Thursday, October 02, 2014

What did the iPhone Teach me about Faith?

"Know what is above you: An eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your actions are recorded in a book" [Avot 2:1].
"I Learned Three Things"
Masters of ethics (mussar) and Chassidut were able to draw deep insights from everything in the world around them. An example is what is written, "If the Torah had not been given we would have learned about modesty from the cat, robbery from the ant, and incest from the dove" [Eiruvin 100b]. Another example is the following statement by Reb Moshe-Leib from Sassov (others attribute this to Rebbi Zusha from Napoli): I learned three things from a baby – (1) He is never idle, not for an instant, he is always busy. (2) When he misses something he immediately starts to cry, without feeling any shame. (3) When his demand is satisfied he is happy and no longer sad and bitter. The discerning eye of the Masters of Chassidut did not even avoid using a thief as an object for lessons. The Maggid of Mezerich learned proper behavior from the traits of a thief: (1) He does not rest at night, and what he did not accomplish one night he puts off to the next one. (2) He is faithful to his colleagues and will not break their trust. (3) He is willing to put himself in danger in order to accomplish his goal, even if it does not have any great significance.
I remember hearing a similar statement about lessons to be learned from getting into a car. (1) It is necessary to bend down, it cannot be done with the head held high. (2) One must remove his high hat, as a symbol of submissiveness and capitulation. (3) Anybody who wants to make himself very comfortable will always take away something from the others. There are also lessons to be learned from a train: (1) Man is confined within time and is not beyond the time. (2) Whoever doesn't pay will be forced to leave the train. (3) It is okay to be early for a train, but one is not allowed to be late...
The source for this format of listing three elements in a lesson can be seen in the Talmud, "At that point I learned three things from him. I learned that one should not enter a ruin, I learned that one can pray while on a journey, and I learned that on a journey one should pray a short prayer." [Berachot 3a]. In Eiruvin (see above, learning modesty from a cat, etc), this approach was derived from the verse, "Who gives us more knowledge than the beasts or is wiser than the birds in the sky?" [Iyov 35:11].
In this vein, and in the spirit of Yom Kippur, when mankind stands before the Creator, let us look at three things that I have learned from the realm of electronic communications media – the iPhone, the internet, and the computer, with everything surrounding them. As is quoted above, "An eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a book."
An Eye that Sees
The question of the Holy One, Blessed be He, "Where are you?" [Bereishit 3:9], a reference to physical position, seems at first glance to have been solved in our modern era. No person is free to hide from the "Big Brother" or from the intelligence gathering services of the 8200 Unit in the IDF, and certainly not from the Holy One, Blessed be He. A person can be found far beyond the dark mountains and in the intricate wilds of the jungle. He leaves behind a digital trace, and using the chip beating away in his pocket he gives out the news: "Here I am!" (In the next generation it will probably also be possible to receive position signals from a living heart.) "If a man hides, can I not see him, G-d asks" [Yirmiyahu 23:24]. "There is no hiding from its heat" [Tehillim 19:7].
And I would like to suggest an idea for a startup that will help limit surfing in sites that would be included in the prohibition, "Do not follow your eyes" [Bamidbar 15:39]. A program (which will be installed voluntarily) which will allow human oversight of the computer screens from a distance, with the ability to break in with a "STOP" sign (perhaps accompanied by a siren). There is no need for legions of secret watchers who will broadcast the warnings continuously. It will be enough that a random possibility for such interruptions exists...
An Ear that Hears
The heading above this paragraph represents the positive side of the media. Even a person who lives in solitude or is confined to a sick bed can communicate with the outside world – family, friends, radio broadcasters, or assorted advisors. The "listening ear" is also characteristic of an interactive address that is available on internet media, one that is open for two-way interaction. By taking advantage of the communications keys and a keyboard any person – in a city, in the desert, in prison, in an old age home, in a military foxhole, on top of or underneath a table – can express his views. "Will my voice be heard??" You bet it will!
Actions Recorded in a Book
From my earliest memories I was always amazed and impressed by wondering how the Holy One, Blessed be He, can know at one and the same time every "action of a man and all his wants" and "remember everything that has been forgotten" [from the High Holy Day prayers]. "'He tells a person what he has said' [Amos 4:13] – at the time of death, even extraneous conversations between a man and his wife are repeated to him" [Chagiga 5b]. Is there no limit to the capacity of knowledge? To the capacity of recording? Of memory? And then, what about interpretation? And what about retrieval? But now the internet "cloud" has come to the rescue. And if man-made computer servers can have an infinite capacity (as it were), together with a fantastic ability to retrieve and interpret – then certainly the Holy One, Blessed be He, who gave mankind the ability of understanding, has no limits to His powers.
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The Mishna quoted above about eyes and ears begins with the statement, "Know what is above you." That is, pay attention, think about the higher level reality that is above you. Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, the brilliant Rebbe, hears in this statement another emphasis: "Know what is above!" If you want to know what is happening in the upper worlds, know that the answer lies "with you!" Man in his behavior and his abilities establishes what happens there, high above... It all stems "from you!"

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