Wednesday, 31 December 2008

6. Cleaving to God

Isn’t it funny: the smaller the world gets, the less we see each other. First the postal service, then the telephone, then email, instant messaging, (blogs), Facebook, Skype—bottom line, you have to be very creative nowadays if you want to come up with a believable excuse for not being in touch with your parents. But going home for a visit? Who needs to? You’re speaking to your family every day, you’re exchanging one- or two-sentence emails or text-messages on an hourly basis, you even see them over video-chat at least twice a week. Why ever go home?

Of course, technology has still been unable to make face-to-face human interaction obsolete. There’s still something to breathing the same air, stepping on the same grass, seeing the same people walking by, the same clouds, the same birds and buildings. And, as far as I know, you still can’t touch over the internet and you can’t send a blank email to express the kinds of silent things you can express in person. But the reasons for actual contact, as opposed to digital contact, are dwindling. So what’s the problem with that?

Let’s take the case of the string holding up the pole. The pole was precariously placed above the greenhouse. Two boys came along on their way to go fishing. Suddenly, the boys realized that they had forgotten to bring string. Just their luck: here was some string. But the string, as they knew, held up the pole. The boys looked around and found a nice, solid block of wood. They placed the wood securely against the pole. Satisfied with their work, they snipped the string. And the greenhouse collapsed. The string wasn’t holding up the pole at all. It was holding up the greenhouse.

A boss arranges a meeting with his new employees to discuss plans for the future. His young, savvy assistant thinks he’ll save the boss some time. Without telling his superior, he takes the initiative and sends out a quick text message: “Meeting cancelled. Please email ideas instead.” The boss is furious. “What do I need their ideas for?” The meeting wasn’t about ideas. It was about meeting.

I remember being lonely one day and visiting a friend of mine. He lived about forty minutes away from me. When I arrived, he asked why I was there. I said I was there to pick up a small book that I had lent him. He said, “You came all this way for that?” “Well,” I said, “that’s the pretense.” A good friend, he smiled and we sat together and talked. Later, as I was leaving, he called after me, holding out the book I had lent him: “Don’t forget your pretense.”

Sometimes, of course, the string does hold up the pole. Sometimes the meeting is about ideas. And sometimes the string holds up nothing and the meeting is about many things. The rule is: don’t forget your pretense. Or the Modern Day solution to loneliness could become Fed-Exing borrowed items back to their rightful owners, saving everyone the hassle of making the trip in person.

Why do we have personal Rabbis? Do we still need them? You’re not sure if the chicken is kosher? There are at least a hundred books you could buy, websites you could visit, videos you could download that will tell you if your chicken is kosher. And if you’re still unsure, just email one of the many “Ask the Rabbi” links that you’re sure to find along the way. To be safe, email all of them: it doesn’t cost you anything extra. That way, you can make an informed decision on your own. Isn’t that the goal, anyway—to be self-sufficient?

Even in ethical and philosophical matters, there are libraries of sources available to the dedicated student. Of course a Rabbi would be useful to help distinguish between the worthwhile and the worthless, but that’s icing, isn’t it? Is a Rabbi just a glorified index and bibliography? Does the Rabbi of the modern world amount to the guy telling you what to read next?

Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvoth, Positive Commandment 6: “By this injunction we are commanded to mix and associate with wise men, to be always in their company, and to join with them in every possible manner of fellowship: in eating, drinking, and business affairs, to the end that we may succeed in becoming like them in respect of their actions and in acquiring true opinions from their words.”

Yes, you can look it up online. Your Rabbi knows this, too. But sometimes the chicken is the pretense. As long as you’re aware of this, you won’t get lost in ‘Ask the Rabbi’ emails or Illustrated Guides for the Perplexed. However, if you start to think that the point of your Rabbi is exclusively to distribute facts that you could, with a little effort, acquire on your own, you insult all parties.

Don’t email your Rabbi—take him out for coffee, go for a drive with him, watch a movie with him: “that we may succeed in becoming like them in respect of their actions and in acquiring true opinions from their words.” But, it may be countered, “I want to watch Simpsons and my Rabbi doesn’t like Simpsons.” As the old joke goes: “Ah-cha.”


Unknown said...

I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you.

Previous to finding my Rabbi, I had a few experiences with other Rabbis in which they seemed to see themselves as “glorified indexes.” When talking to them I could not find a point of connection in which an invitation for coffee or a movie would seem appropriate.

Is it always the student’s responsibility to ask the Rabbi to go out with them for a cup of coffee? How about the reverse?

Chai Hecht said...

Thank you, Jay. I agree with you: the problem affects Rabbis as well. Before I went to university, a Rebbi of mine asked me to attend a play with him. The invitation surprised me, but I went. I trusted that if he was asking me to go there had to be a good reason for it. He picked me up at my house, we drove together to the play, and, after the show, we drove together to mincha before he dropped me off back at my house. Of course he brought up Torah issues while we were together, but I remember being confused about the whole 'field trip.' Why, I wondered, weren't we learning? Why was this a worthwhile way to spend our time? I went to plays on my own--that never seemed like a waste of time. But with my Rabbi...? Now, looking back, I realize that the experience was very significant for me. How often do you get the opportunity to accompany a great man to the theater? There's something incredibly unique about what you gain from such an experience. Just sitting next to him, without talking, getting lost in the show, somehow I feel I learnt a great deal. As a kid, I didn't really recognize this. Now, I wonder why more Rabbis don't do the same.