Monthly Archives: September 2012

Let the Melodies Linger…

I threw a wish in the well, Don’t ask me,

I’ll never tell I looked to you as it fell, And now you’re in my way
I’d trade my soul for a wish, Pennies and dimes for a kiss,

I wasn’t looking for this, But now you’re in my way
Your stare was holdin’, Ripped jeans, skin was showin’

Hot night, wind was blowin’ Where you think you’re going, baby?
Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy, But here’s my number, So call me, maybe?

We all have that song that we can’t seem to get out of our heads. The lyrics, the melody. It doesn’t matter if it’s catchy. It doesn’t matter if it is your type of music. You hear it on the radio enough times, and it is stuck in your head. It is played on commercials and at sporting events. It seems to never get old. That is the power of a song and of a melody. The words are stuck in stay with you. For me, that song is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” I have to admit, it is quite catchy. It is all quite silly. The words have no meaning to me, no real significance. Yet, the melody has been stuck in my head morning, noon, and night for months and I can’t forget it if I tried. This song has been playing on just about every radio station, every five minutes, for the past couple of months. It reached #1 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, with over 8.3 million copies of the song sold, and is one of the best-selling digital singles of all time.

There is something powerful about getting that melody stuck in your head. That is how you remember the lyrics, and ultimately, the message behind the lyrics. I first learned the Aleinu prayer as a child before I could even read Hebrew. Coming to services with my parents week after week, that melody would start: Aleinu Leshabe’ach La’adon Hakol… and then I would just go into autopilot.

The power of melody, is that we remember. In the second grade, song is how I learned the fifty states. A catchy melody helps you remember them in alphabetical order: “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut…” Song was how I learned the order of the Presidents of the United States while in the fifth grade: “Washington, Adams; Washington, Adams; Jefferson Oh; Jefferson Oh; James Madison; James Madison; James Monroe; James Monroe; John Quincy Adams, Ooh Ooh…”

So too, in Moses’ last opportunity to address the Jewish people, he doesn’t offer a final statement, give a final state of the union address. He doesn’t give a final sermon from the pulpit. Instead, he chooses to share parting words with the children of Israel, with the Jewish people that he lead out of Egypt, out of slavery, that he led through the wilderness for forty years, turning a people into a nation, through song.

Parashat Vayeilech ends with the following verse:

Vaydaber Moshe b’Oznei Kol Kahal Yisrael et Divrei Hashira Hazot ad Tumam

And Moses recited in the ears of the entire congregation of Israel, the words of this song.

Most rabbinic commentators explain that Moses actually offered a poem because the meaning of the words is difficult to make sense of. If it is an allegory or uses odd imagery, then it must be a poem, they conclude. Additionally, we do not know the melody of this swan song. All we have is the melody of the Torah trope that we use when we read from the Torah scroll. Yet, I imagine Moses, before he ascends atop Har Nevo, Mount Nebo, singing to his people, in the same way a parent sings a nighttime lullaby to a child, protecting them from nightmares.

Moses’ song, found in Parashat Ha’azinu begins with these words:

Ha’azinu Hashayim va’adaberah v’tishma haaretz imrei fi

Give ear oh Heavens and let me recite and let the earth hear what I am saying.

The message of the song is Moses’ attempt to tell the Jewish people that the journey hasn’t been easy. In fact it has been quite bumpy. And certainly, entering the land of Israel that is inhabited by other nations, it won’t get any easier. Still, even if the journey has been one of doubt, and there will be times in our lives in which we doubt, and it is difficult at times to see God as the ideal, we must have faith in God even while the world remains imperfect. This is the message of Moses’ song.

And so after the final words of this song are sung, Moses says to the people Israel:

Simu l’vavchem l’chol hadevarim asher anochi me’ed bachem hayom asher t’tzav’vum et beineichem lishmor la’asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot.

Take to heart all the words of this song which I have warned you about and enjoin them upon your children so that future generations may follow the words of the Torah as well and find meaning in it.

Essentially, Moses is saying: Listening to the words I’ve sung, and sing them again. Allow the melody to get stuck in your head so that the message of Torah, and the meaning of Torah, stays with you… just like “Call Me Maybe” gets stuck in my head.

After an spiritually meaningful and inspirational High Holidays, I love to reflect on the experience itself. It amazes me, year after year, that the melodies and much of the piyyutim, the liturgical songs and poetry of the High Holy Days, are distinct for this time of year, reserved specifically the Days of Awe. We hear these melodies for three days and then they return to the back of our minds. We retire them until this same time next year. Yet, it amazes me that with one note, one short syllable sung by the Hazzan, we sing the words of Kol Nidre or the U’netaneh Tokef as if the melody is fresh in our minds, as if they are words that we recite daily.

So too when we think of the melody, when we sing the melody, the themes of the High Holy Days return to us. That is the power of melody. That is the power of music. So what are the messages of these high holidays that we remember through song and through music?

We are reminded that we are imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for perfection. We embrace a loving God that accepts us for who we are, rather than who we are not, a God that knows that we try to be better, even when we fail.

We strive to strengthen our relationships with those around us, friends and family, acquaintances, those relationships that are strong and those relationships that need work. We bring ourselves closer to God through repenting, by not being afraid to say “I’m sorry,” I made a mistake, by helping others and giving to others, without expecting anything in return, and by making time in our lives to talk to God – not just in the synagogue, but in our homes, while we are lying awake at night in our beds and while we are sitting outdoors among the trees. Allow ourselves to wrestle with God.

So instead of driving in the car and singing “Call Me Maybe” at the top of our lungs, in the coming days and weeks following the Yamim Noraim, these days of Awe, maybe we should hold unto these melodies of the High Holy Days and sing them at the top of our lungs. With the windows rolled up, we think no one will hear us, but God hears us. And just as the power of melody and song allowed Moses to leave a lasting imprint on the Jewish people, let the power of the music and liturgy of the High Holy Days allow us remain on a high, an elevated state, continuing to feel a close connection to God, to community, to ourselves.

After Neilah on Yom Kippur we tend to exhale. We loosen the tie, take off our shoes, have a bagel and shmear, and just like that, life goes back to normal. Instead, let the melodies linger and let the message of the music, of our liturgy, of the melodies, stay with us, and continue to sing the words of the High Holy Days proudly. Now that we are given this opportunity for a new year, what are we going to do with it? Just as Moses sang loud to get his message across, led us continue to sing as well, and let the words of song, lead to action.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky



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What does the Future hold?

I love this time of year, because I love watching television! I spend weeks before the new fall tv shows premeire searching online for new shows and deciding which ones I’ll try, which ones I’ll write off, and which ones I’ll have to DVR because they conflict with a show that I’ve already committed to. Following Rosh Hashanah, I watched the premiere of the new NBC show, Revolution. I had recorded it since it premiered over Rosh Hashanah (I guess no one at NBC consulted me!) This show is the type of show that I love. Set in the not so distant future, it is a science fiction tale about what the world will be like. This particular show deals with a world in which electricity stops working and thus, all those things that we are so dependent on: cars, phones, lights bulbs, computers, planes, trains, etc. cease to exist. Not surprisingly I’m sure, without these things, some are at peace, but mostly, the future is a dystopian society, a society of unrest, a society of violence and warfare, a society filled with hate.

I love entertainment and pop culture– movies, tv, and books. I began thinking about all those movies, television shows, and novels that focus on the future: from 1984 to the recent Hunger Games and everything in between: Logan’s Run, Starship Troopers, War of the Worlds, Total Recall, Mad Max, RoboCop, Planet of the Apes, even Back to the Future Part II. All of these don’t offer such a positive prognosis for the future. They deal with dystopian societies, societies that are a consequence of our current actions, the end result of the course that we are currently on.  Come to think of it, I couldn’t think of a single movie, television show, or novel, a single pop culture depiction of the future in which there is peace and harmony.

Why is it that the entertainment world’s view of the future is more “the ends of days” instead of “the days of Messianic redemption”? Is it that war and destruction – be it by pirates, or aliens, or robot terminators is more entertaining than peace? Lately, it seems that the world being taken over by robot terminators is more likely than peace.

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, riots erupted throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, in Egypt, Libya, the Sudan, Tunisia, India, and Yemen, at the US Embassies, resulting in the deaths of many, including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Ironically, Ambassador Stevens had put his life on the line on a daily basis trying to bring peace to an unstable region. These riots were provoked by a film that had been circulating throughout Muslim countries, a film promoted by Terry Jones – the so-called preacher just down the road in Gainesville – you may remember him from his “National Burn the Quran Day” campaign this time last year. Well this time, he is promoting a film called “the Innocence of Muslims,” an anti-Islam film depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammed as a fool, philanderer, and fake. This film, blamed on the Christians, the Jews, the Americans, and even Israel, led to these violent and deadly riots. This film is disgusting and offensive, but this film is not an excuse for murder and violence. There is no excuse for murder or violent protests! But there is also no excuse for hate speech, propaganda, and bigotry. We don’t simply say one is bad, but the other is worse. We condemn violence. We condemn all acts of violence. We promote free speech, but we also condemn hate speech, for hate begets more hates.

These riots are scary, these countries unstable. Words of hate are being spewed from politicians and religious leaders across the world. No wonder Hollywood doesn’t have high hopes for what the future will hold! I, on the other hand, I do. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, maybe I’m a dove, a peacenik. While a television show about a future without electricity or a movie about Apes who keep humans as slaves is entertaining, I much prefer a future in which we treat each other with respect, we embrace each other’s differences, we celebrate diversity, and we work together for the promise of a better future, a future in which our children do not know war, hate, or bigotry.

Last Shabbat, in the last Torah reading of the year 5772, parashat Nitzavim, we read of the importance of the Torah – the Torah as our scriptural core, the Torah as a guidebook of ethics and values that we must uphold. The parasha began with the charge that this message of Torah, this message that God will share with us, that Moses will share with us, is a message for all of us: men, women, and children, leaders and followers, working class, and upper class, elderly scholars and students, woodchoppers and water drawers. This is a message for us to stand together, rather than divided. Atem Nitzavim. You ALL stand on this day before God. We are all God’s children. No one is better, no one is worse. We disagree and have differences in opinion. That is okay, that is actually more than okay – that is great for our tradition teaches that we grow together through a Makhloket Lashem Shamayim, through disagreements that honor God, that are intended to make the world a better peace. Criticizing another’s beliefs, making fun of another person, that is not a Makhloket Lashem Shamayim, that is a Busha, an embarrassment.

When we are only focused on ourselves and not on the betterment of everyone, when we only care about our feelings and no one else’s, when we focus on our beliefs and disregard those of others, we are destined for a future like those predicted in the movies – a bleak, desolate, and dark future full of hate. But if we care enough about the future, then we can write the script for a movie that looks ahead to the future with joy.

My grandfather hates watching sad or disappointing movies – films about war and violence. I could never convince him to take me to a scary film or a violent film when I was a child. He would suggest that instead, we stay home and watching some of his favorite movies: Shirley Temple movies. “They always make you smile,” he says. They always end with a “happily ever after.”

Why would we look to the future in fear when we can work together to create a “happily ever after”?  Later on in Chapter 29 of Deuteronomy, Moses repeats God’s words of promise, the promise of the covenant between the Holy One – the Divine – and all of humanity:

I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those that are standing here on this day with God and those that are not standing here on this day (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).

The brit, the covenant that we as a people have with God, the covenant, the promise for a better future is not just made with us, with those who are here, but also those who are not here. Most of our commentators suggest that this is referring to the past – to our patriarchs and matriarchs, those referenced three times daily in the Amidah as a reminder to God to favor us as well. However, I believe this is a reference to the future. This covenant – this commitment to living a life of ethics and values, a life in which we strive to connect to God and to each other, a life in which we try to better the world and better ourselves, isn’t limited to the here and now, but is about the here and now so that we can ensure a better future – a future of love, of blessings, of peace. The text says “those that are standing here on this day and those that are not here this day.” This isn’t just talking about descendants or future generations. This is talking about our future selves.

During these Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, Ten Days of Repentance, we reflect on the past and look towards the future. We make promises to each other, promises to God, and promises to ourselves that we will try to be better in the year ahead.  Let us make such a promise a reality. Let us not just look selfishly to our own individual futures —  how our own lives can get better – but to our communal future – how  we make this world better. It is no coincidence that we are supposed to improve that future through Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.  Repentence – turning away from our past and towards a brighter future, Prayer – understanding and appreciating God’s role in our everyday lives and in this world, and Acts of Kindness – helping others who cannot help themselves. Doing these things as our High Holy Day liturgy suggests will ensure that this brit, this covenant , is a reality for us now at this moment as well as in a future filled with promise. Show me that movie – with that future so bright and I will gladly watch it!

Shana Tova! A happy and a healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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God’s Name

This morning, I spent time with the Middle School students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School during our morning Shacharit prayer service focusing on writing as a spiritual expression. Looking at the words of the prayer Baruch She’amar, the introduction to the Pesukei Dezimrah preliminary service, we focused on the words Baruch Shemo, meaning “Praised be God’s Name.” Asked to write down what we think God’s Name is, this is what I came up with:



You who are me, who is a part of me. You  are made in my image, for I am made in Your image.

Eheyeh asher Eheyeh. He who will be what will be. She that is. Who rules now and always.

Creator of Heaven and Earth, man and woman, light and darkness, good and evil.

Author of our thoughts, our words. Director of our Actions, Guide in our decisions.

Hashem: The name. The name that is not spoken, the name that is unknown. The name that is known to all in any language, in every language.

God. Gd. G-d. G O D. The Mighty. The Almighty, on High. Father of Heaven. Mother on Earth. My Rock. My Redeemer.

The Shoulder to lean on, to cry on. The Back to carry me when I cannot walk. The Hand to hold so I know I am not alone.

Hamakom. The Place. The Presence. Here. Everywhere.



How do you refer to God?

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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