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.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky