to find a stable job to support his daughter. He ends up getting recruited by his old cellmate Luis (played by the hilarious Michael Pena, who stole the show), to break in to a safe. Thinking the safe was full of cash or diamonds, Lang agrees, but it turns out that all he finds is the Ant-Man suit. Hank Pym orchestrated this whole thing to try to convince Scott Lang to become the new Ant-Man.

The technology allows anyone wearing the suit to shrink down to the size of an ant, and gives them super strength – after all, ants can withstand 5,000 times their weight. Pairing the suit’s abilities with the ability to control the actions of different types of ants through radio frequencies, Lang is tasked with stealing the Yellowjacket suit, the attempt of Darren Cross, Pym’s former protégé, to replicate the Ant-Man technology. Pym’s point is that groundbreaking technology in the right hands can change the world for the better, but if it ends up in the wrong hands, it can have a devastating impact.

Ant-Man was the most entertaining Marvel film since Captain America: Winter Soldier, and most fun film since the original Iron Man movie. Ultimately, this film was a film about teshuvah, about repentance and change. Scott Lang was a criminal. He tried to change his ways, but was pulled back into the criminal world.

The ant-man suit allowed him to change for the better, but the suit is also a metaphor for each of us. In order to be a hero, he didn’t need to become an overpowering green giant like the Hulk or become a super soldier like Captain America. He needed to become small, for the greatest changes we make are often the smallest.

We think that in order to change during this High Holy Day season, we need to reinvent ourselves. We believe that our lifestyles and work habits need to change. We fail before we even start, fearing that we can never truly change in the way that we seek. However, a small change can make a great impact. Do not seek to completely change. However, a small change – an ant-sized change, if you will – may have a deep and long-lasting impact. It’s the small steps that allow us to truly change our ways and change who we are.

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Marvel’s Ant-Man is Rated PG-13 for violence, language, and suggestive humor.

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. OIitzky

Letting Go of the Bad Blood

If you pass me on the road, you’ll see me during the summer driving with the windows rolled down, singing along with the radio. Admittedly, a lot of the time this summer, I have been singing along to Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood. This is partially because the song seems to be played on one radio station or another every couple of minutes, and partially because this is Taylor Swift’s latest summer anthem. After all, this isn’t the first time the Pop Elul Project has highlighted Swift’s songs. Last summer, we highlighted the important lesson she teaches in her Shake It Off single, in which she reminds us all to not be bothered by what others say about us or think about us.

Taylor SwiftThis year’s summer anthem Bad Blood, teaches us something different. Another break-up ballad about a relationship gone sour, Swift focuses on the bad blood that now between her and another. Now, she can no longer trust her former significant other.

Yet, her lyrics speak more deeply about how difficult it is for us to let go and forgive. During these Days of Awe, we seek out those that we have wronged and ask for forgiveness. We admit our mistakes and apologize to all those we have wronged, believing that the only way to change is through teshuvah. The only way to be a better version of ourselves is to acknowledge our previous wrongdoings. However, asking for forgiveness is the easy part. We know we have done wrong. We know we want to do better. By admitting our mistakes, we are letting go of the weight on our shoulders, the knot in our stomachs. It is much harder, as the victim, as the one who has been hurt and wronged, to be willing to forgive. It is easier for us to stay angry. It is easier for us to hold a grudge. It is harder to give someone a second chance and a clean slate.

Swift’s hit single says exactly that. She is unable to forgive. She is unable to accept an apology and move on. She sings:

Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes

You say sorry just for show

You live like that, you live with ghosts.

Sometimes though, the opposite of her lyrics are true. Sometimes, we don’t forgive, just for show. Sometimes, we still love the person that wronged us – a family member or friend – but feel like we can’t forgive them. We have to stay strong in our efforts to reject their apologies. Yet, when we live like that, we are the ones living with ghosts. We are the ones stuck in the past.

By apologizing, by doing teshuvah, we – those who have made mistakes and have done wrong to others – have moved on. But by refusing to forgive – by holding a grudge – we refuse to move on. We hang on to the past and while others are changing and striving to be better, we are stuck in neutral.

The Hebrew month of Elul leading up to the Jewish New Year is about change. We need to let go of what we have done wrong in the past, but more importantly, we also need to be willing to let go of what has been done to us as well. We can’t truly move on and give ourselves a much needed fresh start until we are prepared to do so.

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“Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift, featuring Kendrick Lamar, is a single off of Swift’s “1989” album. The music video broke Vevo’s 24-hour viewing period record and received seven MTV Video Music Award nominations.

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. OIitzky

Edge of Today

It took more than two months, but Tom Cruise’s summer blockbuster, Edge Of Tomorrow, finally crossed the $100 million domestic box office mark. The film was deemed a disappointment following its opening weekend when it got trounced by the teen tear jerker The Fault In Our Stars. Yet, by reaching the $100 million mark, the film is certainly a success. In fact, it has been one of Cruise’s most successful films in almost a decade. It is Tom Cruise’s most successful non-Mission Impossible film since 2005’s War Of The Worlds.

I also believe the film was so successful because it was surprisingly entertaining. Previews made it seem like it was an odd pairing of part Starship Troopers and part Groundhog Day, about a soldier (Major William Cage, played by Cruise) who is thrown into battle in the not-so-distant future in an “us or them” combat mission against the aliens that have already destroyed a large percentage of humanity. 

Being sent to battle even though he was never a combat soldier, Major Cage dies almost immediately. Yet, much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, he wakes up at the beginning of the day he dies and starts that day over. Like a character in a video game, he tries to get further every time. With each death, he learns something new, realizes to not make the same mistake twice, and as a result, succeeds where he previously failed. Along the way, he falls in love with special forces warrior Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt). The two work together since Vrataski previously experiened what Cage was dealing with, which was apparently a side effect of being covered in the Alpha Mimic’s blood upon being killed.  

EdgeofTomorrowThe story was more suspenseful than one would expect from a humans vs. aliens action flick. What fascinated me most about the film though was Major Cage’s attempt time and time again to have a “do-over.” He was able to fix his mistakes. [SPOILER ALERT] Yet, as far as he got, as many “do-overs” as he had, he still felt that he and Vrataski were destined to be killed by the aliens. He could delay the inevitable, but didn’t think he could change it. 

If only we could have “do-overs” in life. If only we could make mistakes and not have to worry about the impact or consequences. Instead, we would just keep trying over and over again until we eventually got it right. Life would certainly be a lot easier. But that is not real life. We do not get to rewind and rewrite the script. Life is not a Nintendo game that keeps resetting until Mario saves the princess. Even if we were to get a “do-over” and avoid those makes, the impact would still be felt. Major Cage avoided mistakes and yet still felt that he was only delaying the inevitable. Even in “do-overs,” we still deal with consequences. 

As we look back on the year that has passed and analyze that which we are proud of and that which disappoints us, we accept that we cannot take back what we said, what we did, how we acted, or whom we hurt. We cannot change the consequences of our actions. Attempting to do so only delays the inevitable. We cannot focus on the past. We cannot worry about the future. Instead, we focus on whom we are and how we act today, in the moment. 

Maybe we get “do-overs” after all. We do not go back in time. We do not get to replay interactions over again and change the script. We do, however, get clean slates. Teshuvah, repentance, allows us to let go of those past mistakes and leave them behind. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, many Jews follow the custom of participating in a Tashlich ceremony, in which bread crumbs are thrown into flowing waters. The bread symbolically represents our previous mistakes that we are tossing away. We are starting fresh. We are getting a “do-over.” We cannot start from the beginning and change the past, but we each have the ability to shape the present. We are on the edge of today. We only get one shot at today. How will you shape the present?

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Please Note: “Edge Of Tomorrow” starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and Bill Paxton is Rated PG-13. The film, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, has grossed more than $100 million domestically and well over $300 million worldwide. “Edge of Tomorrow” will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the United States on October 7th, 2014. 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Riding Away From Our Demons

Thanks to Netflix, I no longer have to sit through the sometimes unbearable offerings that networks air during primetime over the summer. Summers are spent binge watching shows on Netflix that I never had the chance to sit down and watch when they first premiered on television. So in just a couple of months, I knocked out six full seasons of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, just in time for the beginning of the seventh and final season, which premieres on Tuesday, September 9th at 10:00 PM on FX . 

Truthfully, I never was interested in watching Sons of Anarchy because I never thought it would be a show I’d be interested in. I figured it would be too violent and too profane, focused on the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club in fictional Charming, California, selling illegal arms from the True Irish Republican Army terrorist organization to gangs and drug dealers throughout the west coast and beyond. Yet, I love the show. I am hooked. Apparently, I am not alone. Sons of Anarchy is FX’s high-rated show ever and it’s season five premiere was the highest-rated telecast in FX history.

SOA PosterThe show centers around protagonist Jax Teller, played by Charlie Hunnam, who serves as Vice President of the MC that was started by his father. Reading his father’s journal, Jax learns to question the club and how it has gone off-course, believing that its actions do not exemplify its original mission. When his high school sweetheart, Dr. Tara Knowles, returns to Charming, their love is rekindled. They live together and raise two children together, yet this pediatric resident at St. Thomas Hospital is not the typical “old lady,” as SOA’s wives are known.

Tara wants Jax to leave SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) so that they can start over. She doesn’t want to raise their children in a world of violence and illegal activity. Jax too is determined to leave, but every time he tries, something pulls him back. Whether it was [SPOILER ALERT] the sexual assault of his mother, the kidnapping of his son, or the immorality of his stepfather that leads to Jax wrestling the club’s presidency away from Clay, Jax cannot leave. As hard as he tries, something keeps pulling him back. And the longer he stays, the more entrenched in a dangerous lifestyle he becomes. Even when Jax realizes he cannot leave, he arranges a deal to plead guilty and let his wife and sons leave Charming. [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT] Still, even this attempt at doing the right thing ends with the brutal murder of his wife.

Jackson Teller never wanted to live a life of crime. He was born into such a life. He tried to change and felt like it was a never-ending uphill battle. It was easier to stay the same, despite the demons that surrounded him and the demon within. 

We too acknowledge that which we do not like about ourselves — what we do and who we associate ourselves with — and are committed to change. We spend the month of Elul committed to doing teshuvah, to repenting, to beginning anew and changing our ways. Yet, more often than not, we don’t change at all. Change is hard. Change is challenging. Change forces us to step out of our comfort zone and accept that which we tried to deny for so long. Change sometimes seems impossible. It is easier to think that change is impossible and not try to change at all. 

But teshuvah is a yearly occurrence. Every year in preparation for the High Holy Days we try to change for the better. A year from now, we will do the same thing, knowing that we did not achieve our goals. Still, we keep trying. We remain committed to being the best version of ourselves. Teshuvah is an ongoing experience. Maybe Jax Teller hasn’t failed at teshuvah. He rides on his motorcycle trying to leave his demons behind. He just hasn’t gotten there yet. 

May we all have the strength to keep riding in the distance, courageous enough to leave behind the parts of us we want to change. Even when detours and roadblocks get in our way, may we never stop riding towards teshuvah

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Please Note: “Sons of Anarchy” starring Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Kim Coates, and Tommy Flanagan, can be seen on FX on Tuesday nights at 10:00 PM. The seventh and final season premieres on September 9th. The show is Rated TV-MA for violence, sexual content, sexually violent acts, sexist and racist insults, and profanity. Viewer Discretion Advised.  

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Forget about Future Past. Focus on Future Present.

One of the most talked about and anticipated superhero blockbusters of the summer was X-Men: Days of Future Past. Part of the excitement was a result of the movie’s plot, based on The Uncanny X-Men comic book story arc from the early 1980’s of the same title . The movie also serves as a sequel to 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and the 2011 franchise reboot, X-Men: First Class. The storyline also brings together the younger and older versions of some of X-Men’s most iconic characters, with, as a result of Wolverine’s time travel, both James McAvoy  and Patrick Stewart starring as Professor Xavier and Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen starring as Magneto.

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterThe movie begins in an apocalyptic future in which Sentinel robots have exterminated the majority of the world’s mutants. The remaining X-Men have even joined forces with Magneto and his band of villains, to help each other try to survive. In 1973 Mystique assassinated the creator of the Sentinels, in an attempt to prevent this mutant destroying robots. The assassination backfired though. Following the assassination, she was captured, and the government used her shape-shifting DNA to make the Sentinels invincible and all powerful.

The solution is to have Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde use her powers to send Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine back to 1973 (or at least send his consciousness back in time since he never ages) and prevent Mystique from assassinating the Sentinels’ creator. Like the Butterfly Effect theory, their belief is that stopping this assassination will change the course of history.

[SPOILER ALERT] They were right. Wolverine saved the day, as we knew he would. The Sentinels disappeared from the future entirely and we see a future in which the mutants are living and teaching in Professor Xavier’s previously destroyed and abandoned School for Gifted Youngsters in peace and harmony and even characters that were killed in prior films, like Jean Grey and Cyclops, are alive and well.

The movie is exciting and was one of the best reviewed films in the X-Men franchise. Aside from the fighting, explosions, and CGI special effects, the plot is an opportunity to complete change our past, something that all of us wish we could do. If only we could all have a mutant send our consciousness back in time to change our past mistakes. If only we could go back in time and right our wrongs. If only we truly understood the long term impact and consequences of our actions maybe we would’ve acted differently in the first place. But there is no going back in time. There is no changing the past to shape the future.

This time of year has never really been about changing the past. Rather, the Hebrew month of Elul and the Days of Awe, are about accepting our mistakes of the past. We accept the past and acknowledge that our actions and in some cases, inactions, have brought us to this moment. The beauty of the Jewish New Year is that it is an opportunity to begin anew. We are renewed and refreshed. We have a clean slate. Through teshuvah, repentance, we not only seek forgiveness from God and from those that we have wronged, but we seek forgiveness from ourselves. Once we truly can forgive ourselves for past mistakes, we are able to focus on who we are in the present. What the future holds is determined by our actions here and now. While we cannot change the past, we can begin anew by changing who we are and how we act in the present. May we have the strength to forgive ourselves for mistakes of the past and the courage to do true teshuvah, in order to change who we are in the present.

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Please Note: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellan, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender is Rated PG-13. The film, produced by 20th Century Fox, has grossed over $230 million in North America and over $740 million worldwide.

 

 

– 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

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

“We Can’t Stop” Encourages us to Finally Stop

WeCantStopImagePopElulI have a confession to make: I am a big fan of Miley Cyrus’ summer hit, We Can’t Stop. I love the beat, but I am disturbed by the lyrics, about non-stop partying and references to drug use. I am disturbed about the lessons it is teaching the many tween-age and teenage children that listen to Miley Cyrus’ music. She was a star who kids looked up to when she played the title role in Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana. I even bopped my head along to her summer anthem of 2009, Party in the USA, which focused on her transition from a small-town country western girl to a star in the big city of Los Angeles. A lot has changed in four years. Party in the USA spoke about butterflies in her stomach and feeling nervous about the big city life. We Can’t Stop takes a dark turn (even if it offers a catchy melody,) that suggests:

It’s our party, we can do what we want.

It’s our party we can say what we want.

The song continues to express lyrics about drugs, drinking, and all-night partying. Miley and her friends make up their own rules. No one can stop her. No one can keep her silent. However, the lyrics of this song, and the actions of the performer in her music video are a far cry from the wholesome Hannah Montana of only a few years ago.

How is it possible that radio stations can be playing a song (and it gets played every twenty minutes or so on the radio) without being concerned with the implications of its lyrics?! She is participating in the all too trendy, YOLO culture. YOLO, standing for “You Only Live Once,” is an unfortunate slogan of a generation that believes they are invincible; its a slogan of a generation that believes there are no consequences for their actions.

Ultimately, the message of the song is that she is going to continue to do what she is doing. She is not going to stop because others are commenting about her. She is not going to stop because others are criticizing her. Even if she is acting inappropriately and immaturely (despite how catchy her music is) and even if she is admitting illegal, offensive, and promiscuous behavior, it is not up to others to judge her. Frankly, she is right. She sings:

Remember only God can judge ya. 

Forget the haters ‘cause somebody loves ya.

Despite her actions and my disappointment in a teen pop star promoting such actions, she is spot on. We spend a lot of time judging other people. We spend a lot of time criticizing other people. Maybe the underlying message is not that we should never stop partying. Rather, for us, the message is that we can’t stop judging the actions and decisions of others as hard as we try. That is why it is so hard for each of us to not speak Lashon Harah, to slander. That is why it is so hard for us not to speak about others behind their backs. It is easy for us to be critical because it is a lot easier to criticize others than to look in the mirror and deal with our own lives and our own challenges.

This does not mean that the action of such celebrities should be celebrated or accepted. What it does mean though is that it is not our job to focus on their actions. Our task is to focus on our own actions. Our job to first focus on ourselves instead of focusing on others. During Elul, as we do Teshuvah, as we repent, as we make New Year’s Resolutions and focus on how we want to change our ways, we shouldn’t worry about how others need to change their ways. We each have plenty that we need to improve on. We each can be better in the year ahead. So, instead of judging others, let us remember that the it is God that truly judges our actions. How will you be judged this year? While Miley Cyrus belts out that we can’t stop, may we finally stop. May we stop judging others. May we stop worry about others and instead focus on being the best version of ourselves.

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Please Note: “We Can’t Stop” is the lead single on Miley Cyrus‘ upcoming album entitled “Bangerz” and makes references to drugs and drinking.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky