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Rabbi Seidel Drash Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5777-2016

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Rosh Hashanah Day Two - 5777 (2016)
Technology and Teshuvah


We have come to believe, in this country, that almost all problems have a technological fix.  Whether the problem is how to best help people at the end of life, or how to get our children to behave, or how to solve climate change, or how to win a war: technology is where we look for an answer.  Not that technology is a bad thing, far from it.  I wrote this drash on my computer. Science and technology can be, and often has been, an enormous force for positive change in our world.  My concern is that nowadays, it is often the first place we look for answers. Or even worse, the only place we look for help.  And when that happens, when we place our hope entirely in technology, much damage is done.  For one thing, not all problems admit of technological solutions.  And for another, there is a side-effect of placing all of our hope in anything outside of ourselves: teshuva becomes unnecessary.  We don't need to make any changes in our personal lives, or in our community, or in the culture of our nation; technology will fix whatever ails us.

We saw a stark example of this just last month, when Hillary Clinton plotzed on the campaign trail.  She knew she was sick; she had gone to her doctor.  And the doctor told Hillary that she had pneumonia, and that she needed to take antibiotics, and rest for a few days.  Hillary did what so many Americans would do: she accepted the medicine, the technological fix, but she rejected the idea that her own personal behavior would need to be adjusted at all.  And she and her campaign suffered.

"But wait," you say, "There is so much on the line with this election, you can't blame Hillary for not wanting to miss a moment on the campaign trail."  Ok.  Maybe you're right. (Though you must allow that her course of action - or inaction - did not serve her well in the end).  But what about the rest of us, who are not running for national office?  What's our excuse to ignore any and all health advice, unless it's no harder than taking medication?  Are we prepared to make any inconvenient life changes this year, to improve our health?

Probably not.  And you know, it's not all our fault.  Our culture is not really into teshuvah anymore.  Increasingly, we are told that we are unable to change.  I've read several articles this year: one in The New York Times, another in The New Yorker just this month - about how diets don't work.  The New Yorker article seemed to imply that if you were seriously overweight, it was better to just jump right to the bariatric surgery, and skip attempts to diet.

And it's true, diets rarely seem to work.  But why is that?  Could it be that, in our society, we have come to believe that personal change is really too much to ask of others, or even of ourselves?  Could it be that this belief in the impossibility of teshuva has become a self-fulfilling prophecy?  If our society as a whole believes that teshuva is virtually impossible, who are we to object?  In today's environment, who's going to make effort to change?  Now that just about every personal failure has become medicalized, with its own diagnostic coding for the insurance purposes, we'll reach for the technological fix, not the agonizing effort at personal change.  For even without society telling us that it's no use - you cannot change - we must admit: change is really hard, and susceptible to epic failure.

But diets are the least of it.  Addiction is also very tough to conquer.  People do it, sure. But it takes effort, a lot of effort.  Thirty days in rehab, and then a return to your old friends forget about it.  Real teshuvah, of any kind, is going to take a lot of time, and major life changes. And even then it's not guaranteed to work.  This is life.  No wonder people turn to technology, and the promise of a quick fix. Problem is, as even the technophiles will readily admit: technology by itself is rarely the solution to our problems.  Usually it is a combination of technology and personal change that works.  The medicine and the bed rest.

But it's not just for medical issues like, say, pneumonia, that we have embraced technology as an all-powerful God, a God who doesn't even want our teshuva.  We have medicalized a whole group of personal behavior issues among children, so neither the children nor their parents have to examine their own actions.  Here's a quote from a book you might want to read, The Collapse of Parenting, by Leonard Sax.  Dr. Sax notes that

In most European countries, the proportion of individuals 18 and under who are on any kind of psychotropic medication is typically 2 percent or lower, and most of those individuals are 16-18-year-olds taking medications for depression or anxiety.  In the United States, the proportion of children and adolescents on psychotropic medications is now about 10 percent, with some surveys reporting rates above 20 percent.  Many of those are children age 12 and under...

Today, American parents are hungry for brain-based explanations.  Instead of removing the cell phone and the laptop from their kids' bedroom so their kids can get a good night's sleep, many American parents are medicating their kids with powerful stimulants ... to compensate for their sleep deprivation, usually without any awareness that sleep deprivation, not ADHD, is the underlying problem responsible for their kids' failure to pay attention.  Likewise, instead of acknowledging that their kid misbehaves and/or is disrespectful, many American parents would prefer that a doctor diagnose an imbalance in brain chemistry and prescribe Respirdal, Seroquel, Adderall, or Concerta. (p. 62)

[end quote].  Please note:  Neither I nor Dr. Sax are saying these drugs should never be used.  I know of children who have been enormously helped by their meds.  However, Dr. Sax suggests at the end of the chapter:

Try to adopt the European mind-set with regard to medication for kids.  That means viewing medication as an absolute last resort, after every other possible intervention has been tried.  In the United States, medication has become the first resort: "Let's try it and see if it helps."  The result of the American mind-set is a generation of kids on powerful psychiatric medications, medications whose long-term consequences are unknown. [end quote].  By the way, this coming year, Rabbi Sarah Meytin and I are planning to co-teach a class on parenting.  The first session is scheduled for October 30th.  Now, the class won't just be about this book, but I will surely focus on some of the book's recommendations for teshuva: the importance of limiting kids' screen time, the necessity of family dinners, and asserting parental authority as needed.  Granted these are not simple changes.  Getting everyone home in time for dinner may involve less sports involvement for the children and some workplace tension for the adults.  It might even involve switching careers.  Or houses.  Or cities.  And limiting screen time - well that can provoke a firestorm all on its own. 

But it is doable.  You will be surprised how positively children react to limits - not right away perhaps, but after a few weeks of consistent, loving boundary setting.  Kids are resilient, as are families, and often just a few tweaks can bring much more happiness and health to a family.

But  parents do need the fortitude to weather the initial resistance.

Which is why people opt for the quick fix, however imperfect.  But that's not what these days of repentance are about.  It's not what being a human being is about.  These days of repentance are about making the brave move - gradually, perhaps, but at least starting on a different course.  That may well be a new course with the help of technology.  But technology without the personal change is rarely a solution to any life problem.

Ah, but technology by itself is so convenient.  And we love convenience.  And convenience is a good thing, often.  But convenience is not God.  And teshuvah is not convenient, at least not in the short term.  We need to ask ourselves, when we opt for the convenient: are we just being lazy?  When we take the easy road, the convenient road, we have to ask ourselves: with this convenience, are we serving our larger goals?  What is really most important to us?  Increasing the convenience or our lives?  Or, as Gandhi put it, isn't there more to life than increasing its speed? 

Keeping the big picture in mind is the first step towards repentance.  But I worry that, in our rush to get stuff done, even just thinking of the larger picture is inconvenient. Here's a quote I included in my packet, from the beginning of Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal:

You don't have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help.  The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver's chance of benefit.  They are spent in institutions - nursing homes and intensive care units - where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life.  Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers... (p. 9)

Gawande speaks of "Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying..." as the root cause of the problem.  It should come as no surprise that we are reluctant to think about aging and dying - these are not fun things to think about.  But this is what teshuvah is about: thinking of the big picture, being honest about our lives, even something as hard to think about as the end of our lives.  We have set aside these 10 days of repentance to think about what we've been avoiding thinking about.  In the short run, it's easier to avoid such difficult contemplation.  But in the long run, avoiding the issues is disastrous.  If you don't think about the way you want to live, or in this case, die, others will do the thinking for you.  They won't have your interests at heart of course, but then, how could they?  They don't know you.  You have to do the planning, so your family, and your doctors and your nurses will know what you want.

Gawande also says: "Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers..."  Now, strangers, I get.  But Medicine and Technology? Medicine and technology don't have opinions, or imperatives.  Only people can make decisions, and have imperatives.  But I know what he's implying. Technology does in fact seem to exist in our culture as a force with its own assumed moral imperative: more technology is always better. 

But is that true?  Is the cell phone always better than a land-line?  Is the smart phone always better than a dumb phone?  Well, we may disagree on those issues.  But what about this: what about a high-tech medical intervention at the end of a patient's life when that patient has but a few painful months to live.  What if the medical intervention costs $100,000 dollars, and has a 50-50 chance of giving the debilitated patient maybe another month.  Another month of pain.  Would you automatically accept that as a good thing?  No?  Well let me just warn you.  If you haven't made a plan, and made it clear to your relatives and doctors, you might well be pressured to accept such painful technological "advances", if your relatives who are supervising your care are determined to "do whatever it takes", and if insurance companies will pay for it.

Over and over, I see our society making knee-jerk obeisance to technology.  Take electronics in schools.  Vast amounts of money are being spent to provide more electronics in schools, with the thought that this will be a vast improvement, this will solve a lot of school problems.  You'd think, with all the money being spent, that the evidence must be overwhelming that more electronics in schools is better.  I don't think the evidence is so clear.  Certainly that evidence is rarely adduced in the media articles decrying how some schools don't have enough laptops for all their kids.  The evidence is not mentioned because we don't need any evidence. It's advanced technology!  It must be an improvement in our lives!  And when it comes to taking standardized tests - there in fact is evidence that kids score better taking the test with pencil and paper, than taking it on the computer. So why spend all this money wiring, or now wi-fiing the schools?

Sure, our schools should be doing better.  But I doubt very much that a quick technological fix alone will achieve much.  And any fix is going to have to involve not just technologies, and not just better-trained teachers, but parents as well.  We need parents who read to their children.  Who put down their phones and speak with their children.   Parents who don't overschedule their kids, so there is time for a little homework, and plenty of sleep.  We need parents who use regular family meals to train their children to consider different sides of a question.  Parents who help their children to become good, respectful listeners.  In short, if kids don't come to school socialized to learn, what do you expect technology to do?

Again, I'm not here to bash technology.  I am myself, learning a little Spanish using the app Duolingo, which I'm really enjoying.  And I'm finding it effective and helpful, and even, dare I say it, fun.  I love the sensual way the woman speaker on the app says "apple" in Spanish:


But you know, as fun as this app is, it's still tough to get myself to sit down and do my Spanish every day, with everything else I've got going.  It takes discipline and planning to fit this learning in.  But thank God, I have some discipline.  That I learned at home, when I was a little boy.  Discipline is about putting off what you feel like doing, because of a larger goal you have.  Children learn when they hear regularly "No, you cannot go out and play now" - or the modern version: "No, you cannot look at your smart phone now."  Without that discipline, technology will get them nowhere.  Especially today, when so much of technology is precisely about distracting you from whatever larger project you were trying to do.

Along these lines, I've been thinking about the movie "The Martian", that I'm sure some of you saw this past year.  In some ways, this movie was a shout-out to the idea that technology can fix any problem.  In the movie, a scientist is accidentally left on Mars, and has to fend for himself, with only his scientific prowess to save himself.  And, spoiler alert, everything works out fine in the end.  You could even say, science triumphs!

And yet, the scientist who survives his trial on Mars, is a singularly unemotional character.  He takes every setback calmly, does the best he can with whatever he has left at his disposal, makes the necessary new calculations, is wildly creative and daring when necessary but also has kind of a flat affect.  He's a bit of an automaton.  I'm not sure what to make of it.  I think the intent may have been to show us that remaining calm in a crisis is what helps this guy triumph.  But I would reframe that lesson: learning how to remain calm in a crisis was every bit as important as the technology that the hero used.  I wonder where this scientist picked up that trait.  Ultimately, that's a more interesting, a more human story than the technological tricks, which, being complicated, were hardly explained in the movie anyway. 

Though my training in college was in math and science, I find that nothing interests me as much as teshuvah, as personal growth.  Nothing inspires me as much as watching a child mature, or an adult mature. And I worry that modern society believes less and less in the possibility of personal growth. Brain chemistry - now that we believe in, even though the science is in its infancy, and may be just a bit oversold.  But I'm not suggesting we shouldn't pay attention to brain chemistry.  It's just that we are not merely brains.  We also have a soul, a yearning to do good, to be good, to be better people.  And it's our attentiveness to those yearnings that is the measure of our humanity.

Here's a story that I like to tell, about a congregant at TI, Jerome Barr, who died in 1998, at the age of 69.  Jerome was a tough character, early in life.  He never finished High School, enlisting in the Navy at age 15, to serve in WWII.  Among his many careers, he was a boxer, restaurateur, he supervised the moving of an oil rig through a Central American jungle - now that was a tale.  He also worked at one point in a food-service, connected to a Florida prison.  It was in that capacity that he saw something that changed his life, that brought him, eventually to this congregation. Two Orthodox Rabbis had come to the prison to distribute some humashim.  All dressed up in their black suits, sweaty and uncomfortable in the Florida heat.  And, as is the norm in such places, they were given a hard time by the administration.  Jerome was impressed about how these two guys, completely out of place, would nevertheless not back down in front of the authorities, and were able, ultimately, to deliver the holy books to the Jewish prisoners.

Jerome, nothing if not a strong person himself, saw a different kind of strength that day, a strength he wanted for himself.  He found the inner resources to become, if not an entirely different person, then a person with new strengths, with a new vision of how he wanted to live his life.  He became a successful businessman, he was a mensch, and he did much for TI while he was a member.  And before he died, he became so well-read in Jewish Philosophy that not only could I could no longer answer his questions, I couldn't even understand them.

I don't think I'd be exaggerating to say that most of us have a similar story - not as dramatic, perhaps, but a similar story about changes we have made in our lives.  Sometimes these changes are small.  Sometimes the change is mostly a reframing, a making sense of our lives that enables us to be better.  Sometimes those changes have been partly enabled by medications, or other technology.  That doesn't make them any less impressive.  We all need help of one kind or another.

But at the end of the day, at the end of the 10 days of repentance, we are also in an important sense, alone, when it comes to repentance.  This is something only we can do.  We have the power to change our lives - that's what our tradition asserts.  In fact, you might say that is one of our most basic beliefs, as Jews.  Technology can help us get there, but no problem is merely technological.  Only we can decide to take the next step.

Shanah Tovah!