Shemini: Shame On You

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It’s the morning after Passover and I feel kind of jovial. 3321 years – yes, that’s three millennia, three centuries, two decades and one year – have passed since the Jewish people marched out in freedom from a profound physical and psychological bondage. So much has happened in the interim – from devastating tragedies to soaring celebrations. Volumes can, and have, been written. We have stood at the brink of the abyss, faced total annihilation so many times. And yet, despite the thousands of years, despite the odds, we are still here to tell about it. Regardless of what we have endured, we now come off of celebrating Passover 2009, together with our families and loved ones, together with friends and new acquaintances – and the story lives on.

When you find yourself in these types of funky spaces all kinds of memories crop up inside of your brain. Sometimes they are significant memories and sometimes just plain quirky ones that have no meaning to anyone but you.

Two such whimsical moments emerged in my mind this morning – I am clueless as to why – and they both have one thing in common: In both incidents I was scolded with the charming salutation “shame on you.”

The first happened several years ago. I spent a weekend Shabbat in the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a speaking engagement. After the morning prayers, I was walking back to my sister’s home draped in my Tallit prayer shawl. As we were crossing the street a well-dressed woman, carrying two shopping bags – I would say, she was in her sixties –hissed at me: “Shame on you…”

The person accompanying me was about to blurt something out to her before I grasped his arm and stopped him. “What were going to say to her?” I asked my friend. He was going to tell her “you have some nerve! You should be ashamed of yourself shopping on Shabbat instead of going to services.” He assumed that the woman was Jewish; who else would be bothered by a man in a prayer shawl? Anyway, nothing actually was said to the woman and we just walked on. Over the years the episode became a wistful, but distant, memory.

The second time was a few weeks ago. Not to miss out on the new social networking revolution – or to be more precise: to utilize this medium to maximize our work of reaching people with spiritually relevant messages – we recently joined Facebook, and invited some friends to join as well utilizing Facebook’s offer and tools to do so. One bright morning my office forwards me an e-mail from one anonymous reader: “Shemen zolstu zich…” Shame on you (in Yiddish).

Déjà vu.

This “shame on you” is coming from the other extreme: Someone who feels that Facebook, and inviting friends to Facebook, is sacrilegious.

Now, I am not in the custom of replying to anonymous notes for the simple reason that if someone wants to criticize let him show his face and stand behind his words, instead of hiding behind a “safe” mask with nothing to lose. The only reason I am mentioning this is because it reminded of the first “shame on you” hurled at me.

Frankly, I was not in the least bothered or insulted by both these episodes. On the contrary: As a speaker I have learned to embrace “hecklers,” for the opportunity that they provide to demonstrate both the right for everyone to voice their opinion, even if its contrary to your own, as well as the ability to address confrontation and provocation, which often evokes deeper insights, not to mention drama. We cannot deny the “entertainment” factor that “challenges” bring into play.

Now that I think about it, both “shameful” experiences had one powerful thing in common: Both find it difficult to bridge faith and modernity. The former is ashamed of someone who wears his faith in public; and the latter is disturbed by the use of technology in spreading Torah.

I’m sure that I don’t have to point out the irony that the fellow with the Facebook problem is communicating his issues via e-mail being transmitted on the Internet. Why, may I ask, are e-mail and the Internet holier than Facebook?

In fact, many people feel threatened by e-mail and other new technologies. The historical reality is that all new technology is always looked at suspiciously by some, until it becomes mainstream. Technology is, as they say, anything invented after you were born. The printing press, books and many tools we now take for granted, were once the products of a new technology. Never deceive yourself into thinking that the instruments you have embraced and are accustomed to are less technological than the new emerging ones.

Just that we are absolutely clear: I am in no way endorsing Facebook or for that matter any other application or tool. On the other hand, technology does not need my or anyone’s endorsement. It is part of the awesome power and energy infused into existence by the Divine, with the purpose of tapping and using these forces to transform the material universe into a spiritual environment.

This is the mission of all our lives, each fulfilling it with our own unique skills. Our challenge – and choice – is to use technology and all the gifts we were blessed with not merely for personal gain and self-interest, or for entertainment and killing time, but for bettering the world in which we live.

The MLC, including myself, has been blessed with the opportunity to reach many people from all walks of life, and share together the warmth of spirituality and discover together the higher meaning of our lives. As such, we attempt to use all available channels to distribute information and inspiration, in ways that will reach people through the mediums they are utilizing. Facebook is one of the places where many people congregate. We obviously don’t impose on anyone which medium they want to use, and respect each individual’s preferences.

And so, a morning-after-Passover daydream about “shame on you” has, with this pen, turned into a post-Passover meditation about the integration of our modern world with the underpinnings of spirituality. Can we join the two? Many are afraid of faith and the passions it releases. They can’t be blamed: We have, after all, seen the extreme abuses of religion, the killings, destruction and persecution wreaked in the name of faith, both over the millennia, and now originating in the Middle East. Many other are afraid of the excesses of materialism and the indulgences unleashed by technologies. They too cannot be blamed: We have witnessed far too many times how prosperity and technology spoils people, spawns greed, overwhelms the spirit.

Today’s economic troubles only testify to the consequences of unaccountable prosperity, real or delusional, to the power of greed and to the corruption let loose when success is undisciplined and gets out of control.

In our fast-paced society, with ever-accelerating gadgets whizzing all around us, we often crave some quietude, some simplicity, a bit of peace.

Passover teaches us the third path. The path of balance. Eight days of sublimating the ego (symbolized by inflated bread) and embracing humility (symbolized by the bare-bones matzah), eight days of passionately accessing transcendence and freedom, empowers us with the ability to integrate the two worlds: Spirit and matter, faith and modernity.

Only when armed with a humble sense of mission and a determined drive of urgency, can our higher beliefs stand proud in public. Only then can we harness the tools of technology and use them for their true end: to sublimate our world. Only then can we master technology instead of it mastering us.

Maybe this humility and persistence allowed us to get through 3321 difficult years…

Now, when we live in free and prosperous times, the Passover message is as clear as ever: We do not have to fear bridging our most sublime ideals with our mundane investments.

We have our calling – and we have our work cut out for us. One we can embrace not with shame, but with… profound pride.

 

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Dovid Jaffe
12 years ago

G-d bless you to continue insping us in good health, spirit and success

Marv Hershenson
12 years ago

First of all, let me say Rabbi, I wish you a blessed Shabbat. I look forward to your weekly essays and learn so much. It allows me to pause and ruminate on your words and their impact on me. I appreciate the opportunity to breathe. I thank you for that. In regards to your Shame on You essay, I find it ironic that there are some who are so frightened by demonstrating their Jewishness and those who see technology as sinning. When I was a young man, I taught at a Reform Synagogue in Massachusetts, and one of my students who clearly had a strong spiritual bent, stood up during one of the prayers. Her parents were aghast and quickly admonished her for standing up. I never said anything to her or said anything about her ability to witness the beauty of Shabbat. I often thought about this (like 40 years of thinking)and wondered if I did the right thing or not. All I can say is people are filled with interpretations; they do not mean anything and we can move on. But young people need pillars to rest on; they need pillars to determine where they are and where they are going. I believe you are doing this and I thank you…Shabbat Sholom.

Mossa Bildner
12 years ago

I think we will all agree that it is important to keep Judaism alive in the 21 st century, and that means using all the techtools we have at our disposal now.
Is not the unmeasurable vastness, omnipresence, and wisdom available to us through the internet a reminder of our divine connection to the Universe?

Noachide Walker
12 years ago

I have seen your picture and wanted to join but have been able to.
I thank our G-d for you and your walk,
even if you hit some bumps, your walk
will not be stopped. I really like your
positive attitude toward the hecklers.
Baruch HaShem for you…N. Walker

Batya
12 years ago

Theres a similar story of Jewish lady saying shame on you to a Chosid dressed in garb, but then goes on the bus, sees an Amish person and exclaims: how nice of those people to hold on to old traditions.

Shame on you
12 years ago

Perhaps the shame on you — at least the most recent one — was the expectation that clergy and their affiliations should be above this world and not in it. Of course, that is not Judaism, is it?

Inna
12 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson!
I am regularly reading your wonderful, meaningful essays. I live in Melbourne Australia and am looking forward to visit your centre and meet you in person one day. I have learnt about our ancient Masters and their works while attending shiurim in our vibrant community. As a result I live a meaningful life and am a fulfilled person.

Be well and let G-d blesses you in abundance with everything you need to carry on your noble mission.

Inna

12 years ago

Two powerful tools for bringing all Jews home to faith and yiras Hashem are the internet and the Rebbes shluchim. Through them, we will bring Moshiach sooner.

Christine Smith
12 years ago

Two points Id like to comment on here. First, without the technology of the internet, including Facebook, many would not hear the saving message of Torah. I am one such soul. 7 years ago I sat on my deck, disillusioned with religion, and prayed G-d would show me contextually the meaning of His Word. Baruch Hashem. Soon after this prayer I found … Read Moreaish.com, then Torah.org & MLC. Just recently I’ve found Chabad.org. If not for these sites I don’t know where I would be spiritually today as I have no one else to teach me Torah. Secondly, your words remind me what every “victim” needs to remember. When we focus on our purpose, it matters not what others may think or even say. Following our individual path to Torah is what really matters in the end.
Simon, an entire continent separates us, we may never meet face to face in this life, but your words transmitted via 21st technology birth many new spiritual children. You have helped this one find her way back to G-d. Baruch Hashem.

Meilech Leib DuBrow
12 years ago

A mixture of good and not, materiality attains its highest potential when it is put to proper use serving the spiritual. For some, the body is the source of inappropriate desires and must be subjugated. Others simply ignore it as they ponder the spiritual. The third path brings the bodys passions and desire into alignment with the soul. In … Read Morethat way, the very real advantages of the body are revealed and realized.

Technology, also a mixture of good and not, attains its highest potential when it serves the Divine. The shame is on those unable to reveal and realize its very real advantages. But then, not everyone knows how to walk the third path.

Catherine
12 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson

It is a very comforting and somewhat intimidating realisation that the same Divine Presence who watched over our people leaving material bondage so long ago in such a different world is watching over each of us still….His Opinion thankfully is the one that counts……

Secondly, the printed word – even in a book – is now regarded as one of the best methods of talking to someone else even if it is across tremendous expanses of time and distance. I have the same feeling of wonder when I look at an ancient artifact in a museum and I realise that another person took the time to carve that stone thousands of years earlier in order to convey that message to me in this lifetime and to others in lifetimes to come (apart from those in lifetimes before mine).

Without the technology of the printing press and now Facebook and the internet, I, living in London, and coming from a totally different hemisphere would not necessarily have had the opportunity of hearing of you and reading your work which is a great inspiration to me.

Kind regards and best wishes,
Catherine

The Meaningful Life Center