Rosh Hashanah New Year graphic
Image via Shutterstock

Preparing for the New Year: The Pop Elul Project

by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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.

In our busy lives, we rarely have time for such reflection. We have time for Twitter and TMZ, we have time to watch what is on our DVR and catch a late showing at the movie theater, but we don’t have time for ourselves. If we make time for pop culture, but not time for ourselves, my hope is that through pop culture, we can also spiritually prepare ourselves for renewal. Using themes found in music, movies, and television, The Pop Elul Project allows us – regardless of our faith – to reflect, find the good in ourselves and in the world.

Life is a House of Cards
Out of My League
Safe and Sound with God
The Spectacular Future
Zombies for Peace
The Butler Did It
Breaking Good
Starting our Spiritual Journeys
Ugly Little Lies
From Hopeless to Hopeful
Suppressing our Inner Demons
Stop Trying to be The Millers!

House of CardsImage via Wikipedia

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 Cards. House 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.

The 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.

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.

The LeagueImage via Wikipedia

Out of My League

The 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.

Please 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.

Capital Cities Safe and SounImage via Wikipedia

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.

This 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.

Please 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.

spectacular nowImage via Wikipedia

The Spectacular Future

The 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.

Please 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.


World War Z poster detailImage via Wikipedia

Zombies for Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Butler movie posterImage via Wikipedia

The Butler Did It

Early 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.

Please 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.

Walter White Breaking BadImage via Wikipedia

Breaking Good

This 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.

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.

monsters university banner Image via Wikipedia

Starting our Spiritual Journeys

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

mosnters u

Images via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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


Pretty Little Liars banner Image via Wikipedia

Ugly Little Lies

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

The show, based on the teen novels of the same name, follows four teenage girls part of a clique that is lost without their ring leader. The queen bee, Alison DiLaurentis (played by Sasha Pieterse,) disappears and as time passes by, the four other girls begin receiving mysterious messages from someone named “A” who threatens to expose their secrets. The girls originally think “A” is Alison as she is the only one who knows their secrets. However, when [Spoiler Alert] Alison’s body is found, they are concerned that someone else knows about their wrongdoings. The series focuses on their attempts to find out what happened to Alison, but more importantly for them, to find out who the true identity of “A.”

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

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

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

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


Mumford and sons Image via Featureflash /

From Hopeless to Hopeful

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

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

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

You heard my voice I came out of the woods by choice
Shelter also gave their shade
But in the dark I have no name

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

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

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

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

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

So when your hope’s on fire
But you know your desire
Don’t hold a glass over the flame
Don’t let your heart grow cold
I will call you by name
I will share your road

Psalm 27 reminds us of the same thing:

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

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

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


Imagine Dragons band Image via Joe Seer /

Suppressing our Inner Demons

Imagine Dragons, the Las Vegas-based alternative rock band has taken the country by storm over the past year. While the band, which was formed in Provo, Utah, has been performing together since 2008, the band released its debut album, Night Visions, in the United States, last Labor Day. The first hit single from the album, “It’s Time,” reached #15 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The album itself reached #2 on the Billboard 200 chart and was #1 on both Billboard’s alternative list and Billboard’s rock list.

Their second single, “Radioactive,” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 list and Rolling Stone even referred to the song as the biggest rock hit of the year. Their latest single to be heard on the radio is entitled “Demons.”

The lyrics speak about the “demon” inside each of us. While that is a word that I prefer not to use or associate with our inner-selves, I do agree with the lyrics that we each have within us, the ability to do good and to do evil, the opportunity to choose right or choose wrong. The artists sing:

I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide

The chorus continues with the same theme:

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
Its where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
Its dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

Imagine Dragons’ new single focuses on the part of us, deep inside of us, that leads us to do. For some it is more extreme than others, but we all have these demons inside us.

There is an old story told in Native American communities. It recounts the story of a chief telling a group of young men about what goes on inside each of us. He says, “It’s like two dogs fighting inside of us. There is one good dog who wants to do what is right and the other dog always wants to do what’s wrong.” He adds, “Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and will win the fight. Sometimes the bad dog is stronger. Who is going to win?” He answers his own rhetorical question: “The one you feed the most.”

Judaism teaches a similar lesson. The Kabbalists, Jewish Mystics, believe that each of us have inside us a Yetzer HaRah, an evil inclination, and a Yetzer HaTov, a good inclination. The scale of our willingness to do good and to do bad is balanced equally inside us. This is the reason that we make great choices at times and make mistakes that we learn to regret at other times. Those whom we surround ourselves with impacts whether the scale within us tips towards a life of blessings or a life of mistakes. Our goal is to make good decisions and to surround ourselves with those who will help us make good decisions. Our good is to surround ourselves with teachers, mentors, friends, and peers who will make the Yetzer HaTov inside each of us outweigh the Yetzer HaRah. Our goal is that the good within us outweighs the bad.

I believe — as our tradition believes — that we need to accept such demons, such an inclination to do evil, inside us. Our goal in the New Year isn’t to ignore them. Rather, it is to suppress them so that the good inclination will forever outweigh the evil inclination. If we are able to successfully do this, then we can celebrate living in a world of goodness and blessing, inside of a world full of suffering and evil. Let us suppress our evil inclination and always strive to only do good.

Please Note: Imagine Dragons new single, “Demons,” appears on their album Night Visions. Night Visions was released on September 4, 2012 by Interscope Records. While the lyrics of songs found on this album deal with dark themes, they are also profanity-free.


Millers banner Image via Wikipedia

Stop Trying to be The Millers!

I saw We’re The Millers this week, the current comedy now in theaters produced by Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema. While overall, I found the movie to be pretty funny, I warn you that the humor of this R-rated film was raunchy and inappropriate for children. The film centers around a small town hapless drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis) who, in order to settle a debt, agrees to be a drug smuggler, bringing a “smidge and a half” of Marijuana across the Mexican-US border. Concerned that he looks too much like a smuggler and would get stopped at the border, and fearing he’d subsequently be thrown in prison for eternity for such an illegal act, he recruits a band of misfits for help. This drug dealer is joined by an exotic dancer (Jennifer Aniston,) a homeless girl living on the streets (Emma Roberts,) and a teenage boy with nothing better to do (Will Poulter,) as they transform into the All-American “perfect family,” the Millers.

Traveling over the border in an RV, the belief was that this perfect family of four would never be stopped by the Border Police. Little did they know that this “smidge and a half” of Marijuana was actually an RV full of pot. Furthermore, they were not drug smugglers. Instead, they were drug thieves, actually stealing the drugs from Mexican drug lord Pablo Chacon (played by Tomer Sisley).

We're The Millers posterWhile I don’t want to spoil the ending, I think we can all assume a happily ever after conclusion to this comedy. I cannot promise that they change their ways and stop their illegal activity. However, these characters realize how much they each have been missing, living life alone. They realize how fortunate they are for this family, even if it is a fake family full of oddballs and rebels.

Throughout the movie, as they continue to be the fake Miller family, they realize that they desire familial love. Fake father David and fake mother Rose are actually concerned about their fake children, and actually learn to love each other after loathing each other as apartment building neighbors for years. Fake siblings Casey and Kenny look out for each other and stick up for one another.

They realize though that being “the Millers” is no happily ever after fairytale either. They accept that there is no such thing as a perfect family. They are much better off being themselves, instead of trying to be someone else. So many of us try to be “the Millers.” We try to be the perfect family and we try to present an ideal image to the public, but every family has its challenges. Ultimately, it is those challenges that define us, that strengthen us, that make us who we are. No family is “perfect.” Yet, each family is perfect! There is no definition of what is perfect. There is no such thing as ideal. Instead, there are family units who love each other, who deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday life, and whose love only increases because of these trials and tribulations.

As the New Year approaches, let us spend less time focusing on who we think we are supposed to be, concerned with how others view us. Instead, let us focus on the love we have for each other and celebrate that love. Let us celebrate our family, no matter what that family looks like. Let’s stop trying to be “the Millers” and instead, just be ourselves.

Please Note: We’re the Millers was released by Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema on August 7th, 2013 in the United States and has already grossed close to $50 million at the box office. The movie is rated R for crude sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, and brief graphic nudity. The film continues a lot of swearing and inappropriate situations.


Reprinted by permission of The Pop Elul Project.

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 You can follow him on Twitter at @JMOlitzky

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