Sinai Synagogue, Monday AM, September 10, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Earlier this year, Facebook made history by losing more than 100 billion dollars in value in a single day. This was the largest ever single day loss for an American company. Facebook’s valuation went from 630 billion dollars to 510 billion dollars. Even at 500 billion dollars, Facebook is still one of the largest companies in the world. Its rise has been meteoric. To make this point, do you know what Facebook’s public valuation was just 15 years ago?
Zero, it did not exist. That is a meteoric rise. But not only in Market capitalization, but Facebook’s place in American culture, society and politics has changed our country, the world and the humans who inhabit this planet in ways we simply could not have imagined 15 years ago.
And that change is not slowing down.
Howard Tullman, who was recently the CEO for 1871, the largest start-up incubator in the United States, spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly at our convention in April. His talk was on the coming future of disruptive change in our society. Changes that will not be incremental but abrupt and sharp. No longer do the big eat the little but rather the fast eat the slow. Technology has enabled the flow of information to spread at incomparable speed and to every corner of the world.
With the creation of the credit card, no longer did one need to carry cash or even spend that interminable 90 seconds to write a check. We could simply swipe the card and walk out of the store. But today even that is too time consuming. Who wants to stand in line in order to check out? So Mastercard is developing a process using facial recognition, in which you pick up an item walk out of the store.
With Amazon and internet shopping one need not even walk in the store at all. But here’s the kicker, while we are all thinking that we are shopping when clicking on a page, Amazon and online merchants are actually watching us. Tullman calls this ‘digital drooling’ –online retailers are gathering data about us, including the time we spend hovering over a potential purchase, to understand our interests so that they know what you want before you do.
Tullman stated “the future will be about speed and convenience”. More and more companies are Uberizing – I just made that word up. Want to get somewhere – click your Uber app and a driver shows up. Want a massage – click on Zeel.com and a massage therapist will be there. Lunch for the office – click on your Postmates app. Have a pain over here you want diagnosed or to get information how others with a similar pain dealt with it? Patientslikeme.com
All of this will eventually be individualized. Companies are letting consumers set the price and since consumer expectations are constantly shifting, no commitment is required. The new philosophy is IWW IWW IWI – “I want what I want when I want it”.
For the companies of the future to be successful they need to know that access is more important that assets. The largest accommodation provider in the world is Airbnb which owns no real estate, Uber is the largest taxi company yet owns no cars, and Facebook is the largest media company in the world but owns no content. But good luck if you have a complaint – Access to their consumer services department, not so great.
Quality is not relevant if convenience and time are maximized. The five big Pizza chains have figured out how to get you a pizza in less than 30 minutes and over the last 8 years have increased their sales each year. In that same period of time the tens of thousands of local independent small pizza companies in America have lost 26% of market share.
For the future, companies will succeed that can deliver at least one of these value based transactions: Save me money, save me time, increase my productivity and improve my status.
It is not only traditional retailers that are in danger. As Howard Tullman was speaking to a room full of Conservative rabbis, the cumulative sweat beading on foreheads, under arms, down backs in the room could have sunk a battle ship. I mean, if the future is about saving money, time, status, productivity, no commitments, “I want what I want when I want it”, those of us in the religion business are in big trouble.
Religion stands in contrast to what future changes the consumer world will be making. Religion requires commitment; it is contemplative rather than convenient; religion has rules, regulations, rituals which are determined by others or the Other.
To be fair, the changes that Howard Tullman tells us are already here and coming at an even faster pace are not all bad or ignoble. There is value in convenience. Communicating a message to a broader audience is helpful. Time saved from drudgery allows us to use it for more meaningful activities. Howard Tullman states that when people speak of a sharing economy, what they are really saying is we all have surplus – be it time, skills, possessions, space, energy – and to be able to make our surplus available to others in a world of diminishing resources can be a good thing. The world is diverse and the more that individuality can be met the better.
And there is no stopping it. Alan Alter in his book on behavioral addiction, Irresistible, writes, “We cannot abandon technology nor should we. Some technological advances fuel behavioral addiction, but they are also miraculous and life enriching.”
If we are not to become the Luddite equivalents of the ancient Essenes who abandoned Jerusalem for the caves of Qumran, what then of Judaism’s future in a culture whose motto is “I want what I want when I want it”?
My suggestion is not exactly to accommodate but rather that Judaism act as a respite and welcome alternative when the Amazon world proves hectic and overwhelming. And it will, and it does.
Rabbi Morris Adler in a sermon given over 60 years ago that could be given today, proclaimed that Judaism’s message is necessary in the contemporary world because Judaism holds before society goals for interpersonal relations that society easily forgets as it becomes enmeshed in its own mechanisms. Judaism inspires people with a passion for righteousness, yet even more important offers us faith that what is right can be achieved: “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” God redeemed us from Egypt! Thus redemption of the past is prologue if we but hold fast to the ideals our tradition imparts.
A colleague of Rabbi Adler, Joshua Stampfer wrote “Tensions of life are constantly increasing, the tempo of our society becomes ever swifter” that was in 1953. For Rabbi Stampfer Judaism offers a moment of contemplation, a time set aside for examination of ultimate values, in the midst of the turbulent tempo of life.
Hmm. If only we Jews had a program for inspiration and contemplation in the midst of a careening world bent on speed, convenience, in which indifferent corporations know more about us than we do ourselves? … Oh, right we have it – it is called Shabbat!
Shabbat is a respite, an opportunity for authentic enrichment of the spirit in a world in which it seems that consumerism and status are the coins of the realm.
Morris Adler wrote, “The Sabbath points to the truth that while (humans are) part of nature, (they) transcend it….Sabbath leads (humans) to a frontier beyond mere existence and brings (them) to an area in which (their) humanity asserts itself over (their) earthiness and corporeal nature.” In our day, the Sabbath teaches us that we can transcend our attachment to screens and to technology. Rabbi Adler insists however that “The Sabbath is more than an escape from the week of toil and entanglement, a refuge from exertions…It is the fulfillment towards which all (one’s) labor is a reaching out. The Sabbath brings detachment from the immediacies of life so that a person may achieve attachment to the great purposes of life.”
The convenience that these changes to modern life bring are very beneficial but they are not the sum of all life. We still need time to pause and allow ourselves to appreciate the mystery and wonder that life exists at all. Taking one day a week, our Shabbat, even if we are to observe only a few hours of it, can make the difference.
“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life…The world has our hands but our soul belongs to (God). Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.” So wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. On Shabbat we do not need to promote ourselves on Facebook or Instagram, we seek to interact with others face to face.
Shabbat was not the only Jewish deed by which Rabbi Heschel saw as accessing our full humanity. “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the surprise of living.” So much of the trends that Howard Tullman spoke about focused on the individual, specifically the individual consumer, wanting to be the driver of his or her own experience. There is value in taking responsibility for one’s decision-making and wresting control from impersonal corporations. But this approach contains its own danger, the danger of thinking that we are always in control. Prayer redirects our narrow self interest outward to consider the world from the perspective and desires of the Divine. “Prayer is a way to master what is inferior in us, to discern between the signal and the trivial, between the vital and the futile, by taking counsel with what we know about the will of God, by seeing our fate in proportion to God…Prayer teaches us what to aspire to.” And that is not easy when opening up Google and being inundated with the most enticing ad for the pair of shoes we were just thinking about.
My favorite experiences in prayer are in airports. Now it takes a little courage to move to a corner of the waiting area, pull out one’s tefillin, drape a tallit around oneself and begin to pray. One hopes that a scrupulous or anxious flyer does not alert the authorities that he has seen a terrorist strap on a bomb. Nevertheless what I love about davvening with tefillin in an airport is creating a little island of sacred worship in the midst of a bustling, churning sea of people running to and fro.
For Jews there are all types of prayer. Personal, communal, liturgical, creative. Prayer in community, what we are doing today, and what we do every day in this synagogue, using the texts our sages have handed to us is too often seen as inauthentic because the words are not our words. But even this prayer offers nourishment. For the words of fixed prayer help us to become aware of Jewish conceptions of God’s relationship to the world, God’s role in history, and God’s demands upon us. Our worship emphasizes the importance of study and the performance of commandments, both moral and ritual. Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes that “one should emerge not only spiritually enriched from prayer but also morally purified, more closely identified with the traditions and beliefs of Judaism, and committed to living according to its high standards of ethics and morality.” (Entering Jewish Prayer, p.4)
In both Shabbat and prayer, introspection and contemplation are essential elements that can brace us in the face of society’s disruptive changes. These elements are also essential during these Yamim Noraim, the 10 Days of Awe, in which we seek to repair our relationships with our fellow humans, our world and our God. We call this process teshuvah and it can be distilled down to three R’s: Regret, Repent, Resolve. Regret the wrongs we have done, Repent of those wrongs by apology, correcting our deeds, requesting forgiveness; and Resolve not to do it again. How does one begin such a process?
What is required is an inner mindfulness. In the weeks prior to Rosh HaShanah we read from the book of Deuteronomy. In chapter 16 the Torah states “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of Shnei Luchot Habrit, suggests that this passage should be read as a spiritual imperative: There are seven gates to the soul – two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must pass through one of these gates, thus what is required is for us to turn inwards to examine our perceptive mechanisms, the way we see the world. By shifting our gaze from the world itself to the way that we see the world through our portals we can begin to understand our motivations and biases, our limitations and our potential. In this way, ironically, as we become more conscious of ourselves, we shift our focus back towards the world. Instead of confronting the world with an attitude of “I want what I want when I want it”, I perceive the world’s expectations of me and consider how best to meet them.
Shabbat and prayer and teshuvah are ways that assist us in negotiating the constant, roiling, transformations triggered by smart phones, wireless connectivity and as yet unknown technologies.
But how do we start? Always start small, in small doses. Make a commitment to turn 9:30 AM -12:30 every Saturday into Shabbat by participating in our services and our kiddush luncheon. Determine one day of the week, evening or morning that you can come to our minyan. Choose a Jewish text, not a Philip Roth novel, but a classic text – a book in the Bible, a trachtate of Mishnah or Talmud and study it a little each day. Professor Tal Ben Shachar, author of the book Happiness, explains why everyone brushes their teeth each morning, but few people keep their January 1st resolutions. Brushing your teeth is a ritual, resolutions are good ideas. Members of our congregation have kept their weekly commitments to minyan for 20 years, same day same worship service. Rituals hold us to our commitments.
This is what we are going to do here at Sinai: We are going to work this year at increasing the number of lay people who can lead worship services. I will be offering group classes and one on one sessions. Every three months I assign those who can to lead Shabbat services, take the position of gabbai for the Torah service and read Torah or Haftarah. The more individuals who can participate the more we can spread these responsibilities out. If we had 6 people to lead Shacharit or Musaf services, than each individual is only required to lead twice every 3 months. If twelve members of the congregation felt comfortable reciting a Haftarah, each would only have to prepare a haftarah every three months. The same is true for gabbaim to oversee the Torah service and hand out honors. And with greater facility at leading services, comes a greater understanding of what the prayers mean. With a greater understanding of what you are praying comes a deeper appreciation for prayer. So if you have ever thought you would like to lead worship instead of sitting in the pews let me know.
Last Shavuot I completed our most recent Introduction to Judaism course. When you were in college and took the prereqs for a course of study, the Introduction level, what came next? The 200 level, the advanced or intermediate level classes. And this year we will offer the 200 level class on Judaism. For 8 weeks we will study classic Jewish literature studying various types of Jewish literature, from the Bible to Hasidic, using the book Back to The Sources, a classic in itself.
Finally how does one develop a continual state of teshuvah, of mindfulness? When it comes to our physical health we go to an internist for an annual check up; for our teeth we get a reminder in the mail twice a year to see the dentist. What about a spiritual check up? What I propose is the following: Once in every two years, each member of this congregation should sit down with me to check up on his or her spirit. You need not wait for a crisis to do so. You check up will consist of filling out a simple form. I have the form all ready for you. All you need to do is call the synagogue and schedule an appointment with me, fill out the form and we’ll spend some time talking it over, taking your spiritual inventory. At this time of year we are encouraged to undergo a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, or in contemporary terms, a spiritual check up. I would like to help, as a listening and consulting ear, those who wish to check up on their spiritual health.
Shai Agnon tells a tale from the Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz in his compilation Days of Awe. Once a king’s son had a falling out with his father. He left the kingdom and made do as best he could in the lands far from the kingdom. Eventually he became a shepherd and forgot all about his life as a prince. It was the custom of that kingdom that once a year the King would travel to the outskirts of his lands and peasants would throw requests into his carriage hoping the King would respond. The King, who missed his son, caught one request and reading it, recognized his son’s handwriting. His son asked for thick boots that shepherds used. The King was saddened realizing the depths to which his son’s expectations had fallen. So it is with us, replied the Rabbi Hayim, we are God’s children yet we have forgotten what we truly lack – our authentic selves and how we long to return to God.
There is nothing wrong in shopping on line, or spending time connecting with the world via Facebook or Instagram, with playing Candycrush while we wait for an appointment, or tapping our phone to get a pizza delivered in 20 minutes. But that is not all we are. And sometimes the world rushes by so fast we forget who we are and what it means to communicate, really connect with a person in their most realness. By investing our time in Shabbat, and prayer, introspection and contemplation we can reclaim our true selves and our place in God’s world.