Enter not into the path of the wicked….Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it and pass on (Prov: 14-15). Rabbi Ashi said: The verse may be illustrated by the parable of a man who guards an orchard. If he guards it from without, the entire orchard is protected; but if he guards it from within, only the part in front of him is protected, while the part behind him is not protected.
- In general, what is the value of stepping outside of a complex arena of our life and viewing it from the outside?
- In what ways is our digital life like an orchard?
- When are we likely to be so rooted in the digital orchard that we lose sight of the whole larger landscape of our life?
- Any number of web services are available to provide cyber security for our digital lives. What kinds of internal services protect the spiritual side of our digital life?
Expanded Commentary in the book
The first text is about “fences” in Jewish Law and life. In the Talmud, a fence/siyag is understood as a form of protection from committing a transgression. We distance ourselves from a possible infraction by imposing a stricter standard (a humra) on our behavior. Thus one could, according to one talmudic opinion, fulfill the commandment not to mix milk and meat by changing the table cloth and beginning the milk part of our meal separately. However, Jewish Law generally imposes a standard of at least a three hour separation between eating a meat and milk product. Similarly, one could keep the Sabbath free of monetary commerce by not exchanging money. It should not matter if coins jingle in one’s pocket. Yet, the “fence” around financial commerce extends the boundary to not touching money at any point during the Sabbath.
Of course fences have been enshrined in our western consciousness as well by the famous Robert Frost poem “The Mending Wall.” There Frost captures some of the paradox of the value of fences in our lives as he simultaneously suggests “good fences make good neighbors,” and then argues with himself that before building the wall he wants to know exactly what is behind the fence he has constructed. As a metaphor for the digital age we might ponder whether it is even possible or advisable to “filter” or “fence off” the multiple messages that come our way each day. Sealing ourselves off from the vital, unfolding online life of a culture can make us parochial and insular. Living without a protective digital fence screening us off from the intensity and immensity of communication is arguably equally dangerous.
Returning to our Jewish perspective, while the tradition of a humra, a stringency beyond the letter of the law, is often thought to be a tool of the strict observers, there is another function of a “fence” more aligned with the purposes of this volume. A surprising insight can be found in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, The Book of Legends (Bialik and Ravinitsky). Rather than being simply a literal, restrictive tool mechanically applied to every behavioral situation, a fence can be seen as serving an entirely different function, that of bestowing perspective, as suggested in the following midrash:
Enter not into the path of the wicked…Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it and pass on (Prov: 14-15). Rabbi Ashi said: The verse may be illustrated by the parable of a man who guards an orchard. If he guards it from without, the entire orchard is protected; but if he guards it from within, only the part in front of him is protected, while the part behind him is not protected.
Awash as we are in digital technologies, we post-moderns desperately need all the fences (understood as perspective bestowing boundaries) we can find as we try to understand the many ways that technology has reshaped our human and Jewish identities. It is useful here to suggest a connection between two phenomena: the flourishing of musar and other techniques of reflective centering and the overwhelming pace of technological change. We need to learn the art of “steadying ourselves” as we adjust to the numbing pace of technological change.
What happens when we momentarily step outside the all-pervasive digital environment in which we live to view it, as it were, from beyond the fence? Seeing our digital selves from outside the fence of our regular rhythms of living can be disconcerting, even shocking. In the trailer to her film Connected, Tiffany Shlain, the creator of the Webby awards (and known in Jewish circles for her film on Jewish identity The Tribe), shares the following personal epiphany. She had traveled across the country to visit a good friend from from high school whom she had not seen in years. During their lunch together she is seized by panic. She had not checked her messages in six hours hence feeling unconnected and in a very uncomfortable way. So intense was the discomfort and ensuing internal panic that she fakes having to go to the bathroom to check her messages. She ends the vignette by declaring “Oh, my God, what have we become?”