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Maurice A. Salth
Hineni, Here I Am: A Jewish Response

Maurice A. Salth  |  September 8, 2010

Bucky Dent and Rosh HaShanah

It was October 2, 1978, and Phoebe’s beloved Yankees were playing the dreaded Red Sox in a one-game playoff.  Phoebe drowned out all the sounds around her and listened to the play-by-play on WABC 770 on the AM dial. 

Her new portable solid state transistor radio with the remarkable technological advancement of an earphone plug allowed her to listen to the Yankees wherever she was. Her friends envied her, as did even some of her adult neighbors. 

In the seventh inning, shortstop Bucky Dent came to the plate.  Roy White and Chris Chambliss were on base.  Phoebe listened intently to every pitch.  She winced in empathy after Bucky hit a foul ball off her foot and waited patiently as the trainer came out to see if Bucky was hurt.  When play resumed Bucky smacked Mike Torrez’s pitch towards the green monster…Phoebe could not believe what she was hearing in her ear and she could not keep it too herself.

Without realizing what she was doing, she stood up and shouted:

“Bucky Dent just hit a home run!! Woo-hoo!”

The entire congregation that surrounded her in synagogue turned their heads and stared at Phoebe and she quickly sat down in her seat, her face red, and slowly removed the earphone plug from her ear.

Yes, Bucky Dent had just hit a home run and Phoebe had just listened to it and screamed about it in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah in 1978. 

Phoebe had brought her transistor radio into shul that day because this legendary game, which some say was the best game ever played, was played on Rosh HaShanah. Talk about a child’s prayers being answered! 

Little did that congregation know that Phoebe’s radio was just the beginning of our technology fix, just the precursor for how gadgets and electronics would affect lives inside and outside the synagogue. 

Phoebe’s transistor radio is considered a collectible today, most likely found in the Smithsonian or on E-bay. It has been replaced by mp3 players, Kindles, laptops…we know the list. 

Certainly, the recent explosion in technology has its benefits.  My wife, Hilary, and I now use our shared laptop to video-chat with our beautiful nieces who live 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.

Our community is strengthened and enhanced, each service, by the many listening and watching online through our live streaming and call-in options.

This summer a woman named Darby Finklestein secured her spot in the Jewish Grandmother Hall of Fame by saving her granddaughter’s life after Googling her symptoms and discovering she was suffering from hydrocephalus. (1)

Technology has changed our lives in other significant ways, we’ve got our calendar and contacts in the palm of our hand and we’re more efficient.  All these advances have changed our lives for the better. 

Yet we know all is not well when it comes to how personal technology has impacted our lives.  The constant, ever strengthening, waves of new devices upon our shores have also presented us, our community and our society with massive challenges. 

This New Year’s message was motivated by my concern that on a personal and communal level, slowly but surely, our technology has begun to control us, rather than the other way around. 

This sermon was born out of the mouths of many of our Religious School children whom I hear asking their parents in our lobby to, “please put down the Blackberry.”

Every week we read stories about technology making someone’s life miserable.  But technology is value-neutral.  Technologies are tools.  It is humans that build them and use them; we are the heart of this issue. 

Our ancient rabbis may not have forecast this technology boom – or our undeniable seduction and dependence – but Judaism actually offers crucial guidance on the subject.  Our tradition helps us understand why these devices can be so addictive, and its passionate focus on being present and setting limits can help us manage these powerful tools.

Technology is Addictive:
Managing Our Need to Feel Important and Be in Control

Let’s be honest: these devices are addictive.  They are always on.  They are in our hands and attached to our bodies.  Our eyes constantly return to the screen.  We often spend more time with these gadgets than our own families; we walk on our sidewalks with our heads looking down at them; we even text and drive.  While these innovations provide useful services, they also tap into something deep inside of us.

Dr. John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, notes that social needs and yearnings may drive the use of our devices.  He argues that for some the use becomes an end in itself, a physical habit that can take on the qualities of an impulse disorder (2) and actual addiction. (3) 

James Katz, the director of the Center for Mobile Computing at Rutgers, sees similarities between those who are gambling and those that frequently use technology.  (3)

Both the Smartphone user and the gambler are looking for a prize to feel important, validated and powerful.

The biggest gambler in our Torah is Pharaoh.  Pharaoh was so addicted to the attention he was receiving and the authority he wielded that he gambled his kingdom and life away. 

He relished the thrill that came from Moses’ visits and continually ignored his requests to, “let my people go,” betting that he and his courtiers could outduel God.

After the first plagues the Torah indicates Pharaoh knew he should free the Israelites, but still he did not change his mind.  (4)

There is a bit of Pharaoh in all of us.  We share his attraction to attention and control.  Why is it that we are so tethered to our electronic connections? 

I think it is in part related to the emotional rush we experience when we hear our phone ping or ring, the excitement of knowing people may be trying to contact us, and the power of having 500 channels at our fingertips. 

It is no coincidence that Verizon is marketing its products with the slogan, “rule the world.”  No wonder we are having trouble releasing the grip on our machines. 

There is a reason the Israelites left Egypt.  Egypt was oppressive in so many ways.  Our ancestors had no time to breathe; no chance to think; no opportunity to engage in some of the most critical aspects of being human. 

They needed to build a society of their own, where people, relationships and principles mattered.  They needed to get to a place far away from Egypt’s toxic society, drunk on narcissism and power.

Our ancestors’ time in the desert allowed them to refocus on what was important.  Their time away from the city, under the quiet canopy of blue sky during the day and stars at night nurtured the understanding of our people’s mission: to be present with one another; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (5); and to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (6).  It was in the desert that they learned that God could be found in the still small voice (7). 

They returned to society with a new vision of how to live. 

Our sanctuary’s designers placed hundreds of stars upon our ceiling.  Take a look at them above us.  I think one of their goals was to emulate the desert sky that awed our ancestors.  Even though we sit in the heart of Manhattan, our founding members wanted to create a space, an oasis in the center of New York City, where we could experience stillness and tap into the clarity of purpose that our ancestors learned in the desert long ago. 

Rosh HaShanah is a time when we Jews reflect upon our personal legacy and people’s history.  We are to look hard at our lives and our priorities.  We challenge ourselves to be present and to give of ourselves.  We are meant to harness technology to meet these goals instead of being sidetracked by their temptations.

Hineini - Judaism Prioritizes Being Present and Setting Limits

Technological advancements have helped many of us leave our offices and spend more time with loved ones because we can access work remotely.  But these results do not automatically occur by turning our equipment on; we have to decide to use them for productivity.  Steadily they have crept into all areas of our lives. 

Many of us who began using these tools for work now find them next to our plates at dinner or on our night table in the bedroom, whether or not there is a workplace deadline.  All too often our tools are distracting and interrupting us.

When we look at our tradition it is clear that one of our greatest priorities is to be present and aware.  This quality is tied directly to one of Judaism’s greatest strengths - our emphasis on setting limits.

Why was Moses chosen to lead our ancestors out of Egypt?  One answers lies within Moses’ first encounter with God in the form of a burning bush.  Exodus (3:1-4) describes a moment when Moses, tending to his flock of sheep in the wilderness, noticed this marvelous site.  The Torah states that, “when God saw that Moses had turned aside to look, God called him from out of the bush. Moses replied, ‘hineini,’ here I am.”

Midrash states that many other shepherds walked past this spectacle without even noticing.  If Moses were surfing the Web on his iPhone, he too would have missed this fire. 

Because Moses was acutely aware, he answered God’s call with “hineini.”  He doesn’t say, “what?” or “who is it?”  His reply is the quintessential Jewish statement of being present, “hineini, here I am.”

Personal technology has pulled many of us out of the orbit of such presence.  Recently, New Yorker Michael Malone wrote about his observations at city playgrounds: With a so-called Smartphone seemingly at every adult’s fingertips, many parents are finding playtime to be the ideal time for answering e-mails, firing off text messages and browsing the Web — leaving their children…virtually unattended. (8)

This situation is so prevalent that Mommy and Me classes are implementing no camera policies because parents spend more time behind their recording devices than with their children.  Our city sidewalks have become an obstacle course.  We weave in and around our fellow pedestrians who are using their phones and thousands pass our magnificent synagogue each day without taking in its remarkable façade because they are looking down and not up. 

There may not be bushes burning unconsumed within our view, but every day there are important people and sights we miss.  Instead of answering with the words, here I am, we respond with “can’t you see I’m watching Sports Center” or a non-verbal shaking of the head as we stare into our laptops.

One of Judaism’s greatest values is setting limits.  Judaism is well aware of humanity’s tendency to use our power unproductively.  Just because we are able to eat whatever we want or work at any time of the day or night does not mean we should.  By consciously limiting our use of technology we can be present and focused for our friends and family and be more conscious of our world in front of us.

The most practical but drastic way we can do this is to simply decide to turn off, yes, I said it, turn off, our phones, televisions and computers when we are not using them.  Many families have a nice collection basket at the entrance to their home where all electronics must be left upon entering.  Some families turn off all screens after 9pm.  Others limit the number of times they check their voicemails and e-mails each day.  Imagine that. 

Time is especially sacred for Jews, and our cathedral in time, as Abraham Joshua Heschel called it, is Shabbat (9).  The Sabbath is meant to free us from our machines and work and tasks, which fill the regular days of the week.  Rabbi Heschel writes “is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for humanity’s progress than the Sabbath?” (9)

We Reform Jews, too, do not consider it a day of denial, but an opportunity to pause, breathe and be with the people who matter most. 

A multitude of scientific studies confirm what the Shabbat experience has taught us for millennia: when we remove ourselves from the constant stream of work and interruption, our attention improves.  Our brains are freed to work in more creative, surprising, even productive ways. 

Our youngest generation particularly needs guidance about being present and having self control with regard to all their gadgets.  The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8-18 year olds devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day (or more than 53 hours a week) to using entertainment media. (10)

Cell phone ownership has exploded among kids in the last five years and they have become fluent in texting, tweeting and Facebooking. 

However, one place where our children exist without distraction is summer camp.  There the use of electronics is strongly controlled and limited.  I have asked more than a dozen of our children ages 9 to 15, boys and girls, how they felt about being unplugged at camp.  I expected them to tell me it was a nightmare, but every one of them strongly supported the moratorium.  They genuinely told me they were able to build stronger friendships with each other and their counselors because they weren’t isolating themselves behind video games and iPods.   

There is another place where our children can experience being present, and that’s here at Central Synagogue.  When our clergy and Nursery and Religious School teachers are in the sanctuary and the school, we turn our mobile phones off.  Our priority is connecting with the people in this sanctuary and our extraordinary students in our schools.  At Central, we ask our children to turn off all their electronics and place them in their backpacks so they can focus on their lessons and listening to each other.  Children watch us – emulate us, mimic our behavior and learn from our choices.  Whether we are parents, teachers, or neighbors we all must take seriously how we are modeling technology use. 

Face to Face Vs. Facebook

Facebook is our teenagers’ favorite place on the Internet and is an interesting case study as to the benefits and liabilities new technology provides users young and old.  Facebook has reconnected me with many important people and helped me stay in contact with members of our congregational family.  I invite you to connect with me on Facebook. 

But, Facebook is not the Garden of Eden.  Our tradition makes clear that what’s significant are our true relationships, not the number of Facebook friends or e-mails we have in our inbox.  We know that relationships are ultimately built and sustained by meaningful conversations and time spent together.  Facebook is a tool to strengthen friendships; it is not a substitute for them.  The Book of Exodus describes Moses and God’s relationship as being so close that it is panim el panim, face to face, as a person speaks to his friend. (13)  This choice of words is purposeful; the face to face connection is our tradition’s standard for relationships.

Let Us Say Hineni in This New Year

In the time that we have been sitting here in services, the Yankees have won, or lost, stock futures have gone up, or down, a celebrity, or two, have been arrested for doing something that’s not very smart…and we have all been blissfully and blessedly removed from it all. 
Because in this same time, we’ve held the hand of our spouse or child as we’ve prayed in shul. We’ve contemplated the stars on the ceiling of our sanctuary and the words of Torah and our tradition.  Tonight, like Moses, each of us can say hineni. 

We are all living in this new age.  Today is the start of a new Jewish year.  We are not going back to the days when we wandered in the desert or used stone tablets to write on or even portable solid state transistor radios to follow our teams.  Our children’s textbooks and our prayer books may soon be on iPads, but that does not mean we are no longer in control of our lives, our time and the on-off switch. 

Let this New Year be one where we are present with others without distraction. 

May we harness technology in order to achieve our goals. 

May 5771 be the year we feel the rush that comes from relaxing and being panim el panim, face to face, with dear ones on Shabbat and other days.

This year may we gaze often into the beautiful heavens, at the same stars that our ancestors looked upon, and say hineni, here I am, I am ready to fulfill our people’s legacy and my life’s potential. 

Shanah Tovah.

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