ROSH HASHANAH MORNING 2011-5772
(Rabbi takes out his cell phone and sounds the Shofar with an App)
The world is changing my friends! It always has and it always will. Rosh Hashanah is known as the birthday of the world and indeed we are coming to realize technologically that we are entering a whole new world, some of us more slowly than others. Though, “new” is often scary, while “old” is comfortable, “new” can also be beneficial. So, the question I raise this Rosh Hashanah morning is how are we to embrace the new technologies of our time and do so as Jews? What values of our tradition can guide us as we navigate this newest of worlds?
We already have a related ritual expression that has evolved in recent years. Prior to services, weddings and funerals we remind everyone to turn off or minimally silence phones. (Yes, you can check now if you forgot earlier.) Yet even with the announcement, there is always one that undoubtedly rings at the most inopportune moment, invariably during the silent prayer. Please note that I do understand when accidents happen. On one occasion I was conducting the Bedecken ceremony prior to a wedding, when my phone rang. I thought it was off, but I had obviously not held the button down long enough … oops! Another time, I had definitely turned my phone onto silent mode, while conducting a worship service at the New Orleans Jewish Day School. What I did not realize was that while it silenced incoming calls, it did not silence the daily morning alarm I had set.
These being the Days of Awe, I can honestly say that I am in awe of the advances from which we all can benefit. Just when I start to feel comfortable with computers, along come these absolutely amazing hand held devices. For many of us, what we remember as science fiction is now reality. During my time away this summer: if I wanted to know the weather- check my phone; Need directions-GPS; Someone seeks me- they just call or e-mail (except when I am in a dead zone); looking for a local restaurant on the highway, that is not fast food- use the I-pad; E-mail Communication with the office, friends or family- check my phone; when bored- there are games to play either by myself or with someone far away; want to share our whale watching moment? …click a picture and send. Truly we are all blessed by the constantly amazing and evolving opportunities available to us through technology. Reb Nachman taught that the world is a very narrow bridge, but the essence of life is not to be afraid. So to those who are hesitant to make the leap into the world of the 21st century, “Lo l’fached- do not be afraid.”
Let us embrace the world, but do so wisely. Last year there were reports around the country during the High Holy Days that Jews in the pews were texting. Can you imagine? Certainly not at Gates of Prayer! Let me paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to text and a time to refrain from texting.” While we pride ourselves in the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, we sometimes do ourselves a disservice. For prayer to be meaningful, we teach the idea of Kavanah, directing oneself, being focused on the task at hand.
Prayer is challenging enough without the distraction of messages from your friend in the back row, or checking the score or simply the usual chit chat from someone who does not realize that you are engaged in sacred time.
When teaching college students at Loyola, it is frustrating, even insulting when I see the phone out or notice that the computer is on, but not for taking notes during my lectures. I know of some instructors who do not allow computers to be used for taking notes as a result. This sort of behavior is rude to the instructor or any presenter in a variety of situations, but you are also doing yourself a disservice.
Many consider multi-tasking to be a great skill, but often it can be detrimental and may in fact be impossible. Edward Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, is quoted as saying, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself… Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time.” What we do, neuroscientists tell us, is shift our focus from one thing to another and back again – to be sure, with remarkable speed – but shifting nonetheless, and losing both time and focus in the process.”
The term that describes what we are actually doing is “Continuous Partial Attention” (coined by Linda Stone in 1998). It works when one of our tasks is fairly mindless (e.g. folding laundry), but not when both activities require thoughtful attention or the same brain function.
Trying to perform more than one task is certainly not new. How many of us have said, “I can watch TV, listen to my music or the radio and still… (Fill in the blank).. do my homework, write letters, balance the checkbook, prepare my brief or report.” I can remember being one of those teens, when life was low-tech. On one occasion my 9th grade English teacher returned my paper on Shakespeare with two words circled in red: “Reingold Beer” I had been listening to the Mets baseball game while writing and guess who was their sponsor?
Warning: technological multi-tasking can be a matter of Pikuach nefesh, preservation of life, both yours and others. I watch men and women driving, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other actively engaged on the phone in conversation, children in the back seat, making wide left turns in busy intersections.
What can they be thinking? Even with hands free devices, we are easily distracted. Driving is not a mindless activity.
This past semester I had a student who missed class for a week. With a degree of embarrassment she shared that she had suffered a concussion by walking on campus and talking on her phone, as she collided with a tree. Walking is also not a mindless activity. We all need to use better judgment as to when we use our technology and when we refrain.
Warning: technological multi-tasking may be a danger to “shalom mishpacha-family harmony.” A typical family scene from the 1970s might include everyone sitting in the family room. Television is on. Dad is reading the paper. Mom has a book. One child is engrossed in whatever is on the screen, while the other is listening to a walk-man.
A typical scene from today has the television still on, just that now it is bigger and flatter.
One family member is plugged into an I-pod, another is reading from a Kindle and another has the computer open monitoring the mundane details in the lives of hundreds of people. We call this “quality time,” when it is of course far from it. Today we simply have more choices of how we can isolate ourselves from one another.
I am not calling upon us to shun technology, far from it, just use it more judiciously. One congregant experimented with Shabbat as a day to break away from electronics, not out of the traditional sense, but for the sake of relationships. She was delighted with the result. I’m not advocating for even that radical a concept. Rather, I want to raise the awareness that we have the ultimate control.
Many will argue, “What I do is up to me.” And Judaism agrees, “If I’m not for myself who will be?” But then our teaching continues to remind us that we are not in this world alone- “If I am only for myself, what am I?” What we do touches others. Come Yom Kippur, we will confess our sins in the plural, because we are all linked. Using your device in the synagogue, movies, theater, restaurant or other venues may diminish your experience. That is your choice, but it also impacts those around you. (My wife is self-deputized as part of the cell phone police at Elmwood and Clearview Theaters. Watch out!) Within Judaism, there is a concept of Kibud hatsibur, honoring the public, recognizing their rights. No one wants your light in their eyes in a darkened theater or hear your personal conversations. Many of you will recall the story of the man who adamantly defends his prerogative to drill a hole in the boat under his seat. We are all in this same boat together and must respect the rights of others.
As Jews we have a deep respect for words. With e-mail, blogs and all the social media Facebook, Twitter, and whatever comes next, we increase the venues to interact with others. Friends from long ago are reunited. Distant family members are now connected. Potential business assets are linked. We are able to respond caringly when someone is hurting or celebrating. These are new wonderful tools for our modern age, but let us use them wisely. Our words heal and help, but they can also wound and inflict pain. Simply because something is in our heads does not require that it be replicated on our screens. Reflect before making a comment or responding.
All of us are familiar with people who find themselves in either interpersonal or even legal trouble because of messages they send, sites they visit, choices they made.
From this past year’s headlines we can recall a Congressman, who we shall call a Hebrew National, who did not answer to a higher authority. Just because we can write it does not mean we should send it. Whereas once we spoke of life and death being in the power of the tongue, now we must include the idea that it is at our fingertips.
There are those who use new technology as a shield, a way to avoid more direct, potentially uncomfortable communications. Sending an e-mail, a tweet or a message on Facebook might be the coward’s way to express a difficult message: “you’re fired!” “I don’t want to see you anymore.”- a 21st century ‘Dear John’ letter, “I’m sorry for X, Y or Z.… However, before you do so, ask yourself the simple question, based upon Rabbi Hillel’s teaching, “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Would you want to receive this kind of message electronically or would the more decent communication be face to face, or at least verbal? Let us use our new tools wisely, with discretion and compassion.
We Jews cherish knowledge and learning. Our potential awareness of the world and world events has also now expanded exponentially. It is difficult to accept the idea that books may be a thing of the past. College students can go four years without entering a library, since information is digitized. There is so much good material out there, but we have to be discerning of sources. We are discovering more and more how messages are manipulated, with such items as unbiased product reviews being anything but. I regularly call upon Rabbi Google with questions, but carefully screen the sites to which I am sent. The internet provides a wealth of information on all topics, by which we can learn and grow, but we need to be cautious.
And technology is impacting world events, hopefully for the good. All agree that the so-called Arab Spring was fueled by the ability of young people to communicate. Regimes cannot hide their oppression, since we instantly learn of their deeds from eye witnesses and view their acts on You Tube. Even local news is influenced. Everyone is a potential reporter with camera in hand. Our world, how we learn about it, how we interact with it, is now very different.
And what of our Jewish world? One of my colleagues recently looked into his crystal ball and envisioned worship services not from books, but from i-prays; We might all be sitting together or in our homes, but with individual earphones. We can pre-select which melodies we want to hear, the sermon topic we want addressed and of course how long we want to be sitting. Learning opportunities can expand with holographic re-creations of the past where you can go on rounds with Maimonides, eat a meal in Abraham and Sarah’s tent or study with Rashi.
Here at Gates of Prayer we are doing our best to keep up. Our old style bulletin is still printed, but most receive it on line, along with the weekly e-newsletter. You can also find us on twitter and Facebook. (You should know I’m not great on that venue yet.)
Still more and more are using it for learning about us and responding to invitations. We have conducted a number of virtual services without siddurim, but projecting the words. Our web page has been updated and is much more informative and user friendly. We are also experimenting with “live-streaming” our services including at this very moment, not to give you an excuse to stay home, but for those unable to be here. Soon we will be exploring new forms of interactive learning.
Technology presents us with opportunities and challenges, blessing and curse in religious language. In a moment we will hear the shofar, for real. An i-phone app may be fun, but does not fulfill the mitzvah. Later, we will wish each other l’shanah tovah tikotevu, may it be a good year and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.
We have always taught that what we do, write and say goes on this metaphorical record. Now we can add, what we send, tweet and post. May we lead our lives in this new world according to our highest Jewish values.
I am appreciative of the insights of Rabbis Richard Levy and Ed Goldberg, who assisted me in the creation of this sermon, also the insights of Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, gained from my rabbinic listserve and Rabbi Avi Schulman in his article on the Future of Jewish Life 2111 in the Spring 2011 Journal of Reform Judaism.