Posts Tagged 'Technology'

Separateness and Holiness: Technology and Chukat Ha’Akum

There are a myriad of commandments in Aharei Mot Kedoshim, this week’s double Torah portion. As a collection these commandments set out a holiness code for what it means to be Jewish. At the end of we learn of the commandment of Chukat Ha’Akum prohibiting imitating Gentile manners in their dressings and practices. There we read:

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them (Leviticus 20:23)

This prohibition makes sense in my imagination of ancient tribalism, but modern life has created many dilemmas on what constitutes a violation. By design this commandment is relative to the environment in which we find ourselves.  Amidst this holiness code it seems like a clear drive for Kedusha, but less about holiness and more about separateness.

I was thinking about this challenging commandment when reading a New York Times article back in September 2017. In their article “In Amish Country, the Future Is Calling” 

Like our own, the Amish struggle with technology is an issue of Chukat Ha’Akum. Modernity and technology offer us both great things and pose real risks. Recently I had the opportunity to be at the Poeh Cultural Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico to learn from Stephen Tekaron-Hiarenkon Fadden, a gifted Native American educator. He wisely taught, “Don’t confuse communication technology with communication.” The answer cannot be to exclude technology completely or use it blindly.  The technology needs to serve the holy work of helping us communicate. We need to intentionally determine how we will preserve our Kedusha meaning both our separateness and our holiness. Ironically we have what to learn from our Amish and Native American brethren as to how to keep the prohibition of Chukat Ha’Akum .




Passover Selfie

I have noticed recently that we as a society have been talking a lot about the rise of the “selfie”. This is ironic in that we are talking about ourselves taking pictures of ourselves. It is as if we have ensnared ourselves in a viscous Narcissistic loop. And yes I mean that  literally and  literarily. It seems that with the advent of technology that allows us to capture our every move we are more interested in documenting the lives we are living then just living those lives. We are so busy preparing to remember the moment that we are never actually in the moment.

Recently I saw a wonderful campaign by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. On their website they wrote:

By now we’re sure you’ve heard of the selfie fad sweeping social media. Everyone from kids to celebrities are jumping in on the fun. This trend got The Fellowship wondering what it would look like if, instead of focusing on ourselves, the trend focused on the needs of others. We invite you to join us in our quest to reinvent the selfie and celebrate selflessness. We will be sharing images of people who help make the lives of others better, as well as those whose lives are forever changed by actions of love, kindness, and generosity.

 Simply put they want people to post their  own #Unselfie on Facebook or Twitter. While I think there is a lot to say in terms of advocating and educating people to be more altruistic, is the rise of the selfie synonymous with the rise of being more selfish.

I ask this because I just got a wonderful cute Holiday e-card from the good people over that the Schusterman Foundation.  Along with the following cartoons they were asking people to take Selfies of themselves doing Passover  to post their  own #PassoverSelfie on Facebook or Twitter. I have to admit that I did not get the top right picture right away, but then I realized it was a Selfie of Pharaoh during the plague of darkness.

Passover SelfieI particularly love the picture of the bottom left. It is funny to imagine Moshe taking a moment to take a selfie as he is going through the miraculous divided sea. But why is this so funny? Well it seems self-absorbed to not just take in the miracle as compared to the compulsion to capture and share this moment with others.

Then I got to thinking about the very enterprise of having a Seder and I started to reconsider my anti-Selfie judgement. What is driving us to have a Seder. We learn in the Talmud:

B’CHOL DOR VADOR CHAYAV ADAM LEEROT ET ATZMO K’EELU HU YATZA MEE-MITZRAYIM- In every generation one must look upon him/herself as if s/he personally had gone out of Egypt .” (Pesachim 116b)

To fulfill this we have a Seder every year to preserve/create this memory. We see in books like Prof Yershalmi’s Haggadah and History that every generation rewrote their Haggadot to speak to the very issues of their generation. I think this is easy to see through The Four Children by Noam Zion – There you can see artistic representations of the four children throughout history. How they depict the four children tells us a lot about how they see themselves. In this way the Haggadah itself is a pre-Techonologic Selfie which helped every generation take a picture of themselves and share it through the media of the time so that they could look upon themselves as if they personally had gone out of Egypt.  If you are so moved I wanted to encourage you to do the same. Go to and make your own Haggadah/Selfie. For some of use technology frees us from slavery and for others technology has become  the new slave master. We need to find a balance between living in the moment and reflecting on that moment. Have a liberating and meaningful Passover.

Yosef and Technology

At the beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Yosef’s reconnecting with his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no man with him, while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. ( Genesis 45:1-2)

While I imagine Yosef wanted to teach his brothers a lesson for having sold him into slavery, these are his brothers and he has been isolated from his family for many years. It is easy to relate to Yosef’s inability to control himself. But the situation does begs the question, with all of his wealth and resources why did Yosef not go out or send out for his family earlier?

I had not thought about it until I saw a video this week, but maybe Yosef  just lacked the technology. If you have not yet to see this video please watch it. It will blow your mind.

When Saroo Munshi Khan was five years old, he went with his older brother to scrounge for change on a passenger train about two hours away from his small hometown. Saroo became tired and hopped on a nearby train where he thought his brother was and then fell asleep. When he woke up, he was in Calcutta — nearly 900 miles away. Saroo tried to find his way back, but didn’t know the name of his hometown, and as a tiny, illiterate boy in a vast city full of forgotten children, he had no chance. Eventually he got adopted by an Australian couple.  Saroo moved there, learned their language and grew up, but he never stopped looking for his family and his hometown. Decades later, he discovered Google Earth. Using all of his memories,  this technology, and years of scouring the satellite photos, he recognized a few landmarks and found his way home.  

There are similarities between Saroo and Yosef’s story. One difference is technology. I have no misconceptions, technology can be terrible. It has brought us cyber-bullying, sexting, global terrorism, and many other terrible things that come from a platform for global connection and anonymity. But as the story of Saroo clearly articulates there is also a tremendous power behind today’s technology. This platform for global connection helped alleviate the pain of a lost child’s anonymity. It rejoined an orphan to his long-lost family.

It is interesting to reflect again on Yosef’s story. At the start he kicks everyone out of the room so he can reveal his hidden identity to his brothers in private. But when Yosef finds his voice it knows no bounds. His weeping was heard by the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh. If it was not for this technology I would never have learned about Saroo’s story or been able to share it with you. And who knows maybe if he had the technology Yosef would have tweeted his reunion.


–  Thank you Rabbis Yonah Berman and Seth Wax for helping this idea come together.

Down Tower

In Noah, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Tower of Babel. Following the generations of the flood humanity united speaking a single language. They resolved to build a city with a tower. They wanted to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”( Genesis 11:4) God came down and saw what they are doing.  There we read:

And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Come let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech’.So God scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did confound the language of all the earth: and from there God scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:6-9)

While we can argue about their motivations in building this tower, for now, I want to think about what they were feeling after the tower came down. How did these people deal with being scattered all over the world and their inability to communicate with each other? It sounds horrible. The fear of being alone itself helps me understand their motivation to build the tower at the start of this story.

I was thinking about this feeling this week when I saw a video of the comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O’Brien Show. Louis C.K. gives a classic rant against cell phones pointing out why connected devices are especially “toxic” for kids. In this short 5-minute piece, which I encourage you to watch, he gives his insights about the role of technology in our lives.

He makes it sound so simple. Louis C.K. says:

I look around, pretty much 100% of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.

Why are we so afraid of being alone?  He goes on to say:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself, and not be doing something. That’s what the phones have taken away — is the ability to just sit there like this. That’s being a person, right?

Cell phones are toxic because we never experience being alone. I imagine this to be a similar feeling that they must have had after the Tower of Babel came down. Being in touch with this emptiness makes us want to fill that void with authentic and meaningful communication. If we are not in touch with being alone we will never truly appreciate the people in our lives. After the learning about theTower of Babel, you sort of want the cell tower to also fall. We would not have more meaningful relationships in our lives if the cell phones were not in the way? At the least we have Shabbat to unplug.

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