Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5769 - Connecting with God - Connecting With Each Other Facebook – “Sefer” Panim Yafot

Inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, Temple Beth El, Phoenix, Arizona

I recently found that while my comprehension of Hebrew conversation remains good, through lack of regular use my Hebrew speaking level had deteriorated to an elementary school level. So I signed up for a conversational Hebrew class on e-teacher. Every Sunday afternoon I turn on my web cam and have a conversational Hebrew lesson with a teacher in Haifa. If I miss a class, I simply go to the website and watch the recording of the class, do the work and sign in the next week.

One of the words I learned this past week סקר means survey. And as we all know, the secret to learning a language is to use it, I am going to conduct a quick 6 question ,סקר survey. Please answer by raising your hands: Be honest.

1. Who has a love/hate relationship with his or her cell phone? You can’t live without it but
you want to leave it at the bottom of Lake Erie so you can have some peace and quiet?
2. Who remembers thinking that calling someone and getting an answering machine instead
of a person was annoying?
3. Of those, who now grumbles when you call someone and they do not have voice mail or
an answering machine?
4. Who communicates by using text messaging and instant messaging?
5. Who has more than one email address?
6. Who gets more spam than real email?

All of these marvelous technologies help us communicate on a business or personal level and have the downside of tethering us to them. The siren call of the ring (or vibration) of a cell phone, the signal that we have voicemail, the popping up of text and instant messages lure us off our course and into the raging waters of their demand to be answered. God forbid our need to answer these siren calls do not literally lure us off course and into oncoming traffic.

About a year ago, I realized that email and IM had run their course and our young people, high school, college and post college refocused their communication through social networking sites. So up went my MySpace page and a few months later, my facebook page. Through these sites I have not only connected with many of our young people, but to my great surprise, many adults as well! In fact, by paying attention to what people put on their page and tell the entire network, I learn more than I have ever known about not only what is happening in our congregational family but the people, issues, ideas and activities they most value.

Surprisingly, I find facebook reinforcing some of the lessons of these Days of Awe.

We are a community:
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix reminded me of the following teaching of Pirke Avot. He writes:
“we should greet all human beings “Bsever Panim Yafot” – with a cheerful face.“ He goes on to change the phrase slightly: “In 2008 many people greet one another “B’SEFER Panim Yafot” – literally “a book of cheerful faces”, in other words – FACEBOOK.”
Not every face on facebook is cheerful but I have to admit, I see more happiness, cheer and pure enjoyment among people in the virtual world of facebook than I do in this tangible world of our. Browsing through the pages of my facebook friends, (what is a friend is a topic for another time) I find pictures of people smiling, people playing, people doing what they enjoy most. Kids and adults, young and old, write about the happenings of their lives and what I read is overwhelmingly positive! It is the opposite of every Jewish stereotype! I love it because it seems as though everyone tries to follow my favorite commandment - Thou Shalt Not Whine. It is as if facebook is the polar opposite of most blogs: Positive and affirming not negative and disparaging.

Even more exciting to me is just how positively and supportive people react to each other’s happiness. Comments ranging from: “Your kids look adorable!” to “Awesome” make up other people’s responses to the happiness of their friends. It is as if facebook is the virtual embodiment of the Rabbi’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: “מצווה גוררת מצווה” “One mitzvah begets another mitzvah.” Appreciation and happiness beget appreciation and happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, facebook is not גן עדן, utopia on earth. The Messiah does not walk among us and perfection does not reign. One can find unhappiness and discontent in three distinct areas:

Politics on facebook parallels politics in the real world and everyone feels compelled to share her or his views.

Changes that the owners of facebook try to make to the site:
Think of someone coming into your home and rearranging your kitchen or your furniture because they like it better.

IMPORTANT life issues:
Here we see that we definitely do not live in גן עדן. Real people lose real jobs. Real people face real illnesses. Real people confront the serious real problems of life. On facebook no one has to ask: “How are you?” and receive a perfunctory “Fine” in response. Perhaps because of the virtual nature of the environment and people do not really “see” each other face to face, thus putting up a comment about a challenge facing you is easier and it seems as though people respond in a totally supportive manner. Perhaps the virtual world enables us to tear down the facades we put up for each other. Sincere messages of caring, empathy, sympathy and support pass through the ether at the speed of light finally alighting on the recipient’s page and lifting a bit of the burden off his or her heart.

Biblically Rosh Hashanah is called יום הזכרון - the Day of Remembrance. Torah does not tell us what we should try to remember. facebook also helps us accomplish this major task. We can look back at our own page and the pages of others to reinforce our understanding of the positive impact we have made on others and they have made on us.

Through a colleagues facebook site, I found the son of the senior rabbi I worked with in Memphis. From that connection, one of his childhood friends found and wrote me. As an assistant rabbi I helped train him for his Bar Mitzvah in 1982 (I’ll let you do the math) Needless to say he was not one of my best students. In fact, I would have given good odds that Judaism would not be a major part of his life. Yet, here is a piece of what he wrote me:

“We're in Canada -- my wife grew up here and we met on JDate while I was living in Virginia, but traveling every month for work to where she lived.
My wife, by the way, is a professional Jew. Her parents are survivors whose first language is Yiddish. She teaches and translates Yiddish, and she taught for 15-odd years at the Jewish day school here. This summer she left the school to take over all of the Holocaust education and memorial programs run by the local Federation and Jewish Community Center.
Lessons 2: Honestly, we have changed.
Since moving to Buffalo, I have been fascinated by the death notices in the Buffalo News. One thing in particular draws my attention: the pictures people choose to put in the death notice of a loved one. In a recent obituary of a woman with 14 great-grandchildren, yes that is 14 great-grandchildren, I found the picture of a woman who looked to be in her 20’s. Here too I find that those who use facebook understand another of the meanings of these High Holy Days - we all change. Other than a few people who use a piece of art work to represent themselves, the pictures of people you find on facebook are of who they are today - and it is not always flattering.

Judaism teaches us that life embodies change and that who we are today, as individuals and as a community, is built upon a foundation years in the making. During these Days of Awe, we do not just look back at the past year for specific acts to celebrate or rue, but to find the path to repentance, to be able to change our behaviors and lives for the better, we need to look farther back and see that significant change means knowing the path we took to today AND accepting the image we see in the mirror, the photograph, or our soul cannot be turned back like flipping pages on a calendar. A facebook picture of who we are today symbolizes an acceptance of our current reality and that brings us to the point where our journey to a better future begins. Each line, each gray hair, each missing hair, each extra pound tangibly represent our life’s journey. We can cover the reality up with make-up, dye, transplants and well tailored clothing, but we only fool ourselves into thinking that we, and those around us, do not know the reality.

Most of us know the story of God telling Abraham and Sarah that a 90 year old Sarah would conceive a son with a 99 year old Abraham. Sarah’s reaction - she looked at the reality of her age and the wrinkled face of her husband and laughed at the absurdity of the thought. Perhaps the ancient Rabbis picked this story as the traditional portion for first day Rosh Hashanah to teach us that even if we accept who we are and how we got there, the possibility to change our lives still exists. We have to see ourselves in our true present state - show the world and ourselves a current picture as it were - in order to bring about a seemingly miraculous positive change.

People tend to minimize, facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites as only being virtual networks comprised of people who rarely if ever see each other and whose relationship consists of the thinnest thread of connection, being members of the same social networking site. Being Jewish, I do not. For Jews, community consists of a network of people crossing time and space whose only connection consists of claiming the identity of being a part of the same faith.

At the beginning of each month, we recite a blessing: May God gather us from the four corners of the earth, Israel all being friends.

Sounds like a Messianic promise. Jews not only feeling connected to one another, but being friends? Please God, soon and in our days! It is almost happening over the next 10 days. Here in our congregation, in congregations around the world praying for each other’s well-being. Sharing in dissimilar practices all connected by name and intent. Perhaps we those days are closer than we think.

Ok, is he serious? Does he really believe facebook exemplifies the lessons of Rosh Hashanah? Let’s review:

1. Commitment to put forward a better face to the world. - Check
2. Commitment to be supportive of members of our community in need. - Check
3. Commitment to honestly face ourselves and honestly present ourselves to the world. - Check
4. Commitment to connect more closely to others in our community. - Check

Sounds like Rosh Hashanah to me.

Shanah Tovah.

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