A few months ago, I experienced my first miracle. It happened during morning prayers at the local synagogue. I was standing next to the bima (Torah reading table) during Kadish, when I heard a tiny, high-pitched voice answer amen. The voice was practically in my ear, yet when I turned to look nobody was there. I was beginning to think I was imagining things when I heard it again. For a brief moment, the thought crossed my mind: Could it be one of those heavenly voices mentioned in the Talmud? Then I noticed the Blackberry strategically placed on the bima. Mystery solved! The disembodied voice belonged to a bedridden member of our congregation. Since he was too ill to show up in person, someone had been kind enough to let him to attend via speakerphone.
Not too long ago, something as simple as tele-prayer would have been unimaginable. In fact, the world we live in today is virtually unrecognizable from the one I grew up in. I don’t think I fully appreciated this until a few years back, when my daughter found a piece of an old vinyl record in the woods while we were hiking. “Look Abba,” she proclaimed, “a giant CD!”
Technology has no-doubt made the world a smaller place, but recently I’ve begun to notice just how much of a double edged sword it really is. On one hand, it offers unparalleled opportunities for us to connect, but it also enables us to keep people at arm’s length like never before. Back in the old days, when we socialized in person or by phone (which we answered without the aid of caller ID) we didn’t really have the option to ignore people. But in today’s world of long-distance communication, we hold all the cards. We get to screen our calls, emails, and Facebook friend requests. And since, for the most part, we are seen only when we want to be seen, we get to decide with virtual impunity how quickly we respond, and who we would prefer to simply ignore.
Personally, I’m amazed at how common it is for emails and phone calls to go either unanswered, or to be answered days or sometimes weeks later. I am, of course, by no means perfect. No doubt everyone drops the ball from time to time. But I’ve noticed that some people are more conscientious about the way they communicate than others. And it’s not that the less conscientious are doing anything intentionally either. Yes, I’ve come across a few cyber-chickens in my days: people who hide behind technology because they lack the decency and integrity to tell you where they stand. But for the most part, I sincerely believe that communication lapses stem from the frantic pace of our modern lives. We are genuinely overwhelmed by the tidal wave of data and information that seems to fill our every waking moment. All too often, it just seems like we have so many more important things to do.
Which brings me to my point: Now, more than ever, we need to remember that there are real people with real feelings at the other end of the messages in our inbox. We wouldn’t ignore a stranger who asked us for a moment of our time in person, so why would we ignore our friends and colleagues who are really doing the same thing – simply because it’s done via technology? Can’t we at least spare a few seconds to say: “Got your message. Things are crazy! Will be in touch?” And if we can’t, what does it say about us? Sure it requires a little extra effort on our part. But remember that cyber–mentchkeit isn’t just for the benefit of others. Ultimately, it’s for our sake, because when all’s said and done, the care that we show for the insignificant things in life is what defines us as human beings.
This week’s Torah portion describes the high point in the career of perhaps the greatest man in human history. As we witness Moshe receiving the Ten Commandments – an act that literally transforms the human race – it’s worthwhile to revisit the words of our oral tradition that describe what made him, more than any other man on earth, qualified for that exalted assignment:
“Once when Moshe was working as a shepherd, a small sheep wandered away from the flock. Moshe chased after the sheep only to discover it drinking from a brook. Moshe said, “You poor sheep, if you are this thirsty, then you must be tired as well.” So Moshe carried the sheep all the way back to the flock. At this display of compassion, Hashem declared, “If this is the way you treat your sheep, then I want you to be the shepherd for My sheep (i.e. the Israelites)”- Midrash Rabba, Shemot 2:2.
Moshe’s greatness was defined, not by his public achievements, but by the care and concern that he showed for the smallest member of his flock. Rest assured; our level of greatness will be determined in the exact same manner. Modern technology may indeed present our generation with new challenges, but hidden within those challenges is an unprecedented opportunity to become better human beings. It isn’t even that hard to do. We just need to remind ourselves that small acts of kindness are ultimately what make our lives fulfilling, and are what define our greatness – especially now, more than ever – precisely because they are so easy to avoid.
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle