U’ntane Tokef, which translates to “We Give This Day Its Power,” is a prayer that has been around for more than a thousand years and can be found at the center of every High Holiday ceremony. It sounds very much like the narration used in a trailer for a new season of “Game of Thrones”: Who will live and who will die is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. Who will survive the fires, the ocean, and the beast? Who by the earthquake and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning…Who will be spared, and who will be torn apart?
It is a scary example of existential clickbait in the form of an unanswerable question. Yet this doleful passage concludes on a hopeful note: “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah… temper the severity of life’s decree.” These three principles, which can be roughly translated as repentance, faith, and generosity, were proposed by the Jewish sages as a means of overcoming the challenges that are unavoidable in life. Indeed, we can’t always control what happens to us, but a life that follows these ideals will be considerably more bearable.
As a member of the clergy at a progressive synagogue, my role is to chant these ancient phrases and help people connect the words on the page to their everyday lives. To that end, I propose three pieces of modern technology (all invented by Jews!) that parallel the ancient Jewish “technology” of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. These three innovations, when viewed through the lens of this High Holiday, may cast some new light on the rabbis’ threefold route to a good year and a good life.
Selfie stick (2005, Jewish Canadian Wayne Fromm, who has been promoting the Toronto-style twisted bagel for a long time)
The Hebrew term teshuvah can be translated literally as “to turn” or “to return.” The word “teshuvah,” spoken during the High Holidays, is an exhortation to return to our most truthful selves. This can be accomplished only after we take a long and perhaps painfully thorough look at ourselves and the year we have lived through — not in isolation, but rather in the sense of what is most important to us. This is the only way we can return to our most truthful selves. As we reframe our gaze to include ourselves within the context of the people, places, and moments that form the basis of our existence, the selfie taker’s posture mirrors that of the supplicant, with their arms and eyes raised and their knees bent. This is a much-needed shift in perspective, and the selfie-takers’ posture mirrors the supplicants.
(1972, Warren Teitelman, developed a philosophy of computing called “Do What I Mean”) (DWIM), in which computers could recognize and automatically correct obvious mistakes in programming code — and eventually in the fat-fingered mishaps of everyday human conversation) Autocorrect was one of the first examples of this philosophy in action.
The concept of intervention or mediation is at the heart of the original meaning of the Hebrew term tefillah (prayer). The Hebrew word for “praying” is in the reflexive form, which means that praying is both a self-surrendering of power and a petition to a higher authority to act on one’s behalf. In the same way, our texting takes on the rapid and rhythmic pulse of the Hasidic shucker. Since we are so eager for our messages to be read, we are willing to forego precision (and frequently even our word choice) to maintain the momentum of the conversation. Additionally, we are willing to take a leap of faith and let the artificial intelligence of our phones make the best guess it can regarding our syntactical intentions. This can often lead to unexpected detours in our conversations, which can sometimes be hilarious, sometimes embarrassing, and sometimes startlingly poetic or serendipitous. As numerous websites dedicated to text failure can testify, this can often lead to unexpected detours in our conversations. We reach out and hope for the best, but at the same time, we must be prepared to forgive ourselves and others for the inevitable setbacks that will cause pain, misunderstanding, or embarrassment in the year that has been and in the year that will come. That is the cost of having relationships based on the expectation of mutual benefit and connection to one another.
Built-in pencil eraser (1858, Hyman Lipman, who sold his original patent in 1862 for $100,000 — the equivalent of millions of dollars in 2016)
When held by someone who can confidently solve the Saturday crossword puzzle, the pen is stronger than the sword. This is particularly true when that executor brandishes the pen. Due to the lack of an eraser, the brief golf pencil does not allow for any “creative accounting” if the player later regrets misplaying the ball. However, the well-known pencil with the eraser on end is a gentle reminder of the fragility of the human condition. When we start a new creation with our No. 2, we always start by reminding ourselves that there is a decent possibility that we will make mistakes along the way. However, the eraser on the pencil is an imperfect instrument in and of itself. No matter how many times we move the tiny pink nubbin of forgiveness back and forth across the graphite errors we’ve made, we will always have some trace of the mistakes we’ve made before. Even though we can correct our errors (and even overwrite them), the traces of our mistakes will always remain.
After an erasure, we perform a climactic gesture that mimics the generous act of tzedakah we must display in each New Year to mitigate the severity of the judgments we pass against ourselves and others. This gesture involves brushing our hands across the page from the previous year and performing it circularly. With our cheeks pushed out to the maximum Gillespie level (as if we were about to blow out the candles on a birthday cake), we release the pink rubber shavings in a joyful expression of forgiveness. Even though we can still feel the ghosts of our past mistakes in the here and now, we don’t let ourselves get stuck in the regret and guilt that come from those mistakes. If we treat one another with kindness and compassion, our names will be recorded in the Book of Life. Put your regrets and guilt behind you because this will be a wonderful year!
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