Face to Face

Rosh Hashanah 5776

In a large anonymous college lecture hall, time had run out. The professor called for the exams.  As the students finished up, they tossed their blue books on the professor’s desk.  A few minutes passed.  The last few students desperately scribbled their final comments and left the auditorium.  After ten minutes, only the professor, the stack of hundreds of blue books, and one student remained in the room.  The student kept writing. Five, then ten, then fifteen minutes continued to pass. The professor stood there, shocked at this student’s chutzpah. Finally, the student finished.  He walked up to the professor, blue book in hand. The professor said: “Young man, if you think I am going to accept that exam, now twenty minutes late, you are mistaken.” The student grinned: “Professor, do you have any idea who I am?!” The professor answered: “No, I have no idea, and to be quite candid, it matters not a whit to me who you are!” The student continued: “So, you’re telling me that you have no idea who I am.” The professor said: “No. None, whatsoever!” And so the student took his blue book, shoved it in the middle of the big pile of identical blue books, said “and now you never will!” and walked out of the room.

I remember sitting in those giant lecture halls down in Urbana- Champaign.  I was often one of several hundred students in a lecture.  The teacher never knew my name; the teacher never knew if I even showed up to class!  My friends and I had a name for those lectures, we called them, “anonymous classes”.  We walked into a giant hall, and sat next to someone we didn’t know, next to someone we likely never would know.  Perhaps this is how some of you here this evening, feel.  After all, we are in a sea of several hundred people.  I wonder how many of us here this evening, feel anonymous, feel unknown. My guess is that most of us don’t know one another.  Being your new rabbi I know that’s true for me.  I’ve probably only met 5% of you, and probably only know a handful of you relatively well. 

How often are we in a crowd of people – hundreds of people – but somehow still feel alone? How many interactions do we have in a day, yet still somehow feel anonymous, as if we are not really being seen? This happens at the supermarket, on the bus or the train, or at a restaurant waiting to meet a friend.  We can be surrounded by many people, and yet somehow still feel alone. It’s like the anonymous lecture halls. Do you know what we did during those “anonymous” classes?  We went on our computers, texted our friends, hid behind our screens.  Instead of talking to the person next to us –or paying attention to the person trying to impart a lesson – we chose to be alone with our technology.

Ironically, technology was intended to help make us feel more connected.  Despite all the technological advancements of our age, we find ourselves less connected than ever.  We’ve all walked into a room full of people, where everyone is hiding their face behind their screens.  We have all seen the scene at a restaurant where children with headphones on are watching a movie on the iPad and the parents plugged into their phones.  We have entered an era when we are physically together, but truly alone in every other way.  “We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together,” writes MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle. She explains, “We expect more from technology and less from one another, and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.”  She shares a story of a high school sophomore who wishes he could talk to an artificial intelligence program instead of his dad about dating; he says the artificial intelligence would have so much more in its database.  She continues, “many people tell me they hope that as Siri, the digital assistant on Apple’s iPhone, becomes more advanced, ‘she’ will be and more like a best friend — one who listens when others won’t.”[1] The Academy Award winning movie “Her” depicts precisely this phenomenon: it tells the tale of a lonely, depressed man who ends up dating his operating system!  In art and in reality, we have created an illusion that electronic connections are real relationships, that they are worthy substitute for old school, face-to-face relationships.

Judaism –from the tale of Abraham and Sarah – has been about relationships.  But that’s not where most synagogues are today. In his book, “Relational Judaism” Ron Wolfson notes a similar observation, “Ironically, in a world of hyper-connectivity, we are shockingly alone, glued to our computer and smartphone screens, texting each other from across the room, sending e-mails of condolence or posting on Facebook walls instead of picking up the phone or showing up in person, face-to-face”.[2]  We have, in a sense, convinced ourselves that our on-line communities are our real communities. If I’ve written “Happy Birthday” on a friend’s facebook wall, or sent a text message of condolence, I feel I have done my part.

What does it really mean, though, for me to do my part? I will try to explain through a story. I can take it back to when I was 17 years old, a junior in high school. I had just been elected president of my youth group and people would joke that, if possible, I would spend 8 days a week at the synagogue. My best friends were my temple friends. We all met in youth group, and on Friday nights we would attend services together. We liked the music and some of us even liked to pray.  But mainly we went to services to be together; we went to see each other.  We were always the last ones to leave the synagogue. And it wasn’t just about being with teens: we built connections with our rabbis, too.  We would have sushi parties in their homes, watch “Friends” together.  Looking back, what I learned was that when we spent time together, face-to-face, we were doing Jewish.

Judaism is rooted in relationships.  We see this especially during our High Holy Days.  We recall the story of creation as recounted in chapter 2 of the Torah. After God has created Adam and placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, God says, lo tov he-yot ha’adam l’vado.[3] “It is not good for a human being to be alone.”  In the very beginning of our Jewish story, God acknowledges the problem of human loneliness, lo tov he-yot ha’adam l’vado, “it is not good for a human being to be alone.” And then, God solves the problem of human loneliness by creating Eve for Adam.  Before we learn Eve’s name, God says, “I will make for humanity an ezer k’negdo [4], literally a person who helps us by being across from us. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate creation, and with creation comes the notion that no human being should be alone.  No, God says, “we must be in relationship with others”.

Our Jewish emphasis on relationship hardly ends with the story of creation. In the book of Genesis alone, we read story after story about relationships — sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, communal relationships– face-to-face relationships.  Our Torah tells the story of the marriage of Abraham and Sarah and their struggle to conceive a child.  Tomorrow morning we will read about a father and son, Abraham and Isaac.  We find in our Torah, the tale of Isaac and Rebekah.  Perhaps one of the most touching stories in our Torah is that of twin brothers, Jacob and Esau.  After years apart due to sibling rivalry, the two brothers meet again.  In a moment of deep appreciation, Jacob says to his brother Esau, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  It is as if in that moment the Divine presence resides – that moment when Jacob and Esau’s relationship is rekindled, when the two connect once again face-to-face.

Face-to-face relationships are not the expectation people have for relationships today. It’s so bad that High School students say, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”[5] We all know that teens hate the telephone. Telephone calls require having to have a conversation; conversations are too prying, last too long, and never end. Human interaction is messy and complicated. It takes time to get it right.  These online virtual relationships have replaced face-to-face relationships.  The virtual appears easier, more convenient, less burdensome than the real. And online, we can choose what we share, and the self we wish to portray. Only half-jokingly, a teenage boy shared that he worries about getting confused between what he composes for his online life and who he really is.[6] 

Being in relationship demands more than these online and electronic connections.  It requires knowing one another, face-to-face.  It requires knowing the real story- not just what we post on facebook.  Relationships require more than “small talk”, more than discussions of where we are from, what we do, who we know.  Being in relationship requires that we move our conversations beyond surface concerns.  Being in relationship means caring, truly caring about one another.  There’s a Hasidic story about two friends.  One friend asks the other, “Do you care about me?” The friend replies, “Of course.” The first friend then asks, “Do you know what hurts me?”  The friend answers, “No.”  The first friend replies, “How can you be my friend, say that you care about me if you don’t know what hurts me?”[7]

In real relationships, we need to go beyond the surface and dig a little deeper to really know each other.  We need to start asking others: Who are you? What is important to you? What keeps you up at night, what gets you up in the morning?  We need to transform our feelings of anonymity, our sense of being a single self in a sea of a hundred, into a feeling of true, meaningful, deep relationship.  We need not only do this for ourselves, but we need to do this for our community as well.  When we begin to open ourselves up to the opportunity of building meaningful relationships, our synagogue transforms from a place of transaction to a home of relationship.  Our synagogue transforms from a place where your child became Bar or Bat Mitzvah to a place where you feel cared for, where you find deep meaning and deep connection.

Creating meaningful relationships is not a new idea.  In fact, 20th century philosopher Martin Buber suggested that there are two ways in which we interact with others.  We can orient ourselves toward the other as an object or as a subject, as an “it” or as a “thou.”  When we confront someone as an “it”, our interaction is transactional, each person derives some sort of utilitarian benefit from the relationship.  We see the I-it relationship everywhere: We ask the person behind the counter for a cup of coffee, and then we pay the person. When we ride in a taxi, our driver gets us from point A to point B and when we arrive, we pay the driver for that service. We use the Other as a means to an end.  In essence, the person is reduced to an “it”, to an object of transaction. That’s okay sometimes. 

Buber, suggested, however, that in meaningful communities we must strive for “I-thou” interactions, moments of inter-personal relationship with the other. In an I-thou interaction, relationship is mutual. The exchange is not transactional.  When we treat the other as a “thou”, we see the whole person, with emotions, and thoughts of their own.  We recognize that the other person, is a human being just like us – with needs, dreams, hopes. We are able to sympathize and empathize with the other person.

Every “it” interaction has the potential to be transformed into a relationship of thou.  In this New Year, how can we strive to move our relationships from I-it to I-thou?  In a world of technology, and instant communication, how can we truly cultivate a community of deep, meaningful, relationships?

The truth is, these days you don’t need a synagogue to find a social life.  (You don’t even need people to have a social life!) You don’t need a synagogue for services…you can sit on your couch and stream them from hundreds of synagogues around the country, and soon from Chicago Sinai.  In a recent commencement address at Elon University, the speaker told the graduating class: “We call our online world a community, but that’s just to make us feel better…it’s not — this is. The people to your right and left.”[8]  This is your community.  This is our community. To our right and to our left. Look at them.  Take your eyes off of me for a moment, and look at the people to your right and to your left, in front of you and behind.  Somewhere, deep down, we know that being here, is better than sitting on a couch in our homes, watching a screen.  Somewhere, deep down, we want more from this synagogue, more than a bar mitzvah, or a wedding or a funeral.  We want more from this synagogue than a pre-school or religious school education for our children. Ron Wolfson tells the story of a rabbi who learned of the resignation from the synagogue of woman who had been an active member for twenty years.  She attended just about every synagogue program.  The rabbi was shocked to see that she had resigned and he reached out to her.  When he asked her why she was leaving she told him, “I came to everything and I never met anybody.”[9]  Deep down, people come to synagogue for a sense of community, a sense of belonging, for spirituality, for relatio1nships,

Relationships.  That is why I became a rabbi.  I stand here this evening, ready, eager to listen to your story and to get to know you.  Will you share it with me?  Will you call, email, set up a time for coffee…or find me on facebook?  So that we can get together and share our stories, face-to-face?  And will you share your story with others, the people here this evening, sitting to your right and to your left.  That should be our goal.  When we get to know one another, face-to-face, we become a kehilah kedosha, a sacred community. 

In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, there was a tiny room called Kodesh Kodeshim, the Holy of Holies.  And in it, was the aron ha-kodesh, the Holy Ark.  On top of the ark were two sculptures of two majestic angels, which stood over the ark, facing one another.  Jewish tradition teaches that between these two faces, lies the presence of God.  Indeed, from Adam and Eve to Buber, this ancient tradition teaches it is between faces, panim-el-panim, that we find the presence of God. 

Let us imagine returning one year from now, on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 to this same room, filled with hundreds of people. Next year, these are people you know.  What did we do together? Study? Pray? Act? Instead of starring at our phones before the service begins, we are communicating panim-el-panim, face to face.

            On this first day of 5776 let us recall the beginning of creation, “It is not good for a human being to be alone.” And let us do something about it.  Indeed, it is not the number of Facebook friends or e-mails we have in our inbox that define our true relationships.  Meaningful relationships, true relationships, are built upon conversations, upon interactions with one another panim el panim, face – to – face.   Let us commit in the coming year to truly getting to know one another, face to face.

            And when we engage in these relationships, when we truly come to know one another, we indeed bring the presence of the Divine being into our world.









[1] Sherry Turkle, “The Flight from Conversation” New York Times, April 21, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html?_r=0

[2] Ron Wolfson. Relational Judaism. (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 39.

[3] Genesis 2:18

[4] Genesis 2:18

[5] Michiko Kakutani. “’Friends’ Without a Personal Touch,” Review of Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle. New York Times, February 21, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/books/22book.html

[6] Kakutani.

[7] Hasidic Story. R. Moshe of Sassov.

[8] Tyler Kingkade. “Brian Williams Elon Commencement Speech Included Heartwarming Message to His Son” Huffington Post, May 28,2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/28/brian-williams-elon-commencement_n_3344052.html.

[9] Wolfson, 17.

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