Thursday, January 28, 2016

Did you get my message?

We are so busy, just so very busy.
Psychologists now even have a term for it. They say we suffer from "time poverty". In English, that means that we don't believe we have enough time to accommodate all the things that we want to do. 
Ironic, isn't it? In the 30's they predicted that by now we'd only work about three hours a day, because technology would take care of the rest. As right as they were, they were wrong. Technology swallows up the spare time that technology was meant to provide. 
So, we're all really hectic. That hectic that we may miss breakfast. So insane that we can't even reply to each other's messages. 
At least, I assume that's the reason so few people respond to each other. It surely can't be because people are outright rude, so it must be because we're all so busy.
The thing is, it feels disrespectful to the person on the other side of the Whatsapp. If they can tell that you're online or have read their message, and they get no response, they will be obviously feel offended. Someone captured it perfectly online: "It is easy to say 'busy' when someone needs you, but it is painful to hear 'busy' when you need someone".
Hillel used to say, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary". 
The great irony is that it's really easy to get back to people nowadays. We no longer have to compose a handwritten letter and mail it. We don't even need to allocate time for a full phone conversation to communicate. Shooting off a text response takes just seconds. Yet, in the days of snail mail and rotary phones, people managed to stay in touch better than we techno-whizzes do today.
Twenty seconds of text-response can go a long way to building relationships. 
I'm not suggesting that we should drop everything to hit reply as each new message arrives. That is simply impractical. Anybody who expects us to be thumbs-at-the-ready to respond on the spot is out of touch.
But, no response? No excuse.
I am reminded of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that says that you only enjoy honour when you afford honour to others. Profound idea.
Ah, but maybe not every message needs a response. What if the person already knows what I think or that I have confirmed our meeting? Do I need to respond then too?
Here, we can take a page from Moshe's book. 
In this week's Parsha, Moshe is charged with coordinating the three days of preparation before receiving the Torah. In that time, Moshe had to shuttle back and forth from the Jews at the foot of the mountain to G-d at the top. He had to guide the Jews on the steps they needed to make before G-d would reveal Himself. He had to cordon off the entire mountain. He had to shimmy up the mountain for updated details from Hashem on the nuances of the preparation. And he had to gear himself spiritually to handle the biggest Divine event since Creation.
Now Moshe could well have had an excuse not to respond to messages until after all the chaos. He certainly didn't have to report to G-d, because G-d knows everything. 
Nonetheless, the Torah reports that Moshe made the trip up the mountain (pity he didn't have Whatsapp) to let G-d know that the Jews were preparing as instructed and that everything was on course for the Great Reveal.
Rashi, the Ramban and other commentators ask why Moshe stressed so much to personally communicate this information to G-d. After all, he would only be telling G-d things He already knew.
They conclude that Moshe wanted to model the importance of communication. He wanted us to appreciate that it's only right to get back to someone who has communicated with you, even if they already know your answer.
If Moshe felt he should return G-d's messages, we should do the same for each other. 
Hope you got my message...

Monday, December 21, 2015

My phone's not so smart... or is it?

I’ve been cut off from the world.

They tell me it’s temporary, but the last few days have felt like an eternity. I find it difficult to communicate. I have lost contact with hundreds of people.

I am isolated.

No news.

Can’t monitor your special moments in real-time. Even chatting with friends has become a burden.

My cell-phone is in for repairs.

Yes, they have given me a loan phone. My cynical side might call it a dumb-phone (as in the antithesis of smartphone). But, Its eight-day battery-life has earned it enough of my respect for me to fondly nickname it my “Chanukah phone”.

I had a phone like this once. In 1997.

To be fair, this phone can do more than just call and SMS. It has a calculator, a flashlight and even a selection of two-dimensional games. I’m sticking with calls for now, because typing messages on that push-the-button-three-times-to-type-a-letter system is agonizing. 

One plus is that this phone has no auto-text. I haven’t messaged anyone “Good Shabby” or signed off as “rabbit”. But, I have no Whatsapp, no social media and I have to wait until I get home to read my emails.

Truthfully, it’s a good time of year to have this inconvenience. December is summer vacation time, and being technologically incapacitated should be quite restful.

On the first day one of this loan-phone adventure, I habitually checked that device every five minutes to make sure it was still operational. A phone as quiet as that thing was had to be comatose, if at all alive.

As the day advanced, I began to enjoy the absence of beeps and jingles. I spoke to my children with no electronic interference. I made it through a full Shul service without checking for messages and spoke to people while making eye-contact (I think it made them uncomfortable). I felt no pressure to avoid opening any app that might betray my having seen a message without responding immediately. I may not have made it to Cape Town, but I was in full holiday mode.

By day two, dim memories of life pre-technology started to surface. Now foreign experiences, like summer evening walks, Monopoly games and researching information in books floated back. Life started to feel a little slower, a little quieter. 

I could get used to this!

My imagination tempted me with the promise of family fun, longer study sessions and spare time in the diary. Maybe I could simply not collect my smartphone when the service centre called. If I kept this magically non-invasive phone, surely they could sell my S6 Edge to defray costs.

But, then I realized the phone may have gone quiet, but that didn’t mean I had fewer interactions to manage. People had sent just as many queries, I just hadn't received them. Who knows? There are probably more than a few disgruntled people who think I am ignoring them. My “kosher” phone, as the frum world call it, is a great escape, but it isn't practical for 21st Century rabbinics.

Now, you can always find guidance and wisdom in the weekly Torah reading. My phone escapade coincided with the portion about Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was a smartphone person, his siblings more the "kosher phone" type. 

Joseph’s siblings advocated the simple life. As shepherds, they steered clear of the distractions of society. Joseph, to their dismay, dived right into the thick of the modern world. His brothers were certain nobody could retain their spiritual integrity while living in the hub of civilization. 

Joseph proved them wrong. Not only did he successfully enter the modern world, he rose to prominence and raised a spiritually-sound family to boot.

Years earlier, Joseph had predicted that his brothers would eventually come around to his approach. They had balked at the prospect. Today, Judaism is modeled after Joseph's approach; a spiritual path that engages- and shapes- the world.

That non-invasive simple-phone is very attractive, but my smartphone allows me to reach and touch the world. And to hopefully make a positive impact.

That said, my current techno go-slow is a good reminder that all-consuming connectivity is unhealthy. You can only influence the world if you are in the driver’s seat. Joseph shaped the world from a position of power. You only make a difference when you control the technology, not when you are controlled by it. And to stay in control, you need to be able to completely disengage regularly and reconnect with ancient, bedrock values. 

I’m looking forward to getting my slick, connected phone back, so I can easily interact with the world out there. But, if I don’t get back to you immediately or if I’m not the fastest to like or retweet your content, that’s because my time with my “Chanukah” phone has reminded me that switching off during family, social, study or spiritual time is more valuable than being virtually present all day.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Nkandla and the Nazir

This week's Torah reading includes, inter-alia, the laws of the Nazir and the Sotah, two seemingly unrelated personas. A Sotah is a woman who has compromised Kiddushin, the sanctity of her marriage, for lust. Infidelity is more than breaking the trust of one's life-partner, it is an affront to G-d and our own innate hto oliness. 
A Nazir is the complete opposite. He or she is someone who shuns pleasure in order to strengthen a connection with G-d. A Nazir wants to be kadosh, holy and focused.
You'll agree that these two characters are polar opposite, so it is surprising that the Torah desrcibes them one after the other. Why the link? The Talmud says that, if you see someone fall into temptation, like a Sotah, you should abstain from wine, like a Nazir.
In other words, if you see someone else fail, take precautions to ensure you remain beyond reproach.
It is a great lesson, but you have to wonder: Surely, someone who is inclined to take an oath of dedication to G-d is a long stretch from someone who commits adultery. Why the need for an immediate (and drastic) response to someone else's weakness?
Many ugly things happen in society. Thankfully, we remain unaware of most of them. But, when we a scandal catches our eye, we shouldn't just use it as Friday night table content, we should recognize that Hashem is messaging us. When He makes us aware of someone else's wrongdoing, He actually holds a mirror up for us to examine our own weaknesses.
Nkandla has many South Africans, including many of our own community seething; possibly with good reason. How can anyone justify throwing enormous amounts of money away on elaborate entertainment facilites and then claim that these are home essentials? It's obscene.
But, it makes me think of our "keep up with the Cohens" barmis, batties and weddings. South Africa has not yet seen a barmi with a "fire pool" or a battie at a kraal. But, I think we've lost our way pumping big budget into eye-catching decor and outfits, top of the line catering and specialist entertainers. And we've convinced ourselves that all the glitz is a "simcha essential". We can armchair critique the president's spend on his home and become frustrated. We could choose, rather, to rethink our own simcha expenditure and become modest and focused.
I wish for the day when people scale down their simchos, give their children a heimish celebration and share some of the savings with those who can't afford their own celebration. It would even make sense to share the saving with the newlyweds themselves to help them set up their first home. For now, I'm afraid, our whitewash teams will spin a tale on why "my child can't be the only one to have a simple celebration" and the bills will keep growing.