Technology is a marvelous thing. And the many creative ways Jewish professionals have incorporated it into Jewish communal life is amazing.
Over the past few months, I have had two online experiences that I had occasionally criticized in the past. But for reasons of necessity, found myself doing: watching a worship service and watching a life-cycle ceremony.
Last Yom Kippur, having had left the morning service with my five-year-old son in tow, I broke my own rule of unplugging on Shabbat and the holidays and sought out an online service. Just because my little guy was done for the day didn’t mean that I was. It took me a few tries as the first few attempts landed me in services that I’d never attend in person. It seemed to me that if I wouldn’t attend a place IRL that I’m certainly not going to like the virtual experience. But then I found the live-stream from Central Synagogue (NYC). Enabling me to hear familiar melodies, liturgy read with passion and conviction, and words of challenge and inspiration.
At the end of November, my sister-in-law went into labour ten days ahead of her scheduled C-section. Due to my own complicated family situation (with a child on the autism spectrum), I was unable to fly to Dallas for my nephew’s bris. Thanks to the rabbinic team at my brother and sister-in-law’s shul, a live-stream of the ceremony was provided for those of us who were unable to make the trip.
Sitting alone with my computer isn’t the way I want Yom Kippur. It isn’t the way I need Yom Kippur. And watching my nephew be entered into the Covenant of Abraham on a screen isn’t the same as being there.
But in both cases, second best was, indeed, better than nothing. Without synagogues that make worship services available online, my Yom Kippur would have been utterly devoid of the sanctity and liturgy my soul needed. Without those same synagogues that are open to the request of a far-flung relative, I would not have been able to witness this first lifecycle event in my nephew’s life.
I once feared that such innovation would encourage people to choose virtual attendance over physical attendance. That concern, I now recognize, was grounded in ignorance. A true lack of understanding based on the unknown.
In the end, it was one word that convinced me. Amein. It was being able to say “amein” in response to the mohel at my nephew’s bris that showed me the weakness of my long-held bias. No, it wasn’t the same as being in the very same room. But my “amein” was said. And God heard it, even if they couldn’t.
So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?
Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?
But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.
Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.
When I was growing up, a common group activity to do with Jewish teens was some sort of values clarification. One such example might be “the world is about to come to an end and you have been chosen to colonize a distant planet. What five items would you bring with you?” Another favorite was “if you had to choose just one item to save from your burning house, what would it be?” Both questions, while eliciting some interesting discussion, seemed so far-fetched as to be bordering on the ridiculous.
Yet now, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on so many, the question of what to take versus what to leave behind is a very real one.
The American Red Cross, FEMA, and other agencies have available lists to help families and individuals prepare for emergency situations/evacuations. But not one of these lists address the spiritual needs. As I filled water-resistant bins with emergency provisions, batteries, flashlights, and the like, I made certain to include my favorite siddur, some kippot, and a book of Psalms. Long recited during times of distress, my book of Psalms has gotten me through some really dicey times. Just the feel of it in my hands brings down my blood pressure. Our tallitot, Shabbos candlesticks, ketubah, and a few of our children’s favorite picture books made the cut as well as they will bring them some comfort as the gusts rattle our home.
Dearest God, Whose Power and Might fill the world,
I thank you for the shelter of my home.
I thank you for technology that provides us time to prepare.
I thank you for the kind folks at Sesame Street for creating a video to ease my children’s fears. And mine too.
And I thank you for the promise of the rainbow.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, oseh ma-asei v’reisheet.
Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, Who does the the work of Creation.