• Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch

From The Archives: parashat vayishlach 5779 - "get in close!"

This Thaknsgiving, we had a strange experience. I was sitting with my family at Liz's uncle's Thanksgiving table in Boston, and we joined with my brother's table in Colorado and my wife's parents and grandparents in Florida, all via FaceTime. This was the key experience of Thanksgiving: it was online.


We are living in a fascinating time where the tools at our fingertips can bring us closer to people who physically sit thousands of miles away from us.


I am thankful for video conferencing for profound reasons. The technology removes more and more barriers between us and others with whom we are communicating. The phone is a disembodied voice. Now, we don't just listen to our nieces opening their Chanukah presents from us. Now, we get to see their faces of delight, and they can look at us, they can say thank you to our faces, and we can reciprocate that kindness with our reactions. I am thankful for Google Assistants, and Siris, and Alexas all around because they mean we can be close even when we are far. They enable my son to wake up every morning, asking to speak with his grandmother who lives in Texas, and with a simple voice command, his request is met. The connection goes deeper, because even when they do not live in the same place, when his grandmother walks into the room, he runs right up to her, with no lag in recognition. The ability to connect via video feed in fact draws us closer to one another. We can now meet face to face with business associates over Zoom. In our own congregation, we can include members of our community who travel through the winter in learning sessions and on committees by using this technology, where their travels before kept them from participating. These little devices of silicon, glass, and metal that we carry in our pockets carry tremendous potential for deep relationships.


Every once in a while, here at Hevreh, we discuss if we want to start streaming our services. I have arguments for why we should want to stream our services. I have arguments against it, as well. Streaming in this room would enable those not present to still show up. I think of my grandparents and my brother's wedding. He was married in Denver. Our grandparents were in Houston and unable to travel. But at the rehearsal dinner, we connected them up with a projector, screen, and skype. My grandparents offered a beautiful toast to my brother and his wife, who in two months will have been married for ten years.


I think of my friend Chuck, who when his mother-in-law died suddenly, he was unable to go to the funeral, which was in Maryland. He was in Boston and had just had major surgery, recovering at home. His wife went to take care of the arrangements, attend the funeral and burial, and sit shiva at her mother's home. Chuck was heartbroken. But the synagogue where the funeral was held had webcams set up in their sanctuary so they could stream. I went over to Chuck's home and opened up my laptop. We sat on his living room couch and attended his mother-in-law's funeral together. He cried, told me stories about her, and got to hear first-hand, in-real-time the eulogies shared. And though not physically in the room, he was with his family saying Kaddish.


These are the reasons to connect in person and online as much as possible. But these technologies also carry a concern: If connecting remotely is only one click away, then why travel to be together? Why deal with the costs, security lines, and general frustrations of air travel or traffic when you can show up so easily over FaceTime?


To sharpen the concern: Around the time of the High Holy Days, I had a similar conversation with several different people. I would ask where someone spent the holidays, given that so many in our community travel to be with family all around the East Coast. Several people confessed to me that instead of traveling places, they stayed home, turned on their smart TVs, and streamed services from a variety of synagogues around the country. I have not experienced this myself, but it sounds like a lovely way to spend the holidays or Shabbat: I imagine opening a bottle of wine, making a small cheese plate, and tuning in to services in beautiful sanctuaries around the world.


And then my imagination runs, and I ask Why stop there? Imagine iShul, your synagogue in the cloud. It's an app that lives on your phone, and now you can make a minyan no matter where you are. The home screen gives you a variety options to build your own Shabbat service. You can have one cantor--that one with the guitar--sing you through Kabbalat Shabbat and L'cha Dodi. Then, you can seamlessly shift to another synagogue where a different cantor--the other one who is accompanied by an organ and professional four-part choir-- she will sing you through the Bar'chu, Sh'ma and other blessings. Then you can scroll through a variety of rabbis and choose the sermon you want to hear. Are you more interested in hearing a rabbi talk about current events or the week's Torah portion, more social justice, or more on personal practice? With iShul, you are in control. You build your own prayer experience.


But something is lost in this scenario. How would you ever have a moment like we had earlier tonight, welcoming Ezra here to this Bima? The one who worships at iShul would end up in the same echo chamber that so many of us complain about when we look at our social media feeds--we preference the modes that are in harmony with our own situation and being, and in so doing we avoid discomfort. We push away any chance for conflict, to hear music that catches us off guard, or to consider a perspective that differs from our own or makes us think about something from a new point of view. And most significantly, we lose the chance to be proximate to others. With iShul, who will you put your arms around at the end of the service?


In this week's Torah Portion, Vayishlach, the biblical authors emphasize the importance of connecting, of being proximate to our brothers and our sisters. Earlier on in the book of Genesis, our ancestor Jacob steals his twin brother, Esau's Birthright and blessing from their father, Isaac. In the world in which Esau and Jacob live, blessings and birthrights were not held in abundance. When Esau learns his brother tricked him, Esau turned to his father and asked, "Do you not have a blessing for me, too?" Jacob fled from that moment, fearful his brother would kill him. He had been running ever since, and in this week's Parashah, the two brother's reunite.


When Jacob is in Esau's vicinity, Jacob is told that Esau is coming to meet him personally. Jacob is struck with fear. Even after all the years, Jacob does not know how his brother will treat him, and he braces himself for conflict. As he approaches Esau, Jacob bows low. Esau runs up to him, embracing his twin with a full heart and with forgiveness.


Esau seems to have learned that the world can operate differently than how their father had set it up. He could give and receive kindness freely. He could forgive freely. He could re-embrace his only brother.


We have tools all around us that are here to help us connect. As many have noted about these new tools, the ironic thing is that for as much as they help us connect, people are lonelier than ever. This Thanksgiving was an opportunity to break down walls and come together with others in our families, in our community. Each day, when we are here in our community, we have a similar chance to say thank you to God, to one another, to let others know how we're doing, and ask the same of them. These tools are great for building community. And building community in person still can't be beat.


I pray that this Thanksgiving weekend brings you tremendous joy and gladness, and I am grateful to share it with each of you.