Turn It Off

March 1, 2012
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Andy Bachman

Recent news of serious labor abuses and alarming suicide rates at a Chinese factory manufacturing Apple products ought to disturb us greatly, particularly if the news of this tragedy is conveyed — read or viewed — by that very same device. Imagine, if you will, individuals enraptured by the magnetism of their iPhone screens — screens that also reflect the suffering and death of the workers who made them, sacrifices on the altar of these coveted electronic devices. It’s a tragedy of biblical proportions.

The unequivocal prophetic voice in Torah warns us against our devotion to the material. Arguably, the moral currents wafting throughout the Exodus narrative paint the starkest of contrasts between our love and our service to that which can be seen and that which is only heard — that which is tactile and that which eludes our grasp. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors intuited that the human would forever seek existential validation in the work of one’s own hands and from the Tower of Babel to the Golden Calf to the iPhone, this has been our tragic folly.

Moses understood this. His demand to Pharaoh was to allow for the removal of the Israelites from the center of idolatry to the ephemeral, stark, image-less wilderness of the desert. The battle lines were drawn: Worship the voice who gives the law vs. worship the man and the cities he builds. Sinai, clouded in mystery, the top of which no one could see and still live, represents eternality; the city, a mere temporal representation, brick over brick over brick.

A child navigates a crosswalk, ears fit with headphones, eyes drawn into the reflecting pools of his hand-held digitron. A driver, by mere chance, looks up from texting, swerves to avoid the child, and narrowly misses ruining both their lives — not to mention the “diameter of the bomb” in any such tragic encounter. Though the social critic Neil Postman died too soon to see this affront to human responsibility, the title of his book captures it completely: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

On a quieter level, are the potentially insidious effects of our devotion to this godless object-god in our human relations closer to home? Think of the child who looks longingly into his parent’s eyes hoping for connection: The parent, though, is consumed by images on the screen. Parenting in this complicated world is complicated enough. Now, add to that a multilayered distraction of data in various and immediate forms, a rush of waves threatening to drown us in the radically individuated messages of contemporary life. Ironically, each message appears to burn with the urgency of the child’s need, while cumulatively amounting to a meaningless, faceless mass of nothingness. When we choose to connect in one direction, we risk alienation along a different vector of space, time, and reality.

And yet, paradoxically, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Isn’t it true that while Moses stood on Mount Sinai speaking with God face-to-face, the children of Israel busied themselves below with the accumulation of material objects to build the Golden Calf? They, too, in their time, were driven to distraction while a more sublime “truth” was revealed. When Moses descends, witnesses their betrayal, and smashes the tablets, is he not channeling a desire so common today to rid ourselves of the objects we’ve become slaves to?

A final paradox: Of course, connectivity and technology (and therefore the tools that convey their power) have broken down barriers and revolutionized our world. Of course! One can argue that these tools have in fact brought about such a monumental expression of democratizing freedom as to be redemptive.

Therein lies the rub. “When you arrive at the stones of pure marble,” Rabbi Akiva warned about the philosophical inquiry into “radical truth,” “don’t say ‘water, water,’ for the psalms teach, ‘He who speaks falsehood will not be established before My eyes.’”

Know what you possess in your hands; know what it can do; and know, please God, when to turn it off, to look your neighbor in the eye, and live.

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Rabbi Andy Bachman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y., which was named as one of Newsweek magazine’s top 25 U.S. synagogues.

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