By Rabbi Mark Zimmerman | Congregation Beth Shalom
One evening as I was out strolling past our synagogue, I was taken in by a peculiar sight. One after another, cars were slowing down on Winters Chapel Road right in front of the shul entrance, then quickly driving off.
My first thought: “Wow, we must have an excellent advertising campaign this year. Look at all these people who are slowing down to check out Beth Shalom!”
Then I noticed that they had their smartphones out as they passed. I thought: “Wow, they’re even taking pictures of the shul! How marvelous is that?”
I’ll admit that for a brief moment my suspicious side took over and I thought, “Perhaps some nefarious group is casing our synagogue before the High Holidays.” (In today’s crazy world, it’s hard for Jewish professionals to avoid having our thoughts travel down that worrisome path.)
But as I watched the way they were holding their smartphones, it hit me: They weren’t in the least bit interested in the shul, sadly. What I was witnessing was the latest addictive Internet game craze. They were all playing “Pokémon Go” on their smartphones.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m referring to (and good for you, since that means you have better things to do than live in a virtual world chasing make-believe monsters), this is how the game works. In the world of Pokémon, cute monsters lurk everywhere, and your job is to find and capture them. The smartphone app uses your phone’s GPS to determine your real-world location, then overlays an image of where you are along with various Pokémon on your screen.
You level up as you catch more and more of these adorable creatures.
As it turns out, the good folks at Nintendo placed a Pokémon right next to the sign outside the Beth Shalom entrance, and we didn’t even pay them to do it. (Had we thought of it, it would have been a brilliant marketing idea.)
As I stood there, watching the stream of cars slow down in front of the shul and quickly drive off as the proud owners of newly captured virtual creatures, it dawned on me what a profound insight was embedded in that surreal scene. I wondered: “Is this is what it has finally come to? People doing a shul drive-by, oblivious to the meaning and transformative power within, only to catch a virtual something that isn’t even real?”
This is precisely the challenge posed to us by the High Holidays. Too often the spiritual side of the holidays gets short-shrift as we become overly focused on the artificial and neglect what is supposed to be happening deep within ourselves.
But in the words of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “Al tistakel b’kankan, elah b’mah she-yesh bo”: “Don’t look at the cover; concentrate on that which is within.”
If you really want to deepen and enhance your life, you start with your soul or neshama. The High Holidays are all about seeing our true, inner selves.
But in this new world, more and more of us live in cyberspace. We’re no longer rooted in real communities. We live life in a virtual world where all consequences are temporary, lasting only until the game is restarted.
But real life doesn’t work that way. Technology has allowed the real to be overtaken by the virtual. We interact with real people, face to face, far less than we used to. Our “community” now consists mainly of Facebook “friends” and fellow gamers.
So as the community where we once cherished real interaction is slowly replaced with online social networks, Jewish traditions are being cast aside as antiquated excess baggage. And when the genius of our Jewish heritage no longer dictates our core values, the surrounding environment ends up doing so instead.
There is simply too much depth and meaning in our own spiritual backyards for us to allow that to happen. As Jews, we must never shy away from embracing our distinctiveness or from aspiring to be more than what society expects of us.
So what are the most important values and principles that you hold dear? That is the central question we need to ask ourselves during the High Holidays. And we should use these holidays to formulate our action plan, turning our aspirations from the intangible into the real. It will take prayer, focus and real introspection for us to get that job done. In 5777, may we all succeed in the task.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom.