Monthly Archives: September 2016

Finding Purpose in the Shofar Blasts

While we look forward to the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that announce the new year, we’ve actually been blowing shofar at Beth El since September 4. We are instructed to blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Hebrew month of Elul — a whole month prior to the actual Jewish new year. We blow the shofar to remind us that the new year is upon us, and to encourage us to use these weeks for spiritual reflection. In some ways, the shofar blasts that we will hear in the coming days on Rosh Hashanah is a culmination of that period of self-examination. In fact, we are taught that our responsibility is not to blow the shofar, but to hear the blasts, so much so that the person who blows the shofar must also make sure to listen. And each blast, from the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah day, is meant to help prepare us spiritually.

big-shofarTekiah! Tekiah is our wake up call. A single blast meant to remind us that we are here and present, created in God’s image with the power to create, to love, and to build. Tekiah is a call to grab our attention, a reminder that we too often get consumed with the thoughts of others and don’t focus on ourselves enough. Tekiah reminds us to not compare ourselves to others and instead focus on becoming the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Shevarim! Shevarim is three short blasts. The rabbis compare these blasts to the whimpering of a child. We cry to acknowledge our own broken hearts. We cry to acknowledge the brokenness inside us all. While Tekiah allows us to celebrate the divine spark within us, Shevarim reminds us that life’s journey is bumpy. In order to do a true accounting of the soul, we must accept what we have done right and what we have done wrong. We must celebrate the progress we’ve made since this time last year, but also speak of our mistakes.

T’ruah! T’ruah, nine short staccato notes, reminds us of the brokenness in the world, because when we make a new year’s resolution we think about ourselves and others. T’ruah represents wailing and tears. But when we begin Rosh Hashanah, we turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Ultimately, the shofar is a symbol of liberation, announcing a new year, announcing our new selves. It reminds us never to be apathetic or complacent. It reminds us that we are each holy, and we should never see ourselves as anything less than that. May the shofar blasts awaken us to a new year full of health, happiness, peace, and love, and may this new year be filled with new beginnings for us all.

Join us on both days of Rosh Hashanah for our Shofar service, which will take place in the Sanctuary at approximately 11:00am.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stranger Inclinations

The following post first appeared as part of the Pop Elul Project at popelul.com. Check out all the connections between pop culture and the themes of the High Holy Days!

Spoiler alert: Stranger Things has a monster which comes from the “Upside Down”, an alternative universe that a sinister government agency gained access to. Spoiler alert:Stranger Things has a psychokinetic preteen who can move things with her mind. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things pays homage to 80’s era horror, thriller, and suspense films including adding Winona Ryder to the cast. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things is incredible!

If there is one show you binge watch next, it must be Stranger Things. The show is fun and filled with 80’s pop culture nostalgia. And while there are plenty of unanswered questions and things that don’t make sense, the story works in 1980’s small town Indiana in a way that it wouldn’t work in 2016.

Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix show of the summer, created by the Duffer brothers, tells the story of a group of middle school friends who go searching for their friend Will when he mysteriously disappears while riding his bike home from a friend’s house after a game of Dungeons & Dragons. During that search, they meet a young girl named Eleven who has special powers. With Eleven’s help, they realize that Will is stuck in the parallel universe of the Upside Down. The Upside Down isn’t an alternative reality. The kids, who are big Dungeons & Dragons fans, refer to it is the Vale of Shadows. This is not a what-if reality. Rather, it is a reflection of reality — what the world looks like if it was consumed by darkness and evil.

Jewish tradition teaches that we each have within us a good inclination, a yetzer tov, and an evil inclination, a yetzer rah. The Mishnah even teaches that we begin with only our evil inclination, with a general ability to do wrong. Mishnah says that we only acquire a yetzer tovupon turning thirteen, explaining why when one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, one is finally responsible for one’s own actions.

It’s fascinating that rabbinic literature treats our good inclination and evil inclination as equals. They are essentially two sides of the same coin. While we strive to do good, we can just as easily end up feeding our evil inclination. In fact, if we have equal amounts of yetzer tov and yetzer rah within us, then it is nurture, not nature, that causes us to do good or bad. It is those whom we surround ourselves with that influence our actions, that impact whom we are, what we become, and how bright or bleak the world is. The Upside Down is not just scary because of the tar-like jelly within the dimension or the monster (or monsters! — stay tuned for season two) that lurk within it. The Upside Down is scary because it is a reminder of just how quickly our current reality can be turned upside down. It is a reminder of how easy it is for us to stray from light towards darkness, how easy it is for us to choose evil over good, and how easy it is for others to influence us to do wrong.

In season two of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers promise to further explore the Upside Down. While that may keep us on the edge of our seats, my hope is that we avoid accessing the Upside Down in our own lives. During the month of Elul so focused on reflection, may we reflect on the decisions that we have made — the positive choices and the mistakes — in hopes that we will create a bright future for ourselves and for the world. May we avoid the metaphorical Vale of Darkness in the year to come.

Stranger Things premiered on July 15, 2016. All episodes of season one are available to stream now on Netflix.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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