Thursday, October 14, 1999

Inscribed in the Video of Life (Jewish Week)

 Inscribed in the Video of Life

by Joshua Hammerman
Originally Appeared in The Jewish Week, 10/14/99

I am a rabbi – and I play one on TV.

While it’s unlikely that you’ve seen me on your set, I’ve appeared in upwards of five hundred televised productions – a number that includes the vast majority of life-cycle events I’ve conducted during my decade and a half in the rabbinate. And these videos are passed down from generation to generation, lighting up the screen long after treasured copies of "Titanic" have gathered dust.

Videos of weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and the even occasional funeral are one matter; but now it is conceivable that soon my every working moment will be on camera. As a result of recent attacks on synagogues, including my own, my congregation is considering installing a video surveillance system in the building. My life is in danger of becoming "The Truman Show."

Maybe that isn’t so bad.

A century ago, Rabbi Avraham Ya’akov of Sadigora said, "You can learn something from everything: From the railways we learn that one moment’s delay can throw everything off schedule. From the telegraph we learn that every word counts. And from the telephone, that what we say Here is heard There."

During the Days of Awe, we speak of a "Book of Life," where one’s deeds are inscribed. Perhaps it is time to fine-tune that metaphor. I’ve nothing against books, but I’m discovering that it is on the "Video of Life" that our deeds actually are being recorded all the time. What we utter Here is being seen There. Jews have always sensed a divine presence overseeing our behavior; now God is joined by my congregants, my unborn grandchildren, the security guy at the parking garage and my bank teller in having available an instant replay of all I do and say.

When I first came to my current congregation, I wasn’t crazy about their allowing videotaping of Bar/Bat Mitzvah services. So much of life is staged, and our obsession with the historical record too often overwhelms the immediacy of the moment. But I have come to understand and harness the constructive potential of this technology. The congregants don’t see the camera, which peeps through a hidden window above the back wall of the sanctuary. But I do.

The key is never to look at it. And when I charge the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I follow all the rules of the TV game. I try to be witty, personal, brief and most of all, to stay on message:

It's immortality, stupid....

...the kid's; the family's; the Jewish people's; my own; and the immortality of the words themselves.

The goal is to take this pre-pubescent human standing before me and link him or her to a transcendent destiny. But embedded in my message to the student is a subtle wink to the camera, especially when I remind the child how comfortable he or she is in the sanctuary, and how, no matter what, it will always be home.

"I was watching the Bar Mitzvah video the other day," I hear in varying forms from so many grateful young adults, "and I don’t think I fully appreciated your comments at the time."

That’s because you weren’t supposed to back then. My words, like time-released sinus pills, were intended to be digested by the aimless twenty year old you are now rather than the thirteen year old jumble of hormones you were then. Back then you felt rooted. Back then you couldn't understand why your grandparents were bawling in the front row or why I told you my door would always be open. Now you do.

With the cameras rolling, every word carries immense weight. Long after this student has left the fold, as so many do in their college years, my words might be the only means of reeling him back in. I go into each event knowing that a single slip is unacceptable, that this tape will be scrutinized as closely as the Zapruder film and Monica's beret. "God lives in a Word," wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the end, the indelible Word remains.

We are not the first generation to play to the cameras for immortality. But our yearning to avoid the purgatory of anonymity drives us to do increasingly crazy things, like flailing wildly in the sub-freezing dawn outside the windows of The Today Show. At a recent birthday party, a group of young children were drawn to their images on my camcorder's LCD monitor like moths to a light. My kids love to peer into security cameras at stores. Rather than being threatened at the prospect of Big Brother’s watching them, instinctively children seek the enduring glory of being on the tube.

Come to think of it, don’t we all?

Television is not inherently evilIt provides a vehicle for our lives to echo through the vast reaches of time and geography. So we'd best choose our words carefully; all are being recorded on the "Video of Life." And no matter what the medium, the message is still the message.

 

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