I’ll Meet You At 8:00 at: www.whowhywhn.oisgeshlept/chevra
ALEF — WHAT I HEARD: Not too long ago, a friend told me that she had learned that teenagers were no longer running to get their drivers license as soon as they reached the legal age. Several others I subsequently asked confirmed this. I was surprised, because in my day, we all rushed to get our license as soon as the law allowed. It gave us the freedom to see our friends scattered all over northern Virginia. My friends all agreed that this trend was attributed to the teenagers’ texting and using all the other tools of social media to be in touch with their chevra, so they didn’t feel a need to actually see their friends.
BET — THE TEXTS: Not long ago, at the invitation of my good friend Rabbi David Shneyer, I had the opportunity to teach some ZoomTorah. The material was mostly unusual, ignored, off-the beaten-track texts about Jewish values. Approximately 45 people “attended”: friends of mine, members of David’s congregation and impressive outreach efforts (Kehilla Chadasha and Am Kolel), and a few others who must have heard from someone that they might want to participate.
The morning after, two things struck me: (1) A seasonal Diaspora poem kept jumping into my head: “It was the night before Shavuot/and all through the house/not a creature was stirring/because they all were looking at their computer screens. [My rhythm-ruining adaptation.] (2) I pictured slot machines with five spinning wheels, where you win with any straight line or diagonal connection. I obviously knew a good number of the people, but I could see Steve at the top right of the screen reconnecting (after nearly 6 decades), with Warren, one row down and three to the left, David saw Bill, maybe only three over to the right. And #2 added an entirely new, enriching dimension to the wonders of ZoomTorah that I had not recognized previously.
Now, two texts I didn’t use, one from the Shulchan Aruch and the other from The Book of Genesis:
THE FIRST TEXT: (1) One who sees a friend after (a gap of) 30 days recites [the] Shehecheyanu [blessing]. If it has been 12 months, one recites “Mechayay HaMaytim – who brings dead people back to life”. [In either situation], that applies only if the person is really dear to him, and he is overjoyed to see him. (2) If he had never seen his friend but knew about him, and had contact through letters – even if he is happy to see him, he does not make the blessing(s)*. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 225:1-2)
THE SECOND TEXT: The classic Biblical example of such an encounter is in Genesis 46:30: Then Israel said to Joseph, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.”
It is not difficult to imagine Jacob’s intense emotions after seeing his son Joseph after all those many years when he thought his beloved son was dead.
We know of Shoah Survivors who were and are reunited with family members decades afterwards, unaware that the brother or sister or child had also survived. While hopefully we are spared situations like that of the Survivors or Jacob in our own lives, so many of us experience the distress of separation and longing because of our modern great geographical distances. I believe that these blessings allow us to verbalize what emotions are may be in our subconscious thoughts.
GIMEL — TWO COMPARABLE (?) EXAMPLES:
(1) Zoom-Chevra: Because a book of mine was recently published**, my editor, Rabbi Neal Gold, thought it would be good to have him interview me. With the Coronavirus raging, this was “naturally” going to be a virtual event. About 75-80 people appeared on the screen. As I told many people afterwards, it was the single greatest number of my friends “gathered” in one place ever.
(2) Jerusalem: For the past 44 summers, I made it an almost daily habit to sit in the shade outside of one the restaurants on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim. I would stretch my time by nursing a Diet Coke or latté, in anticipation that — more often than not — one of my friends would come by. We would then have a blessed hour to schmooze or talk Torah and Tikkun Olam. Some of them — Sabras and Olim — I saw frequently; others were tourists whom I hadn’t known were coming, and still others, which “made my day, week, month, summer”, I had not seen for years or decades. Nothing, I insist, nothing can ever replace those experiences, the handshakes, and the hugs — feeling muscles, body mass and contours — and double-cheeked kisses.
Now no one denies that Zoom and similar electronic miracles have their glitches: you lose sound, or there’s static, or you are distracted and switch to Gallery View to scan for friends, or you click on this or that icon and it doesn’t respond. That is certainly also true in face-to-face conversations: A spontaneous unintended yawn happens, your eyes wander away from the person speaking, the other person might have been saying something and meaning something else, or the other person says, “You weren’t listening”.
DALET — MY ANALYSIS:
Call me old fashioned. True, I most certainly do not miss carbon paper and the stink of mimeograph correction fluid. True, I was not born with a mouse in my hand, but I write tons of e-mails, and manage in competently using Word, TextEdit, Excel, Firefox, Safari, and FaceTime. Nevertheless, I take the phrase “one who sees” from the Shulchan Aruch text literally.
My question is: When the Coronavirus joins the history of the 1919 flu, polio, SARS, and AIDS epidemics, and because of the length of our isolation, and the extreme ease, immediacy, and reach of Zoom and the like — is there a danger that some people may settle for second-best, accepting this one-step-removed situation as our preferred pattern of living?
I believe that we have to ask ourselves if this “not quite, almost” reality is really the way we want to, and are supposed to, relate to others? I am concerned that, for a few people (like the teens mentioned above), this thought that pops up now and again from the back of the mind will become their normal practice. It may not even be noticed at first. Will we have given Zoomlife the (in my mind – undeserved) priority over real real Life and real real people.
Or will we no longer believe that we are “going out of our way” to visit/see/shlep to Cousin X, friend Y, or lifelong friend Z?
I, personally, most definitely prefer any human glitches to the ones that appear as a mass of multi-colored pixels on a screen. I will give preference, always, to a living, breathing human being over the most advanced sophisticated complex of silicon-generated 0s and 1s on my Mac.
Many people have heard that clever statement, “On a deathbed, nobody ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office”. In monumental contrast, long ago someone told me a line that has stayed with me since I first heard it maybe 20 years ago: “I don’t want to be 80 years old and have to say, “’I wish we would have spent more time together’”.
*I have used only the masculine gender in the translation to prevent the sentences being too cumbersome. This Halachah applies to everyone.
**Radiance, Creative Mitzvah Living, The Selected Prose and Poetry of Danny Siegel, The Jewish Publication Society, 2020.