Commentary on Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 - 30:10
“When Aaron enters the sanctuary, shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, as a remembrance before God at all times.” (Exodus 28:29)
This verse from Parashat Tetzaveh refers to the bejeweled breastplate worn by ancient Israel’s high priest. It had 12 different precious gems, each symbolizing one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Hebrew phrase for “over his heart” can also be translated as “in his heart.” The breastplate, an external sign of inward remembrance, was like an ancient “wearable” technology. It was a visual representation worn externally by the high priest.
Those of us who mourn aspire to carry our departed loved ones in our hearts, internalizing their values, views and priorities, and making them part of our lives. And likewise, we have external ways of remembering too.
In our day, technology has given us amazing ways of carrying our loved ones not quite “on our hearts,” but over our wrists and eyes with external, wearable technologies. We can keep our loved ones over our eyes with smart glasses and on our wrists (or in our pockets) with a smartwatch or smartphone. Creating a digital album takes no more than a click of a button (and often social media sites will do it for us without being asked). We’re especially grateful for these external wearable technologies that allow us to instantly look at these photos. An imaginative family member may use them to create a video or photo montage of a departed loved one for viewing during shiva, the traditional seven day mourning period mandated by Jewish law.
But easy access has unanticipated outcomes. One unintended consequence of wearable technologies is the barriers they create that make it challenging to carry the names of our loved ones in our hearts. For example, many people are now so devoted to capturing images, they spend more time recording than experiencing events. The family member designated as the photographer at a milestone occasion may remember fewer details of the celebration because they spent so much energy finding the perfect shot instead of being in the moment.
On a deeper level, our library of images of our deceased loved ones, though they can evoke forgotten memories, can also mediate between us and our innermost memories of our loved ones. What conversations do we wish to remember or forget? What quiet moments did we cherish? What events shaped the lives of our loved ones, and by what values did they live? The responses to these questions are not often found in photos but in our hearts and memories. Sometimes, the deluge of photos can become a distraction, and we have to ask ourselves: Is technology helping us keep our loved ones before our eyes, but preventing us from fully carrying them in our hearts?
There is a new technology on the horizon that is likely to exacerbate this concern: holograms. A hologram is a life-like 3D image of a person, programmed with pre-recorded parts of their lives. Holographic concerts with deceased artists have been possible for a decade. More recently, some video testimonials of Holocaust survivors have been turned into interactive holographic conversations — another way to hold onto the memory of a generation that is nearly gone. And now, some funeral homes can create a hologram of the deceased to offer last words of wisdom to family and friends and, in one case, to deliver her own eulogy. As realistic as these simulacrums become, I worry that they will become so absorbing they prevent us from using our hearts, and not just our eyes, to remember.
Digital images of a departed loved one that we access externally through the latest wearable device can provide enormous comfort, but we should be cautious that they can misdirect our focus away from the challenging work of reflecting on the significance of our relationship. The breastplate of the high priest contained exactly one precious gem for each tribe from Israel. Perhaps what we need is not to curate as many photos as we possibly can, but to pick the photographic gems that will help us remember, and use them as a way to turn inward to the memories that require no technology and externalization — the ones written on our hearts.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on March 3, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.
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