Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I Do Not Know Who You Are, But Thank You for Reading This

We Are Lonelier Than Ever Before

            I heard somewhere that a rabbi’s rabbi, the go-to rabbi to whom other rabbis complain or confess—perhaps the closest thing we Jews have to a bishop (we Jews don't have bishops; no one would listen to them; we are notoriously independent-minded)—was asked, “What do all the rabbis tell you? What do Jews want? Do they want more spirituality? More ways to study Torah, to make it part of their lives? More ways to access holiness, to increase their knowledge, to grow closer to God?”
            The Rabbi’s Rabbi, the UberRabbi said, “No. People are lonely. People want other people.”
            The supreme irony of our age is the tragic loneliness of human beings. We all carry these remarkable little phones—they link us to the Internet, the greatest invention ever created to attach us to a body of knowledge, of news, literature, sports, culture, misinformation—whatsoever we desire, whensoever we desire it, whatever hour of day or night, wherever we live. We have computers, tablets, desktops, GPS, Mapquest, Bluetooth. We are LinkedIn, Turnitin’d, Turned On, Skyped, OoVoo’d, connected to the nth degree. We can sit in semi-darkness, faces lit by the otherworldly blue light emanating from our computer screens, and fool ourselves that we are part of a community—but we know, in our heart of hearts, that it is not true; we are fooling ourselves. Even as you read this, is there some essence of David Mark, some ghost of Mark within the machine reaching out to you?
            A dear young friend of mine, a rabbi geared to the future and its needs, has an online synagogue. People can tip-tap their way in via keyboard; they can cyber-daven. Their screens become the sanctuary. They can ask questions, search for God by combing through the Web-ether. Is this the wave of the future?
            I teach college English. A student sends me a paper about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” She does her research online; together, online, we discuss, back-and-forth, Poe’s fatal weakness for liquor, how it killed both his natural father, the failed actor David Poe, and Edgar's brother Henry. We can, together, from great distances, commiserate over the alcohol-related death of the fictitious cat, Pluto, and the actual writer, Edgar Poe. Does that make this a college class? Learning has taken place, but is there humanity, culture, meeting of minds over the pattering of computer keys?
            What sort of future will there be? My grandson sits and watches an “Angry Birds” cartoon on my wife’s iPad. He laughs where he ought to, knows what virtual buttons to press, and, when the program ends, he is careful to return the magical machine to my wife; one drop to the floor will reduce the genie’s lamp to a tangle of glass and plastic. Later, we two sit, and he uses the tablet to unscramble words, preparatory to his entering 2nd Grade in the fall. The machine applauds his triumphs by playing canned musical fanfares, and gently re-directs his errors with comical Bronx cheers. My grandson can foresee a bright future of computers, farther into the future than his grandsire’s jaundiced, cynical eye.
            Are you out there, Man, Woman? Are we connecting? Let me know if I am reaching you, if we are making contact. Send me an email—or, better: something real, something actual: a message in a bottle. It will take longer to reach me, but I will appreciate the gesture far, far more.