(Note: This is an extremely busy couple of weeks for yours truly. For in addition to preparing lectures (the history of Islam, the short stories of Anton Chekov and John Barrymore's 1921 silent film "Sherlock Holmes") and pouring over more than a half-dozen medical research protocols, I have been writing Holiday Sermons. Having just completed the first series of services -- and being now in the throes of making preparations for Yom Kippur -- Anna urged me to make life a bit easier by converting one of my sermons into this week's essay. Seeing great wisdom in her suggestion, I hereby present -- in somewhat modified form -- the sermon I delivered this past Thursday -- the first day of Rosh Hashana. As with most of my sermons, it is pretty universal; one certainly does not have to be Jewish in order to get something out of it . . .)
How many of us have ever tried to figure out about how many hours a day -- or week -- or month -- we sit in front of a computer screen? Probably not that many. And for good reason. I guess that most of us have a haunting feeling that were we to actually figure it out, the total would shock us right out of our Docksiders. For truth to tell, the number of hours is simply staggering. Computers -- and by extension -- iPods, smart phones, X-boxes and a host of other devices, have become as central to our daily lives as eating, sleeping and kvetching. These electronic devices have taken over just about every facet of daily life:
- Want to know who was President immediately before Abraham Lincoln? Don’t go to the library and look it up in the encyclopedia; you can either go on-line and Google it or simply ask “Siri”-- this generation’s favorite intelligent personal assistant.
- Want to pay a bill? Don’t get out your checkbook and a pen; log on, go to whatever your banking institution's dot com and pay away to your heart’s content.
- Can’t sleep and want to know how the Dodgers did in last night’s West Coast game that ended at 2:00 am Florida time? You don’t have to wait until the day after tomorrow; simply go online, go to the Dodger's website and away you go.
As a result of all this ease of communication, computation and the like, we’ve lost the ability to find things out for ourselves, to do simple mathematical computations in our heads or, in many cases, to even communicate with people face-to-face. Along these lines, one of my pet peeves involves texting. Although I am not truly of the texting generation, I do engage in it somewhat laboriously every once in a while -- almost exclusively to my longtime "brains-behind-the-throne" assistant Art. Nonetheless, it never ceases to amaze me -- and here comes the pet peeve -- that people actually text while driving -- which is of course both incredibly dangerous and illegal in most states -- while standing in line . . . even while eating at a restaurant. I can't begin to tell you have many times I've witnessed kids carrying on animated text conversations with other kids sitting next to them at the same table! (And for reasons unknown, it generally seems to be at Starbucks.)
All this technological brilliance has added greatly to modern life . . . but at a cost.
To paraphrase what is likely the best-known, most oft-quoted expression from the Biblical book of Job:
יְהֹוָ֣ה נָתַ֔ן וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה לָקָ֑ח יְהִ֛י שֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָ֖ה מְבֹרָֽךְ
Namely: “The desktop hath given, the laptop hath taken away, blessed be the name of the cyber device forever and ever.”
Now I realize that there are still people who aren’t part of the computer world -- at least as far as they are concerned. Take my mother as but one example. As modern and hip a woman as she is, she hasn’t the slightest interest in having anything -- and I mean anything -- to do with computers. And it's not that she considers them to be the work of the devil or anything like that; she just believes that at her age -- she’ll be 91 on her next birthday -- she doesn’t feel up to learning a new language. (That's Mom on the right at her last birthday party. And yes, she does look like a million dollars . . . after taxes! Great genes.) And indeed, she does have a point about not learning a new language; "computer" is a language all unto itself . . . just as texting is a language unto itself.
We are all familiar with parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who are firmly convinced their offspring are absolute geniuses because of what they can do with computers at age 5 . . . or 3 or even 2. Move over Albert Einstein! Indeed, I often tell Anna, “If only we had a 6-year old around the house, he or she could solve this glitch.” But you know something? It's quite reminiscent of the immigrant experience vis-a-vis English. Among the millions of immigrants who came to America 100 years ago and more, a certain percentage of the adults never learned to speak English. Many learned to speak a less than fluent English -- often "mit en eksent." And then there was that small percentage that learned to speak perfectly fluent, virtually unaccented English. (Mom's father, our Grandpa Doc, was one of the latter; though born in Grodno; the way he spoke English, you would have thought he was from Glendale.) Adult immigrants thought their children were geniuses because they picked up English so very quickly . . . in school and on the street.
It's pretty much the same thing with computers. Among the older generations, many (like Mom) never learn to “speak” computer. Others learn it imperfectly, frequently “speaking” mit en eksent. Then there are those who conquer the task and get along with all the facility of those who were born into an age of computers.
I place myself somewhere in the middle of those who speak fluently but without knowledge of all the colloquialisms. And, I'm still picking up new bits of information, learning new techniques, even discovering new things about the keyboard. Not too long ago, I purchased a new keyboard for my desktop that has both English and Hebrew letters. It comes in very handy when using a Hebrew word processor. When I first hooked it up, I found myself paying far closer attention to its functions than I had with any previous keyboard I had used. In doing so, I discovered there were several buttons, functions and shortcuts I never realized existed. And over the past year or so, I have come to have several favorites.
These new favorites -- combined with basic functions I always knew about, serve as an excellent basis for a High Holiday sermon. I mean, consider some of the computer keyboard’s most important functions and how they relate to the meaning of this awesome day.
- Escape: found at the top left of virtually every keyboard, it reminds us that unlike cyber programs, there is no escaping the program of life. As Jews, we are taught that one of the most precious gifts -- if not the supreme gift -- which G-d has bestowed on us -- is free will . . . the ability to make ultimate decisions as to how we will act. There is no escaping the choice between doing good or supporting evil, of rolling up our sleeves and becoming involved in righting wrongs or merely sitting on the sidelines and complaining is in our hands. There is no escaping Rabbi Tarphon’s famous dictum which states
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
Namely, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist it.”
- Undo/reverse arrow: On the computer, there is no difficulty “taking something back” -- undoing that which has already been done -- even if you have saved it. In life, many, many things can never be undone -- like things we say about other people. We live in a time where airing dirty linen in public is as commonplace as drinking a glass of water. We all speak with such “knowledge” about people and events of which we have absolutely no first-hand knowledge. (One of my favorite satirists, Andy Borowitz, wrote a piece a couple of days ago which began: "In a positive development for the U.S.-led campaign of air strikes in Syria, a new poll indicates strong, broad-based support for the mission among people who have yet to read a news article about Syria.") This, my friends, is called rumor-mongering. It cannot be undone or reversed by the simple click of a button containing a backward arrow. The rabbis likened rumors and gossip to perfume escaping from a broken bottle; even if the breakage is accidental, there is no putting the fragrance back in. It is wafting about for anyone and everyone to breathe in. Since G-d did not provide us with an undo function, perhaps in the New Year we ought to renew our best effort to keep our mouths shut.
- Delete: Wouldn’t it be grand if life had a delete button; a function which permitted us to simply wipe out a past event as if it had never occurred? Well, if you think about it, that’s precisely what Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are . . . the Jewish delete button. Through seriously contemplating, analyzing and asking forgiveness for our past misdeeds -- against both G-d and our family, friends and neighbors, we can, in a sense, delete them . . . “wipe the slate clean” in order to begin anew. Of course, this is no mere performative wish; it is hard work. If we are to be forgiven-- to have our sins and trespasses deleted, we must seek out those we have wronged . . . which is both difficult and humbling -- and beg their forgiveness. Then, and only then, might we have these misdeeds deleted.
- Pause/break: unlike the undo or reverse function, we do have the ability to take a “pause” or “break -- of putting our normal, workaday concerns into hibernation and spending our time dealing with issues of greater importance; of giving ourselves the time to recognize and understand our smallness and contemplate those things which are truly larger than ourselves. Will we be more grateful for who we are and what we have in the coming year, or will we persist moaning over what we lack? One of the greatest lessons philosophy teaches us is that there is reality external to ourselves. Much of modern life stresses the centrality of the individual; of the prominent position of the individual ego. And yet, Judaism’s long and noble existence has far more to do with the stress we place on the community than the power we give to the individual. Remember, few if any of our prayers are in the first-person singular “I.” The overwhelming majority of them are in the first-person plural . . . “We.” Again, a lesson from rabbinic literature, this time from the great Sage Hillel:
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
Namely: If I am not for myself, who shall be for me? And if I am only for myself, what kind of person am I? And if not now, when . . .?”
- F-7: When pressed, this key, which is up at the top of the keyboard, automatically opens up the spelling or grammatical correction program. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in life we could simply push a button and find out if what we did or said, what we were planning on doing, was correct? Alas, no such button exists. Life is a series of victories and defeats, of triumphs and tragedies. Hopefully the triumphs are great, the tragedies more or less minor and reparable. Some see virtually any and everything that happens -- both the good and the bad, the understandable and totally inexplicable -- as being G-d’s will. And while it is undoubtedly true that G-d does have pre-knowledge of everything that’s going to happen, it does not mean that he or she is responsible for everything we do. G-d is not and cannot be our F-7 button. If this were so, we would be no better than puppets on a string. So perhaps the F-7 is there to remind us the best course of action -- the way to make the most of a life that does not have an automatic correct button -- is to never stop learning. As the sage Ben Zoma teaches:
אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם
Namely: Who is to be considered wise? The one who can learn from anyone.”
- Control+F11: This combination permits one to enter or exit a full-screen mode. In other words, this simple function allows us to see “the big picture.” Oh that we could all pledge ourselves to try and grasp the big picture more frequently in the coming year. All too often we respond to a single event as if it is the sum of all reality. No wonder so many people have ulcers and have prescriptions for anti-depressants. If we all had a control+F11 function, we could take a step back, consider where an act, a deed -- even a misdeed -- fits into the bigger overall picture, and have a better understanding of how to proceed.
Within the past month, I discovered two functions on the upper right side of the keyboard that are so plainly spelled out, so completely obvious, that I was totally stunned that I had never seen them before. After using them a couple of times, I decided that they were the most important buttons of all. Namely:
- Sleep and Wake Up: I did not realize until just recently that I could put the computer into sleep mode without having to go down to the bottom left start button and then choose between “sleep” or “hibernate.” Likewise, I did not realize that waking a sleeping computer back up was as simple as tapping the “wake up” button. Brilliant! They have quickly become my two favorite keyboard functions. And when it comes to the High Holidays, what could be more to the point than the command to WAKE UP!? For aren’t we commanded to wake up to the new year? To wake up to a world of new possibilities and new challenges? To wake up and grasp new responsibilities for taking greater charge of our lives and working together, to help make the world a better, saner, more livable place for us and our families? Rosh Hashana is the wake-up function par excellent . . . if only we are aware of its existence. Our wake-up function is called the shofar; it serves precisely the same purpose as that button I just recently discovered.
And for those who heed its call, one of the great rewards is that second newly discovered button . . . the one which assures a good night’s sleep.
For when all is said and done, what greater reward is there for a day spent wisely than a good night's sleep?
A Happy New Year to one and all . . .
Copyright©2014 Kurt F. Stone