April 22, 2011
Rabbi Jason Holtz, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
My laptop computer is old and will soon be replaced. It made it all the way to three years of age—which in computer years is a fairly average lifespan. I decided to replace it not with another laptop, but with a desktop and an iPad, which my wife describes as an iPod Touch for the elderly. I went to get the iPad at an Apple Store about two weeks ago and ended up waiting over two hours in line for it. This, by the way, was weeks after the new model was released. But such was the demand and interest for it, that people waited patiently outside the store for hours. And when I left the line was no shorter. The interesting thing about the release of this new iPad though is that many of the customers are simply upgrading from the old iPad released about a year ago. Technology wears out quick, but really? People who switch benefit from a device that shaves a few centimeters of width off and has two cameras instead of only one. For that they wait in line for hours and shell out a not insignificant amount of money.
This brings me to the not so insightful observation that our culture and society is fixated on new technologies. We are now at the point where we expect a new product like an iPad or iPhone or a new service like Facebook to come along regularly and to significantly alter the way that we experience the world. When I was a kid growing up, the stereotypical pre-teen and teen was always on the phone—which was not cellular. Phone companies would advertise how affordable it was to get two phone lines – one for the parents, one for the kids. Eventually the deal was for three phone lines – it turns out that the computer needed its own. Obviously we are not there anymore. My wife and I don't even have a home phone. A few weeks ago, I pointed out to my eighth graders that when they were born, which was in 1990s, that people generally weren't texting, that Facebook and Twitter hadn't been invented yet, that most people did not have satellite TV or digital cable, that Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy, that cameras needed film, and that the computer needed a phone line to connect to the internet, which for many people was synonymous with AOL. They're in eighth grade and they are already at the point where they can say, "When I was a younger, things were different!" The truth is the world is changing so quickly, you can be quite a bit younger than my eighth graders and remember a time when technology played a significantly different role in people's lives.
This change is exciting in many ways – it's driving people to stand in lines for hours outside of Apple stores to be a part of it. But it also comes with its own set of challenges that affect us deeply, both as Jews but even more broadly as human beings.
When Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, came to speak at Temple a few months ago, he mentioned how one of the things that changed was that older people now turn to younger people to teach them. The more that the world revolves on Facebook, the more removed one becomes from that world by not being a part of it. And learning to be a part of it for someone who spent their entire life without it and did just fine is not so easy. So grandparents are asking grandchildren for help. And in some ways, Rabbi Kushner taught, that is at odds with so much of earlier human history. While there have been instances of revolutions led by the young before, there normal pattern has been for information and wisdom and teaching to go from older generation to the younger. Parents teach their children and teachers their students. In that way, when one is looking for guidance and answers one is accustomed to looking historical precedent for wisdom. If an individual wants to learn something, they go to sources within a tradition. Does someone have an issue with friends? With a relationship? Well, friendships and relationships are not new, and neither are problems in them. Surely generations past dealt with something similar, and therefore it makes sense to look back in time for some sort of guidance, some sort of wisdom. The human situation, where we reach out for connections to others, where we strive to live a meaningful life where we matter to others, and where we are productive both for its material rewards, but also for the intangible benefit of knowing that one is productive – none of this is new. And tradition can offer invaluable guidance and wisdom for us as we go down that path.
But the world that we live in now is not memory-oriented, it is future oriented. If there is a problem or an issue, then we will soon develop a solution to it. And I'm not necessarily critiquing this approach. It certainly has a lot of merit. Humanity still suffers from numerous physical problems – diseases and disorders of all sorts that we hope and trust the medical community will in the future be better equipped to address than it is now. Friends and family now live all over, but distance is not what it used to be. With nation-wide calling plans, it's cheap and easy to hear your loved one's voice anywhere. And as video-chat becomes more prevalent, you can see their face too. And if need be, airplanes will jet us away anywhere for a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the hassle that it once took to travel across great distances. And even those are becoming obsolete, as the business community finds less and less reason to travel to meet in person. It can now be done virtually with technologies like Go-To-Meeting. Cameras and digital image storage helps us to better preserve memories that are important to us in a way that is much more efficient than even just a few years ago.
Our world is filled with a tension between reverence for the old and eager anticipation for the new. And that tension actually finds an expression of sorts in Passover.
On the one hand, Passover is a time for powerful memory and recollection. It is a holiday dedicated to the telling of a story. We were slaves in Egypt and God freed us. And our duty to the past on Passover is not just to tell the story, but to relive it. Each generation must see itself as though they were the ones to have left Egypt. So the past becomes personal. The take away from that exercise is powerful as we reflect on the meaning of freedom. Passover sensitizes us to the needs and the plight of those who suffer, and it also serves a reminder that freedom is not always guaranteed. That freedom is precious. With such a reminder, Passover teaches us not to waste our freedom pursuing petty goals but to use it to ennoble our lives and the lives of the people around us.
On the other hand though, Passover is not just about the past, it is about the future. Redemption is always future oriented. Redemption means to look with hope at a better world, a world to come. It means that even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of a someone's own personal Egypt, whatever that might look like for someone, that that individual can look out and see beyond our their own situation, beyond even the wilderness that surely must be crossed at some point, and eventually see that there is a Promised Land ahead.
For the ancient Israelites, the Exodus was not just the end of slavery. It was the beginning of freedom and a new life. Not long after the Exodus, the Israelites were at Sinai and there received the laws that would be the building blocks of all future Jewish communities. Passover is a time of looking ahead. As we start Passover, we look not just backwards, but forward. We count the omer, which began the second night of Passover, as we just did a few moments ago. We count for seven weeks until we get to Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of the Ten Commandments. Passover looks back, but it also looks forward.
And the lesson to be learned from that is that we benefit from such a tension – a pull to the past and a push into the future. We gain immensely from studying the wisdom of earlier generations. That's why the rabbis taught that one of the most important commandments given was "Honor your father and mother." The study of Torah gives us sensitive, Jewish eyes with which to view the world. It teaches us to look out for the "orphan, the widow and stranger," that is, the most vulnerable members of society. That is a lesson to apply today—that no society can be just unless it cares for all of its members. The Torah teaches us that each person was created "B'tzelem Elohim," in the image of God, and therefore we ought to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Ancient Jewish practice, going all the way back to Abraham says that our homes should be open to guests, that hospitality is one of the greatest blessings. My grandmother certainly took that lesson to heart. So much wisdom and so many blessings are contained in the lessons passed down to us.
And yet they don't fully satisfy us, nor should they. The rabbis taught, "Who is rich? The one who is content with what one already has." After fulfilling our needs, it is good to be content and not always want more things, more fame, more power, or whatever it is. But a measure of discontent can be a good thing too. It propels us to make changes for the better. We can strive for better – to make ourselves better and make our communities better. The rabbis also taught that if it were not for those evil, ambitious impulses no one would marry, or have children, or start a business.
This Passover season, may we learn from the past to create a better future, that together we can all progress towards the Promised Land.