Sign In Forgot Password

D'var Torah, June 3, 2016

06/08/2016 01:53:05 PM


By Rabbi Elisa Koppel

Just over 15 years ago, my rabbinic and cantorial classmates sat for a few hours one afternoon, in the sanctuary of Rodeph Sholom in New York City,  as we gathered for Ordination Rehearsal.  After explaining the general flow (despite the fact that all of us had attended at least one ordination ceremony at this point, as the classes ahead of us completed their schooling), they called us each up to the bimah, as they explained to us when to stand and sit as a row, when to go to the edge of the stage, when to walk up to Norman Cohen at the ark for our personal moment of blessing, where on the bimah to go to get our ordination certificates, and then how to exit the stage.  As I remember it, they explained this in detail for each of us, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t actually that bad.  There were 42 of us being either ordained as rabbis or invested as cantors in the ceremony—so even if we just did a run through, it took a LONG time.  It was tedious and we were all getting ready to finish school and were in the midst of all the logistics of moving into a new stage of our lives.  We somewhat resented being required to be there and felt that we were being infantilized.  So, in response, we may have not been acting at our most mature and were not exactly cooperating the entire time.

Plus, several of us had recently purchased Palm Pilots—after all, we were about to become professionals, and, this being May of 2001, Palm Pilots were new and exciting.  The Palm Pilot was the most popular of the early Personal Digital Assistants, or PDA’s.  It was a pocket sized device that you could hook up to your computer, in order to keep track of your schedule, contacts, and to do lists.  It was the early prototype of what would become the smart phone.  But at that early time, it didn’t have internet , and there were only a few programs that you could add to it—a couple of games existed, but you could mainly only share files.  To put things in context, the word app didn’t yet exist.  But it was new and exciting.  And it did allow you to share files from one Palm Pilot to another.

And that’s what we were doing.  Sharing with each other what interesting things we had found (like the mirror, which essentially gave you a darkened screen which provided a fairly good reflective surface).  And, more interestingly, The Torah.  It amazed us that we could have a file of the entire Torah on our pocket sized device.  And, as a group of people who were about to become rabbis and cantors, this was truly exciting.  And so, one of my classmates started to beam The Torah to me.

We made the connection, and my screen read, “You are being sent The Torah. Select OK or Cancel.” OK!

“Sharing The Torah.  Do you accept The Torah!” Yes! Yes I accept the Torah. 

“Are you sure?” Yes! I am sure, as I thought to myself how this would some day make a great story to share in a sermon, about how this ordination rehearsal truly gave me the opportunity to affirm my readiness to accept The Torah.

“Receiving The Torah….Receiving The Torah…”

And then my screen gave me a different message: “You do not have enough memory to accept The Torah.”

And so, I did not accept  The Torah that day.  Although I did a few days later—both on my Palm Pilot and in my life, as I walked up to that Bimah and received my blessing.  But that moment of unsuccessfully attempting to receive Torah taught me a better piece of wisdom—that memory and Torah are necessarily connected.

It’s not the first time that technology has taught me Torah.  I understood Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of radical amazement, when my uncle sat with my grandfather at my parents’ kitchen table and decided to demonstrate that you can find pretty much anything on the internet.  “Dad, name something that happened in your lifetime that I’d like to see the footage of.”  “I don’t know…” my Grandfather answered, “Neil Armstrong.”  My uncle, on a laptop connected to wifi, searched and showed my grandfather a youtube video of the Moon Landing.  “But how did you get it there? How did it know?” I believe was the question he articulated, the look of wonder apparent on his face.

And truly, I understand awe when I think about technology.  Because that story I shared about ordination—that was only 15 years ago.  That’s not a lot of time.  But the technology that was so new then is now an artifact.  And yet, the memory of it, combined with its limited memory, allows for its continued relevance.   And I’ve been thinking about technology a lot lately—partly because I like thinking about technology, but also because I bought a new laptop this week and I am fairly certain that it has more memory on it than every computer that I have ever owned, combined. Including the Apple 2 Plus that my family had when I was in middle school and high school.  I learned Torah from that computer too, incidentally—and not just because I typed the d’var Torah for my Bat Mitzvah on it.  But it was a computer that was not brand new when we got it, and it had some glitches.  Mainly that it used to periodically turn off while you were in the middle of using it.  Which meant that I learned early—always save your work.  It was many years later, when I had to reload windows on one computer that I owned, that I learned the lesson that one should always back up.  Both those lessons are also true for our own memories.  And our collective memories.  These too, are Torah.

But here’s the truth about technology.  It’s amazing.  And it develops at an exponential rate that is truly astounding.  It’s really extraordinary.  And we can learn from it—both by the lessons it affords us and also by utilizing it.  But at the end of the day, it’s just a tool.  Books were once technology.  Even scrolls were.  Writing itself was technology.  And like any tool, it’s neutral.  For as many ways that we can think of that it helps us and guides us towards bettering ourselves and improving the world, we know that it can also be abused.  For every viral campaign there has been to create positive change, there has likely been a child cyber-bullied.  But it’s not the technology that makes the good or bad circumstances of its use; it’s the people using that technology—and the choices that they make of how they are going to use it.  How we are going to use it.  And, as it turns out, the more memory we have of how we have used it—of how we have witnessed it being used, the better equipped we are to make good decisions.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read a list of blessings and curses which will happen to our ancestors, based on whether or not they listened to the words of Torah being given to them.  At its essence, this idea teaches us that Torah is also a tool…it can be used or abused, and the way it is used can bring negative or positive results.  Just as it was up to our ancestors to determine how they used Torah, it is up to us.  And as we use our individual and collective memory, as we see how it has been used, and misused, in our people’s history and in our personal history, we call upon that memory in order to use it best at this moment—whenever that moment is.  And we call upon that memory to understand it, in new ways, each time we read the text, because our memory has changed us.  It is as if the Torah is always new and exciting, every time we turn it over and turn it over, considering it and renewing it for ourselves and for each other.

And this is why we need memory to accept Torah, in the ongoing process of receiving it throughout our lives. To know what it has meant, to know who we have been, in order to inform the current meaning.

As we finish each book of the Torah as we do this Shabbat, we recite the words, “Hazak, Hazak, v’nithazek.” Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen ourselves and each other.  Both technology and Torah can give us strength.  They can teach us lessons. They can bring us comfort.  They can connect us to others in powerful and unique ways.  They can give us power.  It is when we allow ourselves to use that power responsibly, when we share that power with the world around us in positive ways, that we each become stronger.



Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779