Sermon Shabbat Vayechi 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
What an adventurous beginning this new secular year has had! First, the main story was the continuing rise of violent Anti-Semitism, with recent horrible attacks on Jews in synagogues, kosher markets and at Hanukkah parties. There were rallies in solidarity with Jews and opposing Anti-Semitism all around the country. And then, suddenly, for a moment it definitely looked like the United States was going to war against Iran. And then it turned out that maybe we weren’t going to war with Iran, and it had all been a strange and frightening moment. And then, finally, we learned that the Boston Red Sox, like the Houston Astros before them, had cheated and stolen signs in order to beat my Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series of 2017 and 2018. Is this any way to begin a year?
A fine question, you say. And the answer is, of course, yes, since that’s the way it actually began. The Talmud does tell us that all beginnings are hard. But still, this hard?
Which raises an issue I’ve been wondering about a lot the last year or two: is there something profoundly wrong with the world right now? And if so, what is it?
I’ve been worried lately about the way that the public affairs of our planet seem to be going, with the increasing anomie and isolation of so many people. This is engendered in part by the fracturing of our collective society into individualized slivers expressed by our focus on small glass screens that reflect our fears more than our hopes. From alienation some move quickly to anger and even rage, and for the disturbed among us that can end in insane violence, directed almost randomly at any reachable target.
I’m not aware that any of the recent murderers who have taken to shooting or stabbing groups of strangers in shuls and churches and markets have come from warm, loving, supportive community environments. Most, if not all, seem to be isolated individuals who’ve spent a great deal of time reading and watching angry internet content on their devices, absorbing and reflecting the disturbed material so readily available there. That circular reinforcement helps many people slide down some very slippery slopes towards violent language and images, and others slither deeper into the dark realm of actual violent action. That steady reciprocal diet of virulent hate-speak serves only to amplify latent insanity that might otherwise remain dormant.
Does your phone have a feature called “Screen time” that tells you how long you have spent staring at it over the past week? You know, a notification that pops up and says, “Your screen time was up 23% last week; you spent an average of 2.1 hours a day on your iphone” or “Your screen time was down 11% last week; you spent 3.4 hours a day on your Android”? Mine does. I never have any idea how long I’ve actually been looking at screens—my laptop doesn’t track this, nor my desktop computer, nor does any TV in my house—but I’m always startled to think that most days during a week I spend more time in direct contact with my phone than I do with any human individual. I certainly spend more time checking my favorite apps or my texts or my emails than I do, say, praying to God. And I am a rabbi… and I am also in the people business, as we say.
As our screen time rises, the level of religious connection we experience is diminishing in civilized societies, with other choices—mostly electronic ones—replacing the time that previous generations might have dedicated to prayer or reflection or studying with other like-minded people. In community. As we do here at Congregation Beit Simcha, in this amazing community, every Shabbat, and in-between, as well.
In other words, we have replaced real community experiences, gathering with friends and fellow-believers for prayer, conversation, and food, hearing from other points of view in a safe, embracing environment, for ersatz community, the false reinforcement provided by images, sounds and texts that solely agree with our own views of the world.
I know everyone expects a rabbi to talk about the need for community, the essential necessity of having a place and a group of people to which we belong, who know us and with whom we regularly interact. Obviously, synagogues are exactly the kind of community we need, a place where people come together for common purposes, where we support one another, respect one another, pray together, study together, seek meaning and friendship and camaraderie.
But this is more than a rabbi making a case for shuls and attending them on Shabbes. The anthropological truth is that human beings are profoundly social animals. We are smart, complicated apes who need other similar animals—other humans—around us to keep us, well, sane. It’s how we are designed. Friends, neighbors, partners, children, parents—all of them can supply what we instinctively need, but also provide valuable limits on our own conduct and our own verbiage. If you sound too crazy in a group of people, someone will try to calm you down, or your screed will be met with direct disapproval. On the other hand, if you sound too crazy online someone will try to top you by being even crazier. Or you will just find a forum there filled with equally deranged comments.
Which simply means that we need real human community to function well in this world. And when things get confusing, it is that community that brings us back and helps us focus on real values that actually matter.
Yet today we have fewer and fewer opportunities to be part of these kinds of communities, and we spend more and more time isolated, doing our own private electronic thing.
What we need is the balance that a true religious community provides. People around us who care, how seek to be supportive, who reflect the values that our traditions teach us: building a better society, helping the needy, caring for the sick, attending the dead, celebrating with brides and grooms and children achieving maturity, creating holiness through prayer and study and individual acts of generosity and kindness. It is these acts that unite people in commitment to one another, that build good societies and, in the longer term, a world that is both healthy and sane.
If we can reintroduce more of that, and reduce our screen times in compensation, we have the opportunity to improve our lives and our complicated, weird world.
Our ability to focus on these primary acts of community is why, I think, our own Beit Simcha community has become so precious to many of us in such a short time. It is the very special quality of warmth and love and caring that we seem to share, the joy we take in our ability to be hands-on, to pray and sing together, to pitch in and do what’s needed and give what’s necessary. It is the compassion that we feel for one another, the way we try to model what real community can be, the ways we try instinctively to heal our society. That’s not to say we are perfect; perfection belongs to God. But it is to say that we have something unique and very needed right now.
After this very strange start we don’t know exactly where this year is going, of course. Only God knows. It may get better, or even become something more rational. We can surely hope for that.
But we can certainly work for something even more valuable: full participation in those primary acts, those primary Jewish acts that build true community, like our synagogue. And if we do that we can be sure that our own lives will improve in ways that really matter.