Images via Shutterstock, IMDB.com & Wikipedia

A new year, a new you

by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

We find comfort in the fictional worlds created by Hollywood. Whether we are actors, writers, producers, or simply fans, we escape in these fictionalized worlds, the fantasies we watch in movie theaters, the episodic narratives that we follow week-to-week on television, and the lyrical stories told through song. Escaping in these fictional worlds allows us to bury the challenges of reality, to ignore that which we must face in life.

However, these worlds that we immerse ourselves in, these worlds created by Hollywood, offer us important lessons in life as well. Jewish tradition teaches that during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month we are currently in, leading up to the High Holy Days and the Jewish New Year, we dedicate ourselves to reflection, repentance, and renewal through acts of justice and wrestling with the divine. We look for the good inside ourselves and accept those things we’ve done wrong, in hopes that we will change in the year ahead.

Film, television, and music are more than simply entertainment. Such pop culture offers insight into our lives and lessons to help us mold into a better version of ourselves. The Pop Elul Project uses themes found in movies, music, and television to reflect on who we are and who we want to be, and regardless of our faiths, find the good in ourselves and the good in the world. ​

Edge of Today
Walking together
Riding away from our demons
We would all be better off if we learned to just ‘Shake It Off’
Don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong
Forget about Future Past. Focus on Future Present.

 Edge of TomorrowImage via IMDB.com

Edge of Today

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 mistakes, 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?

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.

Walking DeadImage via IMDB.com

Walking Together

My latest binge watching experience on Netflix is AMC’s The Walking Dead. I must admit: I wasn’t so interested in checking out a television show that seemed like an episodic horror movie. However, after traveling through Atlanta this summer and seeing the show being filmed, I figured I had to give it a try. With stars of the hit show appearing on last week’s cover of Entertainment Weekly, I knew I made the right decision making The Walking Dead my latest show of choice.

My binge watching hasn’t progressed as fast as I would like though, so I won’t be revealing any spoilers here. In fact, I had to put the issue of Entertainment Weekly aside. I couldn’t read a preview of Season Five of the hit TV show until I was all caught up to speed with previous episodes.

The show is eerie, suspenseful, and fun. The beginning of the show had me hooked immediately. After Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma in an abandoned hospital, he quickly comes to terms with the fact that the zombie apocalypse has arrived. He heads to Atlanta where he was told that the government set up a safe and protected compound. He was told wrong. Rick ends up causing a swarm of zombies to surround the mall where he and other scavengers were searching for resources. Determined to clean up the mess he made and get the group of survivors out of the city safely, Rick recruits Glenn and together, they smother themselves in zombie guts in order to walk the Atlanta streets undetected by the undead. They all return back to the encampment safely, all except for racist redneck Merle Dixon. After getting into a scuffle with T-Dog, Rick took charge and handcuffed Merle to pipes on the roof. That is where they left him.

Most of the group was not disappointed. Merle Dixon was a racist and a bigot. He criticized decisions made by the group of survivors. He selfishly took advantage of limited resources instead of sharing them with the group. They didn’t mind that Merle was left behind, but Merle’s brother Daryl was determined to go back and find him. Even T-Dog, who was physically and emotionally beaten by Dixon, acknowledged that Dixon was alive and it was “on” them to save him. He felt guilty for dropping the handcuff key. Rick, on the other hand, was prepared to return to Atlanta because he believed that no one should be left behind. Even after being reunited with his son and wife whom he thought were gone and dead, he was prepared to leave again to save someone he left behind. Rick takes charge as the new de facto leader and leads by example, explaining that the group has a responsibility to look after all.

This lesson is a lesson that all communities need to be reminded of. I hope that all communities draw a hard line in the sand, understanding that there is no place for the bigotry and hatred that the character Merle Dixon exudes in holy spaces and holy communities. That being said, this lesson reminds us that many different people and many different types of people make up a holy community. We all don’t come all the time and we all don’t come for the same reasons. We have different beliefs, different ideologies, and different ways of connecting to community and connecting with the Divine. True community creates entry points for each of us and allows for each of us to feel at home. True community, like the survivors in The Walking Dead, looks for the talents of all individuals and is concerned about the well-being of all individuals. We at Congregation Beth El are committed to welcoming all those interested in becoming a part of our community, regardless of observance, faith, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, or gender identity. A true community walks together and ensures that there is a place for each individual.

Rick’s goal is not to love everyone in their makeshift community. He doesn’t even like many of them. But he looks out for all of them. And when they fight the zombie epidemic that has taken the vast majority of humanity, when they fight the walking dead, they walk together.

In just a matter of weeks, Jews all over the world will gather in synagogues to celebrate the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, the holiest and most sacred days on the Hebrew calendar. We gather together for worship and greet so many new and familiar faces. We do not pray alone. We do not celebrate alone. We come together because community is what strengthens our Jewish identities and keeps us connected to faith. But community only thrives if we ensure that everyone feels like they belong in our communities. Community is only successful if we make sure we don’t leave anyone behind.

As we open up the doors — figuratively and literally — to many of our communal houses of worship in the weeks ahead and we walk on a path towards the New Year, let us make sure that there is room on this journey for us all. As we walk on this journey, let us walk together.

Please note: The Walking Dead starring Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, and Jon Bernthal can be seen on on Sunday nights on AMC. The fifth season premieres on October 12th. Various episodes of this show are Rated TV-14 and TV-MA for excessive violence, profanity, and sexual content. Viewer Discretion Advised.

Sons of AnarchyImage via IMDB.com

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 premiered 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.

The 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.

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 show is Rated TV-MA for violence, sexual content, sexually violent acts, sexist and racist insults, and profanity. Viewer Discretion Advised.

Taylor SwiftImage via Wikipedia

We would all be better off if we learned to just ‘Shake It Off’

Taylor-Swift-Shake-It-OffWhile still celebrated for her acknowledged responsibility to be conscious of her influence on young fans, she has also been criticized for choices she has made and how such choices are viewed by those fans. Some say that she dates too many other celebrities and musicians. Others have criticized her for being “dorky” and “neurotic.” Throughout her entire career as a pop star, from Kanye West literally stealing the stage to critics commenting on everything she does, Taylor Swift just smiles politely.

Her new single though, “Shake It Off”, answers these critics by essentially saying that you can’t sweat the small stuff. Her song lists many of the complaints critics have written in blogs, newspapers, and magazines:

I stay up too late, got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, that’s what people say
I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say, that’s what people say

She is no longer just politely smiling and pretending that she doesn’t hear such criticism. She is acknowledging that she hears what people say and despite, putting on a smile, words can hurt. Still, her message is a powerful one: it doesn’t matter what they say. She is not going to change because she is happy with who she is.

She sings:

But I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music in my body and it’s gonna be alright
Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off
Heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break
And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

We know that the childhood mantra of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is not true. Names do hurt. Gossiping, spreading rumors, and speaking ill will about someone can do a great deal of damage. As a result, we are too often overly concerned with what others think of us. We want to be accepted by all. We want them to speak highly of us and we fear if the opposite happens. We fear others talking about us behind our backs.

Taylor Swift’s new single, besides being really catchy, gives us permission to let go of what others think of us. She encourages listeners to not be bothered by what others think. Be proud of who you are, not who others want you to be. Just shake off what they say and don’t let such negativity stick to you. We would all be better off if we could do that.

The Hebrew month of Elul allows us to look back on the year that has passed as we prepare to change our ways in the year ahead. As we do so though, let us change what we want to change about ourselves, not what others pressure us to change. Let us each be proud of the individuals that we are, as well as the individuals that we strive to be. And when someone criticizes you, learn to just shake it off.

Please note: “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift is the first single off of Swift’s upcoming fifth studio album, 1989. The song premiered during a Yahoo! live stream only a couple of weeks ago. The music video was released the same day on YouTube. As a result, the song debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it Taylor Swift’s second #1 single in the United States.

Nico and VinzImage via Wikipedia

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong

When A-ha hit it big almost thirty years ago with their breakthrough single Take On Me, no one could’ve predicted that we would have to wait until now for another Norwegian pop sensation to top the Billboard charts. However, that has happened with Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong“. The song has been getting airplay on radio stations all summer with many deejays even calling it this summer’s anthem.

The truth is this duo from Oslo first released this single in April 2013 under the group name Envy. When artists Nico Sereba and Vincent Dery signed with Warner Bros. Records and ventured into the international market, they changed their name to Nico & Vinz. Their hit single is a rhetorical question, but also an important mantra to live by, especially during this month of cheshbon hanefesh, self-reflection.

The pop song begins with the lyrics:

Am I wrong, for thinking out the box from where I stay?
Am I wrong, for saying that I choose another way?
I ain’t trying to do what everybody else doin’
Just ‘cause everybody doin’ what they all do
If one thing I know, I’ll fall but I’ll grow
I’m walking down this road of mine, this road that I call home.

We often feel stuck in a particular stage or situation in life. This is what others decided our lives should be like. This is the box that they put us in. Or maybe this is the box that we have put ourselves in. We feel it is impossible to change. So we conform. We act as others do. We walk down another’s path without thinking about it, without willing to create our own path.

As a result, we never try to change. The powerful reminder of the Hebrew month of Elul and this High Holy Day season is that we all must look inward for self-reflection. No one is perfect. Even the kindest and most righteous among us still must strive to change for the better. We are taught not to settle. Rather, we must strive to be the best version of ourselves. We are afraid to do something different. We are afraid to change. It is easier, as the lyrics suggest, to do what everyone else is doing. But what is right for another is not necessarily right for someone else. One’s path is not the same as another’s path.

We avoid change — even change for the better — because we fear failure. Nico & Vinz also remind us that I’ll fall but I’ll grow. The road to become the best version of ourselves is not necessary a straight path. It is a bumpy road with detours along the way. However, just because it is bumpy, that doesn’t mean we don’t take the journey.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong for doing something different, for trying something new, for changing your ways. In the year ahead, may we all be brave enough to think outside the box and walk down our own roads. May we have the courage to fall and to fail, so that we can ultimately grow as a result. This time next year, may we look inward and  comfortably say “I am right” without worrying about being wrong.

Please note: “Am I Wrong” by Nico & Vinz was originally released internationally in April 2013. The music video was released via YouTube in June 2013 and has been viewed over sixty million times. The song topped out at #1 on Shazam’s Top 100 worldwide and peaked at #4 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart this summer.

X-menPhoto via IMDB.com

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 completely 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.

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

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

About Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky currently serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ, where he lives with his wife, daughter and son. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Olitzky believes in creating multiple entry points to discuss issues of faith and God, including his Pop Elul Project. He blogs regularly at rabbiolitzky.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JMOlitzky

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