The digital irony of the coronavirus crisis
Jewish tradition has a remarkable way of connecting current events to the Torah-reading cycle, and this crisis is no exception.
As parents and educators, we have spent countless hours over the past two decades struggling over how to cope with the increasing dependence our children have on screens and social media. Hundreds, if not thousands of studies, articles and academic sessions have been dedicated to this issue, producing one common message: get off your screens, get out into the world and actually talk to people face-to-face.
And now here, in a time of uncertainty and growing fear, we’re begging our kids to do just the opposite. Get inside, away from your friends and teachers, and sit down in front of that screen!
Jewish tradition has a remarkable way of connecting current events to the Torah-reading cycle, and this crisis is no exception. Last week, in parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, we read about how the Jews were gathered together to learn about the rules of building the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary that predated the Temple and remains a physical representation of where we communicate with God.
Here, too, the irony is inescapable.
The very Torah portion that is about coming together comes along the week where the virus has forced us physically apart. For tens of thousands of families around the Jewish world, this Shabbat may be the first time that they will not be going to synagogue.
These ironies cannot suffice simply as a source of individual bemusement but demand to be recognized for their deeper meaning – a meaning that directly relates to our digital age.
The reality is that the concept of virtual living is here to stay. It certainly has its downsides, but there is beauty and benefit in it as well. We can either reject it as a distraction or find a way to involve ourselves in it alongside our children – and perhaps appreciate that it is a tool to build bonds. Whereas we spent all those hours teaching our kids that screens are an “evil distraction,” we are now presented with an educational opportunity to show them how it opens doors that can help us build a better and stronger world. Yes, this crisis has taken away what we always portrayed as the ideal sense of community, but technology has presented us with an alternative avenue to come together.
Of course, we can’t take this to an extreme. Human interaction demands sharing physical space and, where relevant, contact. But the power of community is first and foremost a spiritual ideal, inspired by common purpose, understanding and mutual respect. And these are ideals that can exist in both the physical and virtual space.
I am deeply encouraged to witness children coming to this realization in ways far faster than we, as parents, might be capable. While clearly challenged by the idea of social distancing, they are rallying behind the concept of distance learning and proving that connections between teachers and students will survive this crisis.
And beyond this, we are now being provided with a golden opportunity to utilize the virtual community, which until now has been associated with alienation and emotional detachment, for the establishment of real and meaningful bonds, for compassion and kindness.
It’s a remarkable lesson that we likely never would have seen, if it were not for this crisis.
Sure, we’ve certainly been driven apart, and we naturally feel isolated and uncertain over what lies ahead.
But when irony springs into our lives, we must find that deeper purpose and meaning – even when it comes during screen time.
The author, a rabbi, is president and rosh hayeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world.