Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sukkot: Technology

Thoughts on Sukkot 2016
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With my private room, private car, private office, private (and preferably unlisted) telephone, with food and clothing purchased in large impersonal stores, with my own stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer-dryer, I can be practically immune from intimate contact with any other person. (Carl Rogers) [1]

Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot match...If I lie in bed sick at home in Israel, my online friends from California can talk to me, but they cannot bring me soup or a cup of tea. (Yuval Noah Harari) [2]

It is easy to define the positive effects of technological progress. Technology introduces an enhanced ease and comfort to the various realms of our lives. More difficult to pinpoint, however, are the detriments that result from technological advancements. In his book Civility, Yale law professor Stephen Carter defined “civility” as “the sum of the many sacrifices that we are called to make for the sake of living together.” He posited that technology has hastened the societal demise of civility.

Carter contrasted our current, advanced mode of transportation in automobiles to the railroads of the nineteenth century. Whereas travel in cars, “surrounded by metal and glass” gives us the illusion of solitary mobility and the ability to act as we please, travelers on trains were surrounded by people “packed shoulder to shoulder like chess pieces in their little box,” which therefore demanded appropriate behavior for a tolerable ride. He noted the regretful disadvantage of contemporary transportation, and stated: “We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.”[3]

A diminished sense of civility threatens more than just the societal structure of a nation or community. It poses a danger to the well-being of every individual. Researchers have found that strong social relationships are prone to strengthen the immune system, extend life, speed recovery from surgery and reduce the risks of depression and anxiety disorders.[4] As, Seneca remarked nearly two thousand years ago, “No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility.”
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We may detect a reality similar to Carter description in other areas of life, as well. Consider the differences between watching a show in the theater or on the couch of your living room, asking a stranger for directions or following the GPS on your phone, and waiting on line for a roller coaster or skipping to the front with a Fast Pass, to name just a few. Though many yearn for the efficiency that will accompany the future of automated grocery shopping, sociologist Stacy Torres demurred: “I’m not looking forward to it. While interactions with cashiers may seem insignificant, or at times even a nuisance, they also foster sociability between strangers.”[5] While we were once forced to engage in appropriate dialogue during encounters with other people, we can now avoid all such meetings and conduct ourselves as we wish – on our own.
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The reason for the missvah to sit in a sukkah on Sukkot is never explicitly stated by the Torah. Instead, we are cryptically taught that its purpose is to recall the sukkot that Bnei Yisrael dwelled in during their sojourn in the desert:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם...
In sukkot you shall dwell seven days. All natives in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, so that your generations will know that I made Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt… (Vayikra 23:42-3)

The reasoning seems to rely on a proper understanding of the constructive purpose of dwelling in sukkot in the desert, which would thereby justify its eternal reenactment. But what was it? What was – and is – the practical benefit of dwelling in a sukkah?

The Hakhamim (TB Sukkah 28b) explained that the objective of dwelling in the sukkah over the duration of Sukkot is to mimic life in our actual homes. And most of us actually find a fair measure of success in achieving this feat. The food we eat, the pizmonim we sing, and the amount of time we spend at the table in the sukkah are far more similar to the meal at home than the picnic in the park. But truth be told, it is practically impossible to fully “recreate” our home experience in a hut exposed to the elements, in a location that requires constant reentrance into the home and in quarters generally smaller than that of the dining room.
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Our experiences in the sukkah necessarily “turn back the clock” on technological advancements. The narrow space of the sukkah forces us to pass the food to each other and to engage in dialogue with one another. The experiences bring us back to a time before the space and amenities of modern homes, and thrust upon us a heightened awareness of our surroundings and a sensitivity to the people with whom we are sharing space.

Returning to the terminology of Prof. Carter: Dwelling in the sukkah restores a necessary sense of civility to the Jews of every generation by forcing their entrance into a virtual realm unexposed to the ever-present reality of technological solitude.

May we spend the final days of “dwelling in the sukkah” in appreciation of the moral and interpersonal growths inherent in its apparent “inconveniences.”

[1] A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1980), pg.198.
[2] 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 88-9.
[3] Stephen Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (New York, NY, 1998), pg. 4.
[4] See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 133.
[5] Stacy Torres, “You Don’t Want to Buy Groceries from a Robot,” The New York Times, June 23, 2017.