Moving the Twitter World Toward Redemption

On March 21, 2006, Jack Dempsey set up Twitter and sent out the first tweet.  140 characters was the maximum the platform allowed at that time.

Short, concise, and fast moving.

In a matter of seconds, tweets can be shared and spread through the internet like a tsunami.  

Some tweets spread love, compassion and hope.

And many tweet out hate, derision, and scorn.  

As I look back over the last decade since social media use has become more and more common, I am struck by the fact that it has moved our world more towards extremism.

That is not to say that it cannot be used for other purposes and it is – teaching Torah, raising tzedakah/charity, and spreading smiles, but often, it is not.

And its pithy nature often highlights polarities without nuance or subtlety, escalating immoderate positions.

That, in turn, pushes us away from each other into more and more radicalized echo chambers.  This occurs on many lines: political, religious, ethnic or generational.

As we look around the globe today, we see two simultaneous phenomena – a world that is coming together and coming apart.

 

We can travel through our computers using Google maps or Google Earth and visit almost any place; we can learn about and interact with people who are totally dissimilar to ourselves and yet, often the Internet is utilized for the opposite purpose: to alienate one from another.  

A good example of this is the algorithm that YouTube utilizes to encourage you to watch keep watching their videos.  It keeps showing videos that are progressively more extreme; for instance, people who watch conspiracy theories tend to watch for longer.  Thus, YouTube will often show people these videos in an effort to keep these viewers on their platform for as long as possible.

The unhelpful result is that more people believe these conspiracy theories and from there, can more easily become enamored of hate-filled ideologies.

And so we have a world with more and more words of hate and acts of hate; a world where extremist positions often carry the day, receiving air-time and pulling their followers into these far-flung camps.

* * *

But, it does not have to be this way.  

We can also utilize this technology to spread a different ideology – one that encourages moderation, let’s call it: passionate moderation.  One where we build bridges, bringing different camps closer to one another.

As I think about our community and our approach to Judaism – that is precisely what we are engaged in.  We are trying to create a vibrant Judaism that does not lead to triumphalism or parochialism.

We want no part of a Judaism that denigrates or disempowers others.

Often, we think that we have to be one or the other – either patriots to something – our country, our religion, or our family – or we can be universalists, one or the other.  

But, the reality is that, while it might be a bit harder, we can be both.  We can be committed to a distinct identity, even as we believe in the absolute value of all people, nurturing our relationships with them.

Hilary Putnam (1926-2016), Professor Emeritus, Harvard University Department of Philosophy (https://philosophy.fas.harvard.edu/people/hilary-putnam)

As the American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, who lived nearby in Arlington, wrote “we do not have to choose between patriotism and universal reason; critical intelligence and loyalty to what is best in our traditions, including our national and ethnic traditions, are interdependent.”

* * *

This Shabbat is Parashat Metzora and it is also Shabbat HaGadol – the great Shabbat that comes before Pesah.  In Malachi’s prophecy that is today’s haftarah, we are offered a vision that I believe is relevant to this moment.

This prophecy of Malachi is dated to the year 515 BCE – just as the Second Temple has been completed.  This time was tumultuous – the destruction of the First Temple just a half century earlier along with the devastation and exile it brought made for an exceedingly difficult period.  

The Prophet Malachi, painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1310-1311 (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena Cathedral). (Public domain)

Malachi sees the need for an accounting, a period of judgment due to all the moral lapses that led to this disaster.  But then Malachi turns to a vision for the future. He reminds the people to remember the teaching of Moses – zikhru Torat Moshe that was given to us at Horev, another name for Sinai.

And by living up to those teachings, we will move ourselves and the world toward a time of redemption heralded by Elijah the Prophet.

Malachi teaches us that redemption is imminent – it is close by, if we act in ways that demonstrate that we merit it, that we deserve it.  

It’s always right there, if we can just reach out to it.

* * *

See, as we approach Pesah/Passover, we are not only thinking of our paradigmatic redemption – the Exodus, but we also foresee a time when we will experience a future redemption – the season when we will all experience being saved, a time of greater peace, harmony and happiness.

So, the rabbis chose a text that brings that message home – if we act in transformative ways, then redemption is ready, waiting for us to act.

And how should we act?

Well, Malachi offers us a picture of that as well.  He states that if we remember and presumably observe God’s teaching, we will merit Elijah who will “heisheev lev avot al-banim, v’leiv banim al-avotam – God will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children to their parents.”

What does this cryptic and somewhat ambiguous passage mean?

What does it mean to have one’s heart turned?

L’hasheev lev – means to restore the heart; we are invited to restore our hearts to their intended function with different generations turning toward one another.  Or some see parents and children as referring to God and the people.

I see this passage as explaining what a time of reconciliation looks like – of reuniting with people from whom we have become estranged.

It is interesting to note that Malachi does not tell us that all will reconcile, but he extends to us a vision of beginning with family.  

Parents and children.  

Start small.  

The healing the world needs begins with ourselves and those with whom we are closest.

Start with our families.

And then we can reach beyond those circles to those from whom we are more distant.  Don’t try to start with reconciling those on the extremes, but build bridges and connections with those close to us, and let that radiate out toward others.

There is another aspect here.  The idea of turning one’s heart.  This poetic image paints a portrait of reorienting our hearts – which could refer to our intellectual faculties or our emotions towards another human being.  That is one of the core teachings of Judaism – that we approach all people, every human being, by seeing that each human, every single person with the notion that they were created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God and therefore, each person is of infinite value, to be treasured and treated with ultimate respect.

When we see that others have value, that their story, their perspective has value, we open our hearts to them.  

This is not always easy, especially when we disagree.  But of course, those are the people to whom we have the most turning to do.  

We are challenged to turn our hearts to those who are different from us.

And that cannot be done on Twitter.  

That takes a face-to-face encounter with another person.  That takes really listening and a real opening to take in another person’s narrative.

This week I was blessed to sit on a rabbinic panel with Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis and we shared our perspective with a group of teens from Haifa and Boston who are participating in the Diller Teen Fellowship.

We shared our different views on egalitarianism, LGBTQ issues and and who wrote the Torah.  During these intense conversations, I was reminded by how powerful it is to really sit down and talk with one another – to hear their questions, their understandings and help them appreciate various perspectives.  The truth is I think I learned more than the students as I took in their questions, their concerns as Israeli teens from different backgrounds.

May our experience of sitting at the Seder next weekend – sharing and learning – remind us that redemption will not come from social media and tweeting, but from turning our hearts toward one another.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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