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Shame On You
By Simon Jacobson

It’s the morning after Passover and I feel kind of jovial. 3321 years – yes, that’s three millennia, three centuries, two decades and one year – have passed since the Jewish people marched out in freedom from a profound physical and psychological bondage. So much has happened in the interim – from devastating tragedies to soaring celebrations. Volumes can, and have, been written. We have stood at the brink of the abyss, faced total annihilation so many times. And yet, despite the thousands of years, despite the odds, we are still here to tell about it. Regardless of what we have endured, we now come off of celebrating Passover 2009, together with our families and loved ones, together with friends and new acquaintances – and the story lives on.

When you find yourself in these types of funky spaces all kinds of memories crop up inside of your brain. Sometimes they are significant memories and sometimes just plain quirky ones that have no meaning to anyone but you.

Two such whimsical moments emerged in my mind this morning – I am clueless as to why – and they both have one thing in common: In both incidents I was scolded with the charming salutation “shame on you.”

The first happened several years ago. I spent a weekend Shabbat in the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a speaking engagement. After the morning prayers, I was walking back to my sister’s home draped in my Tallit prayer shawl. As we were crossing the street a well-dressed woman, carrying two shopping bags – I would say, she was in her sixties –hissed at me: “Shame on you…”

The person accompanying me was about to blurt something out to her before I grasped his arm and stopped him. “What were going to say to her?” I asked my friend. He was going to tell her “you have some nerve! You should be ashamed of yourself shopping on Shabbat instead of going to services.” He assumed that the woman was Jewish; who else would be bothered by a man in a prayer shawl? Anyway, nothing actually was said to the woman and we just walked on. Over the years the episode became a wistful, but distant, memory.

The second time was a few weeks ago. Not to miss out on the new social networking revolution – or to be more precise: to utilize this medium to maximize our work of reaching people with spiritually relevant messages – we recently joined Facebook, and invited some friends to join as well utilizing Facebook’s offer and tools to do so. One bright morning my office forwards me an e-mail from one anonymous reader: “Shemen zolstu zich…” Shame on you (in Yiddish)

.Déjà vu.

This “shame on you” is coming from the other extreme: Someone who feels that Facebook, and inviting friends to Facebook, is sacrilegious.

Now, I am not in the custom of replying to anonymous notes for the simple reason that if someone wants to criticize let him show his face and stand behind his words, instead of hiding behind a “safe” mask with nothing to lose. The only reason I am mentioning this is because it reminded of the first “shame on you” hurled at me.

Frankly, I was not in the least bothered or insulted by both these episodes. On the contrary: As a speaker I have learned to embrace “hecklers,” for the opportunity that they provide to demonstrate both the right for everyone to voice their opinion, even if its contrary to your own, as well as the ability to address confrontation and provocation, which often evokes deeper insights, not to mention drama. We cannot deny the “entertainment” factor that “challenges” bring into play.

Now that I think about it, both “shameful” experiences had one powerful thing in common: Both find it difficult to bridge faith and modernity. The former is ashamed of someone who wears his faith in public; and the latter is disturbed by the use of technology in spreading Torah.

I’m sure that I don’t have to point out the irony that the fellow with the Facebook problem is communicating his issues via e-mail being transmitted on the Internet. Why, may I ask, are e-mail and the Internet holier than Facebook?

In fact, many people feel threatened by e-mail and other new technologies. The historical reality is that all new technology is always looked at suspiciously by some, until it becomes mainstream. Technology is, as they say, anything invented after you were born. The printing press, books and many tools we now take for granted, were once the products of a new technology. Never deceive yourself into thinking that the instruments you have embraced and are accustomed to are less technological than the new emerging ones.

Just that we are absolutely clear: I am in no way endorsing Facebook or for that matter any other application or tool. On the other hand, technology does not need my or anyone’s endorsement. It is part of the awesome power and energy infused into existence by the Divine, with the purpose of tapping and using these forces to transform the material universe into a spiritual environment.

This is the mission of all our lives, each fulfilling it with our own unique skills. Our challenge – and choice – is to use technology and all the gifts we were blessed with not merely for personal gain and self-interest, or for entertainment and killing time, but for bettering the world in which we live.

The MLC, including myself, has been blessed with the opportunity to reach many people from all walks of life, and share together the warmth of spirituality and discover together the higher meaning of our lives. As such, we attempt to use all available channels to distribute information and inspiration, in ways that will reach people through the mediums they are utilizing. Facebook is one of the places where many people congregate. We obviously don’t impose on anyone which medium they want to use, and respect each individual’s preferences.

And so, a morning-after-Passover daydream about “shame on you” has, with this pen, turned into a post-Passover meditation about the integration of our modern world with the underpinnings of spirituality. Can we join the two? Many are afraid of faith and the passions it releases. They can’t be blamed: We have, after all, seen the extreme abuses of religion, the killings, destruction and persecution wreaked in the name of faith, both over the millennia, and now originating in the Middle East. Many other are afraid of the excesses of materialism and the indulgences unleashed by technologies. They too cannot be blamed: We have witnessed far too many times how prosperity and technology spoils people, spawns greed, overwhelms the spirit.

Today’s economic troubles only testify to the consequences of unaccountable prosperity, real or delusional, to the power of greed and to the corruption let loose when success is undisciplined and gets out of control.

In our fast-paced society, with ever-accelerating gadgets whizzing all around us, we often crave some quietude, some simplicity, a bit of peace.Passover teaches us the third path. The path of balance. Eight days of sublimating the ego (symbolized by inflated bread) and embracing humility (symbolized by the bare-bones matzah), eight days of passionately accessing transcendence and freedom, empowers us with the ability to integrate the two worlds: Spirit and matter, faith and modernity.

Only when armed with a humble sense of mission and a determined drive of urgency, can our higher beliefs stand proud in public. Only then can we harness the tools of technology and use them for their true end: to sublimate our world. Only then can we master technology instead of it mastering us.

Maybe this humility and persistence allowed us to get through 3321 difficult years…

Now, when we live in free and prosperous times, the Passover message is as clear as ever: We do not have to fear bridging our most sublime ideals with our mundane investments.

We have our calling – and we have our work cut out for us. One we can embrace not with shame, but with… profound pride.

Posted on April 22, 2009
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