Prophets in cyberspace

Note: This was originally published in Horizons in 2002.

Mark Pollack was reading his e-mail at work when a new message suddenly flashed at the bottom of the screen. “Words of God”, read the subject line. The sender was Jeremiah.

Mark received as many unsolicited e-mails as the next guy, and thought it a fine coincidence that “spam” rhymes with “scam”. He wondered who out there actually took advantage of the ludicrous offers to make these mass mailings worthwhile. Occasionally he received e-mails from psychics begging him to let them help him find love, wealth, and happiness; the first few times he responded that if they could really see the future they should have known that he wasn’t interested in their services. They never answered him back, of course, and he soon turned to deleting their messages without a thought.

This one, however, was actually original, and that impressed him. Not even the psychics had dared claim that their predictions were divinely inspired. Mark briefly considered rewarding Jeremiah’s originality by opening the message before deleting it, but decided that that would be bad precedent. He had learned from his own kid not to reward bad behavior. He clicked the delete button and took a sip of coffee.

Before the tepid liquid made it down his throat a new message flashed on his screen. “Words of God”, read the subject line. The sender was Jeremiah.

Mark uttered a blasphemy. Very clever! he thought with disgust and admiration. They rigged a program that alerts them when the message is deleted and prompts their system to send another. To check his theory he deleted the second message as well. It was immediately replaced.

Mark was suddenly afraid. Not of Jeremiah, nor God, for that matter, but that a new chapter in the onslaught of electronic advertising had begun. For sure all spammers would soon acquire this weapon and force millions of innocent recipients to open their messages before deleting them, or else store them unread forever. Worse, realized Mark, what was to stop them from resending the message even if the recipient opened it before deleting? Sure, at some point someone would develop a way to combat this blackmail, but in the meantime he was helpless.

Feeling all dirty inside, Mark opened the message. “Shalom, Nation of Israel,” it read. “These are the words of Jeremiah, Messenger of Hashem, our God. Return, O Nation of Israel, and I will shower you with blessing. Repent your sins and I will surely forgive you. Distance yourselves from theft, deceit, and immorality, and subjugate your hearts—”

That was as far as Mark read before deleting the message. Thankfully, it did not return.

He spent the entire next day at dreary meetings, and didn’t have a chance to check his mail until he got home. By then it was well after sunset, and Mark was in no happy mood.

There were two messages from Jeremiah. Mark angrily deleted them, forgetting that the attempt was futile. When the messages instantly reappeared his anger burst out to the surface, and it suddenly became very clear to Mark that all of his problems and frustrations were the fault of Jeremiah. At least that’s how he reacted, letting forth a primordial scream while his face turned red.

His wife, Jane, came running. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“This crazy nut keeps sending me e-mail. I can’t get rid of him.”

“You made me run in for that?” said Jane. She sounded almost disappointed that there wasn’t a real emergency to justify her panic.

“I didn’t make you do anything. Sorry I shouted like that, but this creep’s really getting on my nerves.”

She looked over his shoulder at the computer screen. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve been getting mail from this religious lunatic myself.”

“Jeremiah?” he asked, but he already knew it was. Mark was suddenly afraid and didn’t know why.

As Mark soon found out, they were far from the only ones to be harassed by the mysterious Jeremiah. People in shul talked about it, sometimes griping, sometimes joking. His Jewish friends made oblique reference to Jeremiah in some of their own e-mails. Mark even discovered a new Web site, complete with bulletin boards, dedicated to finding and prosecuting this latest online villain. CatchJeremiah.org, it was called.

He found this last item extremely interesting. He learned that Jeremiah had sent literally millions of e-mails in the week since he had appeared on the scene, and all of them had been sent to Jews. According to the site, not a single exception had been found. The mere fact that Jeremiah had obtained so many e-mail addresses was startling enough, but the fact that he had filtered his targets by race with absolute precision was very scary. The implications were no less than cataclysmic.

How in heck had he known who out there was Jewish, anyway? wondered Mark. Even if Jeremiah knew how to crack every security system on the Internet, there was still no way for him to discover the roots of all these obscure people. This bit of information rarely had any reason to make its way online. Besides, plenty of people out there didn’t even know they were Jewish, and many who thought they were weren’t. There was no reason for anyone to assume that Jeremiah’s implicit allegations were accurate – but then again, wasn’t there?

A small part of Mark was glad that he and his wife had both received e-mail from Jeremiah.

A much larger part of him wanted to join the throng of people against this vicious spammer and help blast him into the nether regions of cyberspace. He registered at the site and added a record of his own encounters with Jeremiah to the thousands already there, even though his contained nothing of insight or interest.

Mark received another e-mail from Jeremiah that afternoon. He ignored it for as long as he could, but the sight of it there in his inbox disturbed him. The only way to get rid of it would be to read it (or at least pretend to do so), and he quickly acquiesced. “Nation of Israel,” it read. “Why do you persist in your stubbornness? Is it not plain as the day that I am a true prophet, and that I come with words of peace and hope? The true enemy is not I, the Prophet of God, but the heart of stone that continues to pervert your thoughts and actions. Hark to my words, and God will redeem you in the blink of an eye as He promised to your forefathers. If you follow in the evil ways of earlier generations you will kindle His anger and waste away in your sins forever and ever. Signed, Jeremiah.”

Mark deleted the message, his own anger kindled more than he thought possible by such a trivial circumstance. How many millions of others were experiencing the same aggravation, he wondered?

About twelve million others, according to Friday’s local Jewish paper, and that was considered by many “experts” to be a low estimate. Computer programmers, anti-virus professionals, encryption specialists, and amateur hackers all agreed that Jeremiah’s e-mails were virtually untraceable and, for the time being at least, totally unpreventable. Mark was dismayed to find that the Associated Press and most major news services had picked up the story as well. One way or another, he figured, this couldn’t be good for the Jews.

What disturbed him the most, however, was that his only son, Danny, vehemently supported Jeremiah. Danny was ten.

“Why does everybody hate him so much?” Danny cried one night, ignoring his supper. “He just wants us to be good so Mashiach can come. We learned about people like him in school.”

Mark and Jane exchanged mortified looks. “Jeremiah is a very bad person,” said Mark gently. “What he’s doing is like breaking into people’s houses almost. It doesn’t matter if he thinks he’s doing us a favor. Bothering people every day is no way to make them better.”

“What other way is there?” retorted Danny. He looked exasperated, almost as if he were the one sending the messages instead of Jeremiah.

“I don’t know,” said Mark. “Maybe there is no other way. Maybe there’s no way at all. But what he’s doing is still wrong.”

“Eat your dinner, sweetie,” said Jane.

“But how can he be wrong if God told him to do this?” said Danny. “He said the time of the redemption is very near, and if we just shaped up a little we could bring it even closer. He said the bad people will all be destroyed if they don’t change soon.”

Mark was getting annoyed, and was about to yell at him to shut up or he’d bring a few slaps on the behind a little closer, but Jane cut him off.

“What do you mean he said that?” she asked. “He never said that.” Mark wouldn’t have known one way or the other, but apparently his wife had been reading the e-mails in full.

Danny assumed a smug expression. “Not to you he didn’t, but he told it to me.”

Mark felt his heart plunge and his legs go stiff. Until now he had assumed, he had just assumed, that Jeremiah’s e-mails were standardized messages sent to one massive list of people. He and Jane had allowed Danny to have his own e-mail address, and unless the kid was totally spaced out, Jeremiah was suddenly much more than just an irritating missionary. He was a monster.

Mark and Jane interrogated Danny, and the boy was more than willing to answer all their questions – as Jeremiah had instructed him to do. They learned with increasing horror that there were indeed various lists that Jeremiah used to communicate with his followers (funny that that was the word he used, since it didn’t seem as if many people followed him at all). Jeremiah had quickly differentiated between the “good” people, the “bad” people, and the “ignorant or otherwise intermediate” people, and tailored his messages for each. According to Danny, he was on the “good” list. The overwhelming majority of people, including both his parents, were on the “ignorant/intermediate” list, but that one was rapidly dwindling as time went on, its members being switched to the “good” or the “bad” lists respectively.

Jeremiah had been chosen directly by God to be a messenger to the Jewish people, and, if needed, to the nations of the world. Since the Jews were spread out all across the world, online communication was by far the best way for Jeremiah to disseminate his messages. This was not the traditional way to transmit such information, of course, but hey, the prophecies were still authentic.

There was more. Since it had been so long since true prophets roamed the earth, and since it was perfectly understandable for all but the faithful and the gullible (two very different classes of people, stressed Jeremiah) to accept his words, Jeremiah would soon be providing divine signs of his credibility. Anyone who remained too skeptical beyond that point would quickly be transferred to the “bad” list. And that wasn’t good.

They sent Danny right to bed. Mark immediately canceled Danny’s e-mail account, but feared that this was merely symbolic; no doubt Jeremiah had instructed him to create other accounts without his parents’ knowledge. He considered canceling their online service altogether, but reasoned that Danny could still check e-mail easily enough from some other location. Besides, he didn’t want to come down too hard on the kid (nor give up his home connection).

Mark began to read Jeremiah’s messages in their entirety, if only to protect Danny by being informed. In the coming days the messages became increasingly specific. Jeremiah listed certain communal sins that needed to be immediately addressed, as opposed to his former, general calls for “repentance”. There were no particular surprises among the list; if anything, Mark thought there were significant omissions. Some prophet, he thought.

In addition, Jeremiah provided several predictions, as Danny had indicated, that were supposed to serve as signs from heaven that this was no game. The first sign was that the Euphrates River was going to flow backward on a certain date. This was to signify that a major shake-up was in order. The second sign was that a long period of drought in Israel was going to end in spectacular fashion: a torrential downpour would fill up all the reservoirs overnight. This was to be taken both as a sign of God’s love and commitment to the Jews and as a warning that the line between blessing and disaster remained extremely thin. There were some other minor signs as well in other parts of the world, but those were the big ones.

Mark found that he believed these things were actually going to occur. So did a surprising number of Jews, non-Jews, and even enemies of Israel. Danny accepted their occurrence as a foregone conclusion, but told his parents that Jeremiah had instructed him and the other believers to wait for the signs before placing all their trust in him. After all, said Jeremiah, many false prophets had misled people in the past by preying on their hopes and good intentions. Mark and Jane were impressed with Jeremiah’s candor and shocked by his guile. They ordered Danny not to read any more of Jeremiah’s e-mails.

“I can’t,” he said, holding back sobs. “He said if you don’t heed his words I have to disobey you.”

Mark gave Danny a beating for one of the few times in the boy’s life. Danny accepted it quietly, then stalked off to his room and cried himself to sleep.

That was more than Mark or Jane could accomplish; they remained awake all night, fearing that they might lose their son to a cult, a pedophile, or something unimaginably worse.

*

All the signs came true exactly as Jeremiah had predicted. Israelis rejoiced that the drought that had crippled the economy and threatened the very survival of the State had finally ended. The government declared a legal holiday and waived all fees for parks and museums. A small group of observant Jews sang psalms at the Western Wall. Another group of observant Jews vilified them for acting as if it was a religious holiday. Some people were ready to crown Jeremiah as the Messiah as soon as he made himself known to the public. These varying groups contained members from all ideological and genealogical factions, so for once that wasn’t an issue.

The Euphrates River flowed backward for approximately six hours on the day Jeremiah had specified. Scientists claimed that this was a natural event that Jeremiah had somehow predicted. Others claimed that since the river didn’t flow backward the entire day it might as well not have flowed backward at all. Still others shrugged cynically and said, big deal, if he couldn’t predict the lotto numbers he wasn’t much good anyway.

There were no more messages from Jeremiah for nearly two months. Mark, Jane, and millions of people across the globe breathed a big sigh of relief. Others were profoundly disappointed. But the feeling in the world soon returned to normal.

The hunt for Jeremiah, however, did not cease. If anything, it picked up intensity during this lull in activity. CatchJeremiah.org and their sympathizers around the globe worried that Jeremiah had cashed in his chips and vanished forever, that he had committed a perfect crime. It was unthinkable that Jeremiah could threaten the entire online community and just quietly disappear.

A crack was finally made in Jeremiah’s armor. A group of technicians who had devoted every free moment to catching the elusive spammer managed to trace some of his e-mails through a complicated maze of servers. The trail spanned the globe numerous times, and was littered with dead ends and masterful encryption. It was still too early to pinpoint his location, but he seemed to be operating from within Israel. They neither expected this to be the case nor expected otherwise; everything about the trail was unpredictable enough for them to throw out any assumptions. The bottom line, as one of the technicians put it, was that they could now ignore most of the encryption junk and zero in on Jeremiah. Barring something unforeseen, they could probably locate him in a matter of weeks.

(A word about the “junk”: this data ultimately fell into the hands of mathematicians, who played with it for many years. They finally concluded that it contained great secrets of physics, but could uncover little more than that.)

What few people realized during this time was that Jeremiah had not stopped sending e-mails at all. On the contrary, he had been busier than ever communicating with certain of his addressees, even composing personal messages for a select few.

Danny Pollack received a few of these, unbeknownst to his parents.

One day the boy returned from school and promptly informed Mark and Jane that he was going away for a little while. A “Day of God” was coming, and those who failed to take the proper spiritual precautions were going to get it good. It was probably too late for Mark and Jane to make much progress in that regard; if empirical evidence was worth anything, they were just too obstinate. Danny advised them to accompany him. They might still be saved in the collective merit of the good people combined with the rudimentary gesture of joining them physically. After all, they weren’t that bad. Just exasperating. That’s what Danny called them.

Mark and Jane sent him to his room and actually talked it over. The destination Danny had given them, a national park, was only a few miles away. If they refused to let him go he would certainly try to get there on his own. The last thing they wanted was their ten-year old son running away and meeting a group of maniacs in a park – even worse, perhaps just a single maniac. Then again, it was time they took firm control of the situation and ended this Jeremiah insanity once and for all.

That was what they decided to do. They marched up to Danny’s room and knocked softly. They waited a few seconds and knocked harder. There was no response. Feeling sick, Mark turned the knob and found it unlocked.

Danny was sitting by his desk and sobbing. His parents were too relieved to see him breathing to wonder what he was crying about. Without saying a word, Danny pointed to his computer screen. They had allowed him to retain his connection to the Internet in exchange for a solemn promise not to use it to check e-mail. On the screen was a news Web site.

It seemed the Jeremiah insanity already was ended once and for all. Some of his many thousands of pursuers had finally tracked him, and they had immediately posted the information on the Internet. Police arrived at the scene – a remote cliff between two mountains – and apprehended Jeremiah before a small mob could beat him to death. His supporters, assumed to be a large contingent as well, were nowhere to be found.

As it turned out, the enigmatic Jeremiah, the greatest online terrorist of all time, was just a little old man with arthritis who had trouble typing. From the way he talked one would have thought he didn’t even know how to operate a computer, let alone befuddle the world for months with intricate machinations.

There was one last e-mail on his laptop when they caught him. He never got a chance to send it, and the mob smashed the computer to pieces before it could be retrieved and circulated by the tabloids. It didn’t really matter, though, since the message was merely a note to the world that the damage caused by their sins had become irreversible, and divine punishment was the only recourse.

The earthquakes didn’t come until nearly a month after Jeremiah was locked away, and by then it hardly even occurred to anyone to make a connection. Thankfully, Danny Pollack and many others made it through okay; the long interval had been intended to give people like Danny a chance to escape their homes after the fear of Jeremiah’s influence had abated. These survivors returned to their homes and sorted through the rubble of what remained from their possessions and their lives. Scientists agreed that it was quite an amazing coincidence the way certain areas were utterly demolished while others adjacent to them were untouched. It was as if certain people and groups had been targeted by this worldwide natural disaster. A few minor wars were started and ended, and things gradually returned to normal.

Danny, now an orphan, checked his e-mail religiously every day for the rest of his life, hoping. He received plenty of spam over the years, but all of it was easy to delete.

About the Author
Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness and the author of seven books, including “Go Up Like a Wall” and “How to Not Get Married: Break these rules and you have a chance”. Many of his writings are available at www.chananyaweissman.com. He is also the director and producer of a documentary on the shidduch world, Single Jewish Male, and The Shidduch Chronicles, available on YouTube. He can be contacted at admin@endthemadness.org.
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