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Ki Tisa 5770: The Disappearing Art of Sacredness

by in Ki Tisa .

The Megilah App

It’s Purim. I’m sitting in the magnificent Sandton Shul ( ) in Johannesburg where the atmosphere is dignified but celebratory. I feel far from my family who are scattered in three different countries and think of them nostalgically. The Megilah reading starts. The community is both enthralled and entertained by the reading of Chaim Ehrlich. And I feel proud because Chaim is an iAwaken member and son of one of my first and dear Talmidim. I hold my iPhone in my hand and am following the megillah on one of its brilliant apps. I marvel at the trend of technological convergence: one device for phone, email, internet access, newspaper reading, music, video clips and siddur and megilah! Yet I wonder: am I missing anything by using a device like an iPhone in place of a traditionalsefer?

iPhones, iPods, iPads, Kindles may be the future for the way we do much of our reading, but will these devices also become the way we learn Torah? Will they replace seforim? Will iPads be the norm in Yeshivas some day? Instead of getting up and down dozens of times in a session to look up some reference or another while learning, will Yeshiva students have access to everything they could possibly need on a single iPad? Would this be progress or retrogression? As my thoughts unfolded Chaim dramatically called out the villain’s name and the shul burst into a thunderous noise shifting my focus back to Purim.

Lehavdil Bein Kodesh LeChol

Later that day, I was being ma’avir Parsha (reviewing the weekly Torah portion) on the veranda outside my hotel room. Early in theParsha we are told of various objects such as the Shulchan (Table for the Show Bread), Menorah and Mizbeach HaKetoret (Incense Alter) that were to be anointed and could thereafter never be used for anything other than their designated Temple purpose. Even the oil prepared for anointing and the incense could not be used for anything other than their designated service, in fact merely replicating their recipe for secular use resulted in the severe consequence of Kareit (Shemot 30:33).

The Beit Hamikdash and its Klei Kodesh (sacred utensils) were sacred. An object or space is sacred when it is designed and built with intention and dedication, and is never used for anything other than the purpose for which it was created. This is the meaning of sacredness.

It is not only objects and spaces that can be sacred. Moments can be sacred too; Shabbat is a sacred moment. In the very next paragraph the Torah talks of the sacredness of Shabbat and once again tells us that using the moment of time called Shabbat for purposes other than what it was designed for, mechalleleha, also suffer the consequence of Kareit (see Shemot 31:15). A life without sacred moments, sacred spaces and sacred objects is not a life of spirituality and leads to the cutting off of the soul from its source of spiritual nourishment (kareit).

Our daily lives are full of unfocused convergence. In the same place and in an instant we move across conceptual and visual worlds. We work on a spreadsheet, read a letter from a friend, scan the newspaper, research an idea, watch a clip on YouTube that takes our mind where we never intended it to be, and then get back to our spreadsheet all in a matter of seconds. On the same computers we use for our work, entertainment and education, and in the same places, we can also learn Torah, research Shas (the Talmud) and listen to shiurim (lectures) from across the globe. We no longer need to physically move in order to enter or leave the virtual Beit Medrash. All very exciting, but what has happened to sacredness? What has happened to getting up, leaving your place of work or entertainment, washing our hands and then entering a space used for nothing butTefilah and Limud Torah (prayer and learning)? What has happened to the feeling of being enveloped by Kedusha as we enter a universe constructed on radically different values and principles from the one in which we work and play?

We can study Torah, as we can study any subject, using our computers, sitting at our work-stations or traveling on buses; this is valuable and a true manifestation of belechtecha baderech (study Torah as you walk by the way). But we must also cling to the precious value of learning Torah beshivtecha beveitecha (study Torah when you are settled in the Beit Midrash). We should use iPads, iPods, iPhones and computers as tools for learning, but they cannot substitute for the sacredness of learning from a seiferdesigned, produced and used for nothing but Torah, in a space dedicated to Torah learning.

Radiating Kedusha

sefer is so much more than a record of information, and a beitmidrash is so much more than a depository of records. When an object or space has been created and preserved for Kedusha, it radiates that Kedusha outwards. Kedusha is not a state of being; it is a powerful energy that permeates the atmosphere around it and is infused into those who connect with it. We are meant to have both a sacred time and a sacred place in which to daven and learn. Using sacred seforim and siddurim, radiates sanctity and adds a quality to our davening and learning that cannot be achieved any other way. Having a sacred space for Tefilah goes beyond going to a shul. A sacred space for Tefilah is a Makom Kavua: not only a specific shul to which you always go, but a specific place in that shul in which you always daven.  Even regular activities like family time and meals benefit from sacredness. Having a sacred space (and time if possible) in which to enjoy our meals, a space not invaded by television, Blackberrys and cell phones, adds a quality to family interaction that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

Sacredness extends to relationships and even to thoughts. Just as in a sacred space there is no place for anything but the intended activity so too in a sacred relationship there is no space for more than two, and in a sacred mind there is no place for anything but the intended thought.

The world in which most of us live, values social and technical convergence: we are doing more and more in one place, with one device and often even at the same time. Sacredness is about the opposite dynamic: dedicating time, space and objects to very specific usages. Sacredness is about intentionally and physically migrating from one space to another, from one moment to another and from using one device to using another. Sacredness is about focus, insulation, concentration and exclusiveness.

I adore my iPhone. It is useful beyond words. It supplies me with almost infinite information. It serves me in countless ways: work, social, entertainment and even davening and following the megilah. It is the focal point of convergence of all my technologies. But therein also lies its shortcoming. While it can be a tool to help me in myAvodas Hashem, it is nevertheless severely limited. In its very power of convergence lies its incapacity for Kedusha, because it is not sacred. It can supply me with the data I need for Tefilah or Megilahbut it cannot radiate any Kedusha to me. As wonderful as Chaim’sKerias Hamegillah was, through no fault of his, I missed out on something this Purim. I missed the experience of reading from a sacred text. Not only did I miss reading from my own precious, handwritten megillah saturated with Kedusha, but I even missed theKedusha that a simple sefer can radiate - and that a powerful iPhone cannot.

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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