In October 2010, a well-known comedy writer by the name of
David Javerbaum created a twitter account entitled the tweet of
God. For some giving a voice on twitter, of all places, to the creator of the
heavens and earth may seen heretical but when you realize that twitter has 241
million active users, perhaps twitter is a more useful form of communication
than trying to talk to your flock in church or synagogue. The “Tweet of God”,
which has over 2 million followers, has become so popular that it just became a
Broadway show entitled “An Act of God”.
While many of the tweets are a bit to colorful to repeat
from the bima it is fair to say that Mr. Javerbaum gives voice to what many in
the world hope and pray would be the actual conscience of a social networking
deity. More importantly, and significantly more interesting, is that the voice
of God was given a means to enter our ever-expanding digital world.
Shortly after arriving in Omaha an older member of our
congregation passed away. As we started to plan the funeral is was clear that
while most of her children would be able to make it back to Omaha, one of her
daughters from Israel was not going to be able to make it back. The family came
to me with an interesting question. The daughter asked if I would be willing to
use skype or facetime allowing her to be “present”, to be able to watch the
funeral and internment of her mother. I will admit that at first I was quite
skeptical, a funeral on facetime? I believed that it would lessen the sanctity
of the event. Yet after talking with the daughter it was quite clear that her
sole desire was closure. She needed to see the casket, she needed to hear El Malei and Kaddish and we had a tool at our disposal to bridge the 6000-mile
trek from Omaha to Israel.
In the end, everything took place without a problem. A
device that 5 to 10 years earlier was not available helped to add meaning and bring
closure to a grief stricken families life. Yet
what happens when the very tool meant to add meaning, holiness, value to our
lives may at the same time distance us from the world that is sitting right in
front of our eyes. Judaism puts a premium on being present in the world around
us. How can we manage to stay connected, yet present to our family and friends?
In our Torah reading tomorrow morning God will call out
Abraham’s name and our patriarch will reply “Hineni” – Here I am. In a world
where we are connected via email, text, facebook, instagram…just to name a few,
it is important to realize that sometimes we need to step back and heed the
words of our patriarch. What does it mean to say “Hineni – Here I am”? What
does Judaism say about living in a 24/7 interconnected world? How are we to use
technology as a means to add holiness and meaning to our lives and not as a
means of distraction? God called out the name of Abraham and he answered “here
I am”, my remarks today are born out of a concern for all us that should God,
family or friends call out our names, will be present enough to acknowledge it? Or will we miss it because we are too busy connecting,
as opposed to living?
There is no question that technology has impacted our lives
for the better. Yet our 24/7 connectedness’s has come at a steep cost. As a society we have lived through
technological advancements before, yet somehow this is different than when the
TV became a staple of every living room across the country. In her book “The
Big Disconnect”, Catherine Steiner-Adair points out that “you could love
watching [TV] but then you could leave the screen and get on with your real
life”. TV she says that TV “had its allure – we have a few generations of couch
potatoes now to prove it – but it was essentially a passive activity, contained
and time limited, and it was something a family often did together” [The Big Disconnect – Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD].
The whole family came together to watch such shows as Bonanza, the Brady Bunch
or The Ed Sullivan Show. The TV was a tool for families to come together and be
entertained. Today our screens are individual size and for individual use and many
of the relationships we now have online have replaced the ones we had with
those right in front of us.
While our greatest of sages could never have imagined the technology that
is now at our fingertips, our tradition offers us council on the subject. How
do we manage elements in our life that are addictive, how do we work on being
present for those around us and how do we work to set boundaries on usage so we
remain in control of our devices and not the other way around.
A study was done in 2010 at the University of Maryland that
asked students to abstain from all media for 24 hours. They were then asked
about their experiences. The findings were astounding, but not the least bit
surprising. One student recounted:
“Although I started the day feeling
good, I noticed my mood started to change around noon. I started to feel
isolated and lonely. I received several phone calls that I could not answer,”
wrote one student. “By 2:00 pm. I began to feel the urgent need to check
my email, and even thought of a million ideas of why I had to. I felt like a
person on a deserted island…. I noticed physically, that I began to fidget, as
if I was addicted to my iPod and other media devices.” [https://withoutmedia.wordpress.com]
Technology for many is addictive. We hear the ding of the
email or the chirp of twitter and you will see people dart for their phones.
The mere fact that society has given certain devices nicknames, such as a “crack-berry”
hints towards to addictive nature of their use. In so many ways no different
that someone addicted to gambling. The gambler is looking for a prize at the
end of the game and while it may sound trivial, the email, the Facebook like,
the re-tweet is seen by the brain in the exact same way.
There is a Hasidic teaching that says that everyone should
carry two two slips of paper in their pockets, one in each pocket. On the first
you write: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.”
On the other you write: V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.”
In so many ways, the goal of healthy living is to have both of those quotes on
your mind at all time. To live in balance, somewhere between the idea that
world was created for my sake alone, making us feel important and powerful and while
at the same time we must ponder the notion that from dust I was created and
dust I shall return, giving us a sense of perspective and humility.
Technology is a part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to
invade every part of our lives. By creating and acknowledging limits we push
back against the ego and self-importance that was to live amongst Pharaoh in
It was this pervasive culture that led the Israelites to
flee into the desert. And it was in the desert that the Israelites realized the
importance of “being unplugged”. It was there that they came to realize what
was most important to them in life. Yet it was no easy task and the Israelites
suffered the consequences. We are all
aware that addictions and habits are hard to kick. We must look no further than the story of the
Golden Calf as a withdrawal from that pervasive culture? I imagine if we asked people 20 years ago
where they went to find community, many would answer a place of worship,
perhaps a gym…somewhere where people were physically present…today the answer
is facebook. It was only when the Israelites finally did “disconnect” from the pervasive
culture in Egypt, that a religion was formed.
Abraham may have been the first to respond to God with
Hineini, “here I am” but he was not the last.
At the beginning of Exodus we are told that Moses was out tending to his
father-in-laws flock when he comes upon a bush that is on fire but not consumed
and he stops to see what is going on. The text goes on to say that God calls
out to Moses from the bush and Moses replies Hineini “here I am”.
Moses was acutely aware of his surroundings. He didn’t respond
by asking who is speaking or by asking what God wanted. Moses gave the same
thoughtful response as Abraham, one that showed that he was completely present
in the moment.
There are Midrashim, rabbinic folktales that tell us that
other shepherds walked by the burning bush but did not notice anything out of
the ordinary. It was Moses, aware of his surroundings, able to be present in
the moment and take note of what was going on. Lucky for us that Moses did not
have a new iphone or perhaps he too would have missed it!
We live in a world where people want, and to a certain
extent, deserve immediate answers. You do not have to look too far to see the
pervasive nature of screen use in our lives. Walk up to any playground in
America and you will see parents staring down at their devices. If you go
online you can watch a whole host of videos showing people, young and old,
walking into people and stationary objects all while walking down the street,
and looking down at their device. By looking down as opposed to looking at the
world around us we miss the possibility of seeing our own burning bush, of
having out own moment of awe.
There is no question that the most straightforward way to
fix the problem is to simply turn off our devices for a certain period of time.
And the trend is becoming more common than you may think. Some families have
baskets for when family members enter the home; devices are to be left at the
door. Others have rules regarding usage at the dinner table or after a certain
time at night. How do you create your own “Sabbath”, a period of rest, whether
it be 25 hours or just 1, whether it be on Saturday or Tuesday?
These are choices and decisions that families must make
together, what is clear is that everyone must play by the same rules. Parents
and Grandparents are quick to monitor screen time for our children…but when we
look at our own lives, are we as responsible with our own usage? Children model their parent’s behavior and
choices, for better or for worse.
Many of you know better than I the advances in your own
fields of business thanks to amazing technology…the same is true for our Jewish
lives. As I mentioned before we are able to bring people together for lifecycle
events, beyond that people who cannot leave their homes are able to log-in to
simulcast services. On perhaps a smaller
yet more personal scale, in just the past few weeks Shira used a “pocket
siddur” on her iPhone when we ran out of siddurim at a shiva minyan, and Naama
was enthralled with a new Rosh Hashana app that sounded a shofar when you blew across
I do not know what the future holds for the amazing benefits
that technology will offer. What I do know, is that we live in a world that is
rapidly changing, our books are now on screens, our watches can play music and
our phones can take pictures.
A few years back, following the death of Steve Jobs, there
was a cartoon that went viral. It showed God introducing Moses to Steve Jobs
with the caption “Moses’s meet Steve, he is going to upgrade your tablets”. Whether
they are tablets made of stone or screens made of glass we still have the
ability to turn them off and control their place in our lives and the lives of
As we enter 5776 let us make the commitment, just as Abraham
and Moses have done before us, to be fully present in the lives of our family,
friends and community. To be able to look at the world around us and say
“Hineni” – Here I am.