Not too long ago, the cover of Time Magazine carried a lead story that really hit home: “Are Kids Too Wired For Their Own Good?” It was about how our kids, with their computers and special web sites like Facebook and Google+, with their cell phones and text messaging and their tablets, etc…our kids are so overloaded with stimuli today, it can diminish their ability to grow and think and to just be.
I thought about this all week because, in rehearsing with Parker his Bar Mitzvah speech—as you have heard—he highlighted the problem. And as I was listening to him rehearse over and over again, I couldn’t help but ask myself: “Am I too wired for my own good?” And if that’s the case for me—and, believe me, I’m pretty much technologically challenged—I’m sure it may be so for some of you as well. The question I’d like to ask this morning is: Are computers and their offspring—smart phones and tablets—a positive or a negative development? And the answer is: “Yes!”
The Jewish perspective is that nothing is all good or all bad. It depends upon the circumstances, it depends on what it’s used for. For me, the computer has changed my life—especially my rabbinic life. There isn’t a sermon or class that I prepare for that I don’t find myself on Google searching for something. And it’s not just for sermons and classes.
Once, during my Sunday morning class on “The Secrets of Creation,” I was discussing how the world was originally covered with water and the subject of the flood of Noah came up. 2 women later came up to me after class and said they were looking in the text to find the name of Noah’s wife and they couldn’t find it, and so they asked me what it was. The fact is the name of Noah’s wife is never mentioned in the Torah. But the sages in the Midrash do provide a name.
At that moment I just couldn’t remember what it was, so I asked the women to wait there a minute and told them I’ll go into my office and check the holy ancient texts for the answer. As soon as I got into my office I headed straight for my computer, typed into Google “Noah’s wife name,” and out came the name—Naamah. And when I went out and told the name to the women, they just couldn’t get over how brilliant I was! I, myself, couldn’t get over it!
And so, on the one hand, with the access to information it provides us, computers are a real blessing. A colleague told me he just bought a DVD for his computer that has on it 613 Jewish books—and the entire Talmud with its more than 60 tractates counts as only one book! We have information at our fingertips today that generations before never had during the course of a lifetime.
And yet, who can deny that there are dangers to the computer as well. Not everything that comes across the computer screen and enters our homes is a blessing. This week a 54-year-old woman from Houston was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for producing, transporting and possessing child pornography. She and her husband were arrested after an FBI investigation of online child pornography downloads in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit, Michigan, were traced to their computer in Houston Texas.
One of the most common problems I see in my work as a couple’s therapist is how computer pornography web sites and chat rooms can destroy relationships. It’s not hard to understand why some right-wing Jewish communities forbid the internet in their homes.
Do you know that there is a hotel called the Delago Resort, 40 miles north of Houston, with a 2300 acre lake, which is ideal for fishing? The hotel advertises that they have wired the lake so that while you’re fishing, you can now have internet access-even from the middle of the lake. Their ad boasts: “While you are fishing, you can now host a national sales meeting, or check your email, or surf the internet, or download voice data or video files or hold live video conferences—from wherever you are on the lake.”
Think of that! One goes fishing in order to get away from the office and relax. Now you can download, and send and receive emails and now you can even hold video conferences while fishing!? Isn’t that crazy? Why would anyone want to be in contact with his office…while fishing? Evidently, this is a hotel for people who are addicted to the computer, for people who feel tense and anxious and ill at ease if they’re away from the computer for even for a few minutes.
Andres Martinez, former editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times and columnist for the Washington Post, is quoted in that Time magazine article as saying, “I realized the other day…I’m taking longer showers. It dawned on me that I’m taking longer showers because that’s the last bastion where I can think. A disproportionate amount of my thoughts now are in the shower because it’s the one place where I’m not hounded by my Blackberry, my cell phone, the 24/7news.” Just think about it…because we live in the age of the computer, the only time this man has time to think is when he’s in the shower!
This is the 1st Shabbos of the Jewish month of Nisan. We call Nisan the 1st month in the Jewish calendar, even though the world, according to tradition, was created in Tishre, the 7th month, because it was in Nisan, that the Exodus from Egypt took place and we became a people. And so we count the month when we began as our 1st month. Last week, in anticipation of this month, we read a special passage establishing this as our 1st month: Hachodesh hazeh lachem, “This month—the month of Nisan—is to be lachem—for you, Rosh Chodashim, the 1st of the months.” Notice the usage of lachem, “for you,”…meaning for you to use in measuring time.
This commandment of how to measure time was 1st commandment given to the Jewish people. What was so important about this commandment that it was the 1st? Remember, our people at that time were still slaves to Pharaoh. Slaves don’t have control of their time. And so our sages comment on the word lachem, “for you,” in the text: “This month is to be the way of setting time lachem, for you,” lachem hu masur v’eyn ata m’surin b’yado, “time is to be given to you…you are not to be given over to time.” You are to control your time. Never allow time to control you!
But I’m afraid our time is too often being controlled by our computers. One of the emails I received asked me to answer these 10 questions:
l. How many years has it been since you last played solitaire, using real cards?
2. Have you ever entered your password, out of habit, when you wanted to start your microwave?
3. Do you find yourself using email in order to connect with your co-worker, even though he/she works at the desk right next to yours?
4. Do you find yourself texting your spouse or your kids even though you’re in the same house?
5. Do you still keep in touch with any of your friends who aren’t on Facebook?
6. Did you get this list from 8 different friends, whom you never hear from anymore, except when they forward jokes and lists like this to you?
7. Do you ever stop to check your messages, when you are on the way back from the bathroom to your bed at night? Or do you at least think about doing it and have to resist the temptation?
8. Do you refer disrespectfully to regular mail as “snail mail,” even though you know that it is delivered by people, not by snails?
9. Have you reached the stage where, when you disconnect your computer, you feel like you are pulling the plug on a loved one?
And l0. When you heard this list, did you smile and nod in recognition?
How many of these questions did you say “yes” to? Tell the truth! There’s no doubt that the computer and its offspring has taken over much of our lives. So, is the computer good or bad? Well, I guess it depends on when and how it’s used. It was the saintly Maharal who once wrote: “If the thing is impure, it is impossible that it will not have some purity within it. Likewise, if the thing is pure, it is impossible that it will not have within it some impurity. And man is like that as well.” Yes, there is some purity and impurity in everything and in every one of us.
Today we began the 3rd book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, and it begins in a strange way: Vayikra Hashem el Moshe, vayidabeyr, “Gd called to Moses and He said.” Why the double phrase, “called” and “said”? Would not vay’dabeyr, “said,” be enough? After all, the phrase, Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe, “And Gd spoke to Moses,” is perhaps the most common phrase in the whole Torah. Perhaps the additional use of Vayikra, “And Gd called,” is to teach us that unless we feel the call of Gd 1st, the vay’dabeyr—what He commands us to do—doesn’t mean very much.
“Call” is an old sacred word that has been secularized, almost beyond repair. Christians still use it. Ministers still say, “I have a calling.” The London Jewish Chronicle still uses it. When they announce that a Rabbi has taken a new position, they put it this way. “Rabbi so-and-so has received a call to such-and-such a pulpit.” It is a reminder to the Rabbi, the congregation and the readers of the newspaper that a Rabbi is not just an employee and a pulpit is not just a job.
But for most of us, the word “call” has lost its original spiritual meaning. We talk of “calling up” to reach someone, of “calling off” to postpone…of “calling down” when we mean to chew someone out, and then there is a “call girl,” a term that I won’t define here in shule—especially at a Bar Mitzvah. But we seldom speak of “having a calling.” The phrase embarrasses us. And yet, I think that is what the Torah is saying with this word Vayikra, “called.”
Vayikra is the 1st word of the 3rd book of the Torah that we begin today. Since the Torah has 5 books, it is the central word of the whole Torah, perhaps containing its central message—a message about being called.
Whom does Gd call? Do we all get such calls? Let me illustrate with a gorgeous commentary—a favorite of mine that I’ve shared before—by Shlomo Carlebach, a”h:
The Torah begins today: Vayikra Hashem. “And Gd called.” Friends, Gd is calling everyone us. And the Midrash says that only Moshe Rabbeinu heard his call. You know something? There is something…Gd is calling which is meant for every one of us—a different “calling” [for each of us]. But the deepest question is: Are you hearing it…are you hearing it? Friends, I want you to know something, Vayikra el Moshe, I want to bless you and me, whenever Gd is calling us, Gd needs [us] for something special.
Shlomo’s message is so sweet and deep and holy at the same time. Vayikra is the call of Gd to each and every one of us. In this sense, Gd needs us. He has a shlichut, an essential job for each of us. We are all agents of Gd. But my question of us today—myself included—is: “Are we too wired up listening to the constant chatter of nonsense to hear Gd’s call?”
So let’s take this lesson to heart when Shabbos is over. When I was in my 20’s, the minute Shabbos was over, I was in the car going somewhere fun on a Saturday night. These days, the second Shabbos is over, I find myself turning on my computer. Tonight I’m going to wait a little bit…and show who is boss! And not, “maybe,” as Parker put it in his speech, but certainly, because it might be the only place in the house left where I am still the boss. Ultimately, we can control our time. We need not let time control us. Let us all learn to take control of our lives so that we can hear the call when Gd calls us—and He will. Vayikra, He always does. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis