The Mike’s Always On

The British election campaign just ended would seem an unlikely source for a Torah teaching moment, but there it was.

One of the blows the Labour Party absorbed in the days preceding the election was precipitated by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s mistaken assumption on April 28 that the microphone he was wearing during a campaign stop was turned off.

The device had just finished recording an encounter Mr. Brown had with a mildly disgruntled voter, on the issue of immigration. After the polite interaction, Mr. Brown returned to his campaign car, forgetful of the fact that the microphone was still faithfully doing its job, and groused to staff members about the “bigoted woman” with whom he had just been forced to speak.

With the speed of electromagnetic waves, of course, the comment became part of news reports worldwide.

It was only days earlier that Jews accustomed to studying a chapter of “Pirkei Avot”, or the tractate “Fathers”, each spring and summer Sabbath, pondered the words of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi (2:1): “An eye sees and an ear hears, and all of your actions are in the record written.”

The sage (known, too, as “Rebbe”) wasn’t referring to the media, of course, which does in fact sometimes capture (but sometimes misses and sometimes gets wrong) at least some of what at least famous people do or say. The “eye” and “ear” in Rebbe’s teaching are metaphorical, Divine ones; the record, filed in a realm far removed from the earthly. And the subjects of the surveillance and reports are each of us.

But Mr. Brown’s experience was nonetheless a reminder of that deeper truth, and of the fact that it is easy to become oblivious to the fact that everything we say and do is of concern to G-d – or, put otherwise, has meaning.

It’s not that we harbor some inner atheist. It’s just that there is a yawning gap between recognizing something intellectually and completely internalizing it as a compelling truth. In the prayer Aleinu, which ends every Jewish prayer service, we quote from Deuteronomy (4:39): “And you shall know today and restore to your heart that Hashem is G-d, in the heavens above and on the earth below…”

The “knowing today,” commentators note, is apparently insufficient. Our belief in G-d’s omnipotence and omniscience has to be “restored” to our hearts – internalized constantly – to truly affect our actions and our essences.

That was the message inherent in the strange blessing the tannaic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai offered his students as he lay dying. The Talmud (Brachot 28b) recounts that he wished them that “the fear of Heaven be to you like the fear of flesh and blood.

“That’s all?” they exclaimed, incredulous at their teacher’s apparent confusion of priorities. The sage’s response: “If only!”

“Think.” he continued. “When a person commits a sin in private, he says ‘May no person see me!’.” And yet, of course, he is seen all the same.
It has often occurred to me that scientific and technological advances can often serve not only practical purposes but spiritual ones. They can provide us important life-messages as we need them.

When a basic understanding of our solar system lulled humanity into feeling it had mentally mastered the sky, powerful telescopes were invented that revealed new and mysterious realms of an incomprehensibly large and expanding universe, and that keep us aware of how little of what’s out there we really understand. When the basic structure of the atom was fathomed, particle detectors came along and uncovered a bizarre zoo of inanimate beasties that make a mockery of our commonsense notions. So quasars and quarks keep us humble before the grandeur of Creation.

And then there are other, more mundane but increasingly utilized technologies, like the ubiquitous cameras on city streets or peering at us from our computer monitors, our GPSs, our E-ZPasses or our cellphones, that render us visible and audible where once we may have felt entirely alone. For all their downsides, they, too, are a healthy reminder.

They remind us, as did Rebbe, that even outside the turmoil of a national election, even when we’re not on the street or in a car or sitting at a computer, even if we’re not famous or of interest to mortal authorities, we are heard and we are seen, and our every action is duly recorded.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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4 Responses

  1. FV YId says:

    There’s a big difference though – Hashem lets us do teshuva. Even if Brown had apologized for his gaff, it would never go away.

    A world where everything we do is forever archived and google’able by the rest of humanity and even moving doesn’t give you a fresh start? That’s rough.

    What will our reaction be to a world like that? My guess is that modern society will move even more towards an “everything is ok” mentality as it’s the only comfortable way to life in a society where everything is public and nothing is forgotten (at least the only comfortable way without a Jewish conception of teshuva).

  2. Micha Berger says:

    Totally off topic, just want to share some Torah… R’ Shafran writes, “a chapter of ‘Pirkei Avot’, or the tractate ‘Fathers’…” According to the Bartenura, “Avos” in this context is more like the 39 avos melakhah, categories of work prohibited on Shabbos. “Fathers” really only refers to the first 2/3 of the first chapter, which traces down the generations from the end of the Anshei Keneses haGedolah through the tannaim.

    However, “tractate ‘First Principles'” describes Pirqei Avos as a whole.


  3. Chicago says:

    FV Yid:

    Unfortunately, not every action is “teshuvable”. If you ruined someone’s reputation and they suffer a loss as a result, you just created an uncorrectable situation. What teshuva is possible? Even the wealthiest man in the world can’t undo the damage of altering the course of another person’s life. Bain adam l’chaveiro is no small potato! You are playing with lives here.

    On the other hand if a person harms someone in a major way, isn’t it a good thing that even moving doesn’t give you a fresh start? Would you want the person to harm unsuspecting neighbors when an archive or Google can alert the new community to do their due diligence?

  4. One Christian's perspective says:

    Chicago, you say unfortunately, not every action is teshuvable because a ruined reputation is an uncorrectable situation.

    From the perspective of one who was deeply and morally hurt, I suggest the following:

    Yet, isn’t this the magnificent beauty of the power of God who mends broken hearts and lives and restores peace in our soul. It was He who kept His eyes on Joseph while he was mocked by his brothers and sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. He was stripped of his robe of many colors and thrown in a cistern only to be pulled out and sold to strangers. Even his robe was bloodied and soiled and torn. Jacob’s heart was broken. This is the picture of mans inhumanity to man – broken people create more broken people – but it isn’t the end of the story. God elevated Joseph to a position of power in Egypt and made him a father to Pharaoh. God gave Joseph the wisdom – via a dream – to save both Egyptians – pagan gentiles – and Jacob’s family – the Covenant family of God. “What they did for evil, HaShem used for good.” Joseph forgave his family and embraced them even before they knew who he was and even without their confession and repentance to him.

    Forgiveness is the power of God – no one else can do this – that brings the one who has been wounded and broken beyond repair to come to a place where they are able to separate the evil deed from their abuser and see the person as someone so very much in need of God’s healing grace that they are willing to lay aside their right to carry their anger any longer. The willingness to forgive comes from a heart touched by God in ways beyond human ability and understanding and the power to do this comes from God. It is a beautiful experience that brings deep healing to the one abused. It is a process that takes time and is very painful. Like the Passover Seder, you have to relive the torment just as if it happened today. Even that is powerful because when you face what was done with the mask of denial removed ,it leaves you raw and helpless . The only way a mere human can walk this path is as Rabbi Shafran has said our hearts must be restored to God. For me that was having an active faith in His Power and mercy and trusting Him to be with me …..even when I did not feel His presence, I knew it was there. By His grace, I was able to do this in this way and I am a renewed person who sees life with fresh eyes and God in a way I never experienced before. I understand the words given to Abraham by God who said “I am your shield, your very great reward”. It is God’s shield that covered my raw open wounds that ran so deep in my spirit and soul. He is “our very great reward” when we are willing to be exposed, vulnerable and transparent before him and are willing to give Him the only thing we “think” we have control over – the right to be angry. This is no turn the other cheek experience. When you give God ‘your right to be angry’, you must also give with it everything else that is attached to the anger – your demand for anything back from the abuser. Forgiveness is costly. Forgiveness is a spiritual experience.

    Is a ruined reputation recoverable ?

    If God can heal deep hurts from abuse and change our hearts and minds toward our abuser and give new sight to a distorted perception of others, who would want the old reputation back ?

    God’s work is not junk. His restoration is a new creation. As you walk through life, renewed in His presence, others will see what He has done and they will give Him praise – maybe unspoken words, but they will see His work. That’s enough for me.

    BTW – in my case and in the case of others, the abuser was already dead.

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