Jewish and Ultra-connected: Atoning Ahead of Time

Technology can diminish our ability to reflect and relate to others. But this Yom Kippur, a website where Jews atone anonymously for their sins did just the opposite for me.

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With our high speed, ultra-connected lives, our power of reflection is often diminished and along with it our ability to learn from valuable experience. In the process, we miss out on the opportunity to create meaningful change in our lives and in the lives of others.

In this regard, after Yom Kippur, Dr. Erica Brown sent out "The Sukkah Challenge," which was later guest posted on Torah Musings. The article was extracted from her Yom Kippur sermon where she translated the al chets, our catalog of sins, “into a current idiom so that we can think of how to use Sukkot as a time to re-frame and renew special relationships.”

After quoting Simone Weil, who said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Dr. Brown presented ten of the most prevalent Internet-age sins that diminish our ability to have compassion for others and to maintain meaningful relationships. In presenting this reformulation of what for many of us is the most challenging part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, she had me pounding my chest, time and again just a few short days after the holiday. In paying her list forward, she challenged us to make our sukkot technology-free zones.

In a similar vein, a few weeks before Yom Kippur, I was emailed the link to AtoneNet. The premise for the website is to provide a forum in preparation for the Day of Atonement for people to post those sins for which they are personally seeking forgiveness. In contrast to Facebook, Twitter and other similar sites, all postings on AtoneNet are anonymous.

I am a light user of social media and I try to be selective in what I post. As I perused the list being assembled online, my initial reaction was one of cynicism and detachment. Why would I or anyone else want to expose what was most personal, most sensitive? But then, the power of public collective cataloging began affecting me, drawing me in, reminding me of my own behaviors and lapses, which I wasn’t adequately confronting.

Personal and anonymous weren’t being misused – as they often are – to lash out and get back at some perceived offense in cyberspace (see Erica Brown’s fourth sin, a confused heart). Instead, they became positive attributes, revealing deepest regrets and feelings with renewed meaning, no longer just in the mind, but now with the reality and visibility of the World Wide Web. I added my anonymous sins, hit the send button, and waited for the moderator to approve the posting.

On the eve of Yom Kippur I printed out the substantial list of sins - ten pages of small font – and as I reviewed the transgressions I was moved so strongly that I had to decide how to channel these emotions toward an authentic teshuva process.

The following day, after reciting the silent Mincha Amidah prayer, I put down my machzor (holiday prayer book) and picked up the printed list. Reading slowly, sin by sin, I let each one have its effect. Long after the shliach tzibur (community representative leading the prayers) began his repetition of the Amidah, I was still making my way through all ten pages. And I was crying outwardly and deeply inside – yes, for myself and my inadequate teshuva – but also, more profoundly, for the pain of others.

In that moment I experienced the need to break down internal and external walls in order to open myself to feeling compassion for others, echoing the sentiments of Jonathan Safer Foer in his article “How Not to Be Alone,” which were quoted by Dr. Erica Brown: “My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.”

Ironically, it is the use of technology, the AtoneNet site, that, G-d willing, is helping to shape me into someone more likely to remember others.

It is our choices that define us and our humanity – especially our choices of how and when to act. Having just concluded the Tishrei cycle holiday season, may all of us pay forward our lessons learned, acting after deliberation, with selective technology, forgiveness and love.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.