The Virtue of the Virtual

By Zmenglish - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Today, the day that I have written this to you — and therefore the day that you will be virtually reading it, though you actually will read it some days later — is the day of the harmony of endurance. Or of the beauty of vision. Or of the compassion of Moses. Or any permutation of subject and object thereof. It is the 24th day of the counting of the virtual sheaves of barley, the early harvest. Something those of us without an agrarian bone in our bodies know next to nothing about. And those that do labor in that world of flesh and earth, of bodies and growing things, of the elements, could not point to the actual sheaf attached to one particular day or another. They are virtual sheaves, a stand-in for weeks and days. Our ancestors calculated a week of weeks, 49 days, to span the narrative gap between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival at Sinai. Between the redemption from bondage and the fleshing out of The Way, the navigation tool for all the wildernesses that lay ahead. In Greek, Pentecost, the 50th day, the big download, when we all got the 411 each in our own language.

The tension between the virtual and the actual. Where are those 49 sheaves of barley? And where is the original transcription of that message downloaded at Sinai? Counting, numbers, what could be a better index of the virtual than that? So over two millennia after the journey of those 49 days was inscribed in our holy book, the holy men of our tradition abstracted the virtual map of the calendar yet again, this time into a map of the stages of spiritual refinement. A map created by intersecting each of seven cardinal virtues with the whole set of seven, thereby yielding 49 ordered pairs of virtues, one pair for each day on the calendar of that journey. According to midrash, for the first 33 days, the disciples of Rabbi Akivah died one by one of a plague that ravaged their numbers, all because they did not respect one another. A plague. And today, the day that I am writing this under the virtual eyes reflected back to me in the gallery view of the Zoom gathering of myself and my writing buddies, is the day that asks us to refine the harmony or beauty or compassion aspect of endurance or of vision or of Moses. Mirrors within mirrors within mirrors. I see ourselves seeing ourselves seeing ourselves. Wandering the wilderness of the virtual. How can an actual self endure?

You and me baby are nothing but mammals. We commune through touch. Without touch we lose subject permanence, a regression prior to existence. We recede into the shadowy realm of the virtual. We do not endure, our consciousness reduced to the singularity that is any given point in time. Therefore no vision, no narrative arc. The divisive rhetoric of the current lords of oligarchy would make mincemeat of our cognitive apparatus, paring us down to the moment by moment decision—will that benefit me right now? Tiny minds, fly specs, blown away by the next ill wind. So here we sit in this time of plague, tens of thousands dead and many more ill, and all that most of us are permitted to do is reach over our virtual networks and let each other know—I am here, I am here. And in return the other selves include us in their vision of this complex time. One face looks up, lost in the collage of faces on his monitor; another shares her secret smile with the rest; and another with eyebrows raised traces her message still hidden from view. One sits still as the Buddha, light pouring into her chamber. And one sits perplexed by the problem with which she has presented herself.

We are all variations on each other’s themes. Still, how do we endure without actual contact, so out of touch? Moses dwelt in the cloud for forty days retrieving the Sinai download. The people could not endure his absence and turned to fashion their reassurance in gold. A plague ran among them, killed thousands, golden calf notwithstanding. Moses endured. In his mind he beheld the narrative arc of the people, as we may behold each other. To be beheld is to experience the actual in the virtual. In the beauty of that vision of each and every individual self as actual, as real; and out of the compassion of the virtual and actual touch of others in and out of our networks; and in the harmony, the balanced play of our movement among the elements of the virtual and the actual; there we will endure as a people, careening through a wilderness of obstacles, heeding as best we can the voices of our other selves in the diaspora of this our material existence. Let us pray for the resurrection of our physical bodies, in the midst of the plague that besets us all, even as we dwell in the cloud.

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About the Author
Michael Diamond is a writer based in the Washington, DC area. He practices psychiatry there and is a doctor of medical qigong. He has published verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; in New Mexico Review and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, two cats, a cockatiel named Peaches and a tank of hyperactive fish. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, a glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.
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