Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Permanent Record - Shabbat Shuvah 5774

A few years back, Google changed its account policies, and there was an opportunity to delete your search history before it became a part of your “permanent record.” So I went in and deleted all my history, but not before spending a few moments browsing back through pages and pages of search terms, going back to the month that I arrived at Temple Israel and set up a Google account.

This was quite a revealing trip down memory lane. It told many stories about who I am: I had searched for arcane pieces of information for sermons. I had searched for old friends, and of course I had Googled myself a few times, just to see what I was up to. I had searched for information on various medical subjects, new aches and pains. I had searched for song lyrics and famous quotes that I wanted to get right. I had searched for things to do with my kids on a Sunday afternoon and things to do with my wife on our anniversary.

What struck me was how much the Internet knew about me. Even if I had not voluntarily handed over all of my private emails to it, Google could paint a pretty good picture of me: my likes and dislikes, my medical history, my family situation, and so forth. And with a few keystrokes, it was gone.

You can’t do this any more. Whatever you search for, whatever is in your email or even on your screen is being watched, catalogued, and stored. On my relatively new Windows 8 machine, I can’t even use it without signing in to my Microsoft account, and so effectively every keystroke or screen swipe or article read is monitored by some algorithm, and contributes to the ever-increasing pile of Big Data. And, of course, if you own a cellular device of any kind, somewhere out there is a record of whom you have called, where you have been, and only God and the NSA know what else.

With some of the recent revelations regarding what various government agencies are doing with these data, not to mention all of the corporate entities that pay Google and Facebook and Verizon and Cablevision and AT&T for access to all of our 1s and 0s, it’s enough to creep me out.

But I’m not paranoid. Like most of us, I use these services, try to ignore all of the invading ads that are tailored just for me (I’m not sure why Google thinks I’m interested in getting an MBA, or that I need an anti-balding cream, or a Christian dating service… really?), and hope for the best.

However, the very idea of the collection of all of our digital residue is a particularly troubling reality at this juncture in the Jewish calendar. We are, after all, on Day 3 of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. This is a time for reflection, for seeking forgiveness from God and from our friends and family, for cleansing, for teshuvah, returning to a state of purity and holiness. This is a time in which everybody who wants it gets a second chance, or a third or a thirtieth. This is the period in which we hope that our sins are pardoned, our screens are wiped clean, our souls purified. We aspire to a good decree for the coming year despite, as we chant so movingly at the conclusion of Avinu Malkeinu, “ki ein banu ma’asim,” we have no credit in good deeds with which to plead our case.

So here’s the irony: if we achieve teshuvah / return, if we achieve cleansing through requesting forgiveness from those we have wronged, if we achieve purity through tefillah / prayer and tzedaqah / charity and afflicting our souls through fasting and self-denial on Yom Kippur, then God forgives us, and our sins are lifted. There is no permanent record.  As we read in the Untaneh Toqef prayer, the central piece of the mahzor, “ve-ad yom moto tehakkeh lo, im yashuv miyyad teqabbelo.” God will wait for us even until our day of death, and if we return, we are immediately accepted.

The Qadosh Barukh Hu (i.e. God) will forever allow you to erase your search history, if you ask nicely. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, et al will not.

This is our second year using the Conservative movement’s new mahzor (prayerbook for the High Holidays), Lev Shalem, and if you have not spent some time simply thumbing through it and reading the material in the margins, you really should. I stumbled across a wonderful interpretation courtesy of Martin Buber, one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, who (as a sort of sidebar) collected Hasidic stories. This little nugget comes from the late 18th / early 19th c. Hasidic rebbe Simhah Bunam of Peshischa, who said that,

“On New Year’s Day the world begins anew; and before it begins anew, it comes to a close.”

We chanted here yesterday and the day before, “Hayom harat olam,” “Today the world is born.” It’s not just a new year, says the Hasidic rebbe, it’s not just a clean slate. It’s a new world. We enter 5774 with hopes and dreams for the coming year, which is fresh and pure as a newborn, as white as virgin snow. Don’t worry - we’ll soon trample through it with muddy feet, just as we did with 5773. But that world is coming to an end, and for the moment anyway, the world of 5774 is brand new.

So the cards are in our favor.

Here is the great news: you may not be able to delete your permanent digital record. But you get a clean slate for the New Year, and the New World, if you pursue teshuvah during these Ten Days of Teshuvah. To that end, I’m going to suggest the following:

1. Look deep inside yourself. This is not so easy. Like Shrek, the (very Jewish) ogre in the animated movie from 2001, we have all built up around us such a complex series of layers, like an onion, that getting to the honest, objective truth about ourselves is next to impossible. But I think that we all have an innate moral compass that allows us to know where we’ve missed the mark, even if we do not outwardly admit it. Look for those red flags: Do we work too many hours at the expense of our families?  Do we confuse our needs with our wants? Do we inadvertently send messages to our children that suggest that grades are more important than learning?

2. Find an opportunity to apologize. Honest apologies are really hard to come by, and for that reason they are that much more appreciated by the recipient. Of course, it’s not so easy to really, candidly apologize, let alone even look in the eye somebody whom we have seriously wronged. But this is the season to screw your courage up and do it. Perhaps we need to ask forgiveness of a co-worker or with whom we were impatient or rude. Have we been dismissive of our partner’s repeated pleas regarding household responsibilities?

3. Try to find a moment of honest prayer. That could be something that occurs in the siddur, during services here. Or it could be when you have a quiet moment alone somewhere else. Our lives are so filled with distractions; if there is a time of year when you should seek out a prayerful moment, this is it.  I know this is not easy - it takes intent and practice to learn how to gently push aside the noise in our head and to make space for love and truth, but doing so once in a while is invaluable to body and spirit.

4. Try to suspend, even if just for a moment, your doubts about the efficacy of prayer, the role of God in your life, the meaning of the Book of Life, and so forth. In Prager & Telushkin’s The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Question 1 is, “Can one doubt God’s existence and still be a good  Jew? You would not be a modern human being if you did not have doubts. Contemporary society dismisses religion as ancient hocus-pocus, and we are all swathed in many onion-layers of healthy skepticism and ironic distance. But every now and then, we have to just let the feeling of spiritual engagement rush through us, and now is the time. If the Yom Kippur crowd is too much of a distraction, then craft some holy time for yourself during the next week. Take a walk through the woods in King’s Point Park, or lock yourself in the quietest room in the house with no electronic gadgets for 20 minutes. Who knows? You may find enlightenment, or at least a path to teshuvah.

Through deep introspection, through apology, through prayer, and through suspending our doubts even for just a moment, we all can emerge from these Ten Days of Teshuvah with a spotless record and a clear conscience.

This season of teshuvah, of repentance, of return, might be the only time each year that many of us give in to the power to change ourselves that Judaism offers. Don’t let it pass you by! You may have a permanent record out there in cyberspace, but here in the synagogue, we can all benefit from the great reset, the cold boot. Get a fresh start: make this New Year of 5774 truly one of spiritual satisfaction.

Shabbat shalom, shanah tovah, and hatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a wonderful year.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 9/7/2013.)

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