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