Being Watched by the NSA & God (Rosh Hashanah 5774 Day 1 Sermon)


Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Sermon of 5774

Click the link above for the sermon presented nicely. Below is the main text unformatted, unexplained and uncited, etc..




Shanah tovah,

Although it has just started, so far it has been a shanah tovah—a good year. As you may have heard me say before, it is a real pleasure and honor for me to be back in Gulfport for a second season of High Holidays. Two years ago, I left Mississippi inspired beyond words after meeting members of Congregation Beth Israel and witnessing the rebuilding of a community that could have given up all hope after a tragedy as great as Katrina. I hope that I can provide this community even half the warmth, thoughtfulness and holiness that you offered me when we brought in the Jewish new year of 5772. As we begin the year 5774 together, I want to thank you all for bringing me back here. It is a rare honor and treat to be able to join the same community at two very different points of my life. More on that though another time.

* * *

The time is 2:30 AM. The evening is pitch black, and not a sound is to be heard on Oak Lane. A stealth burglar has entered a small, brick home that clearly never installed an electronic alarm system. The burglar quietly feels her way through the dark, hoping to find a worthy steal. Suddenly, she hears a voice: “God is watching you.” The burglar turns around, looks behind her. She sees no one. She inches forward and hears the voice again: “God is watching you.” She searches in the darkness, pulls out a small flashlight, and finds a parrot. The burglar, in a nearly silent whisper, asks the parrot, “Were you just talking to me?” The parrot, with no expression in his eyes, bobs his head up and down, opens his mouth and says, “God is watching you.”

“I gather that your name is God,” says the burglar to the parrot.

“No,” says the parrot. “I’m Moses.”

“Moses?” asks the burglar. “Who would ever name their parrot Moses!?”

“Idunno,” says the parrot. “The same people who named their rottweiller ‘God.’”

* * *

When we know we are being watched, we sometimes find ourselves constricted: Someone is watching me, and whatever I do will be seen.

When we are watched, our hearts and minds may turn to fear, guilt, responsibility, censorship.

When we are watched without reason, we may rightfully worry that our privacy is being invaded: that nothing is personal anymore, and nothing is sacred. It is the exact terror George Orwell describes in his novel 1984, where Big Brother is watching.

Earlier this year, Edward Snowden’s name took over the American media. He has been called everything from a disgraceful traitor, to a champion of American freedom, and everything else in between. I will leave an evaluation of Snowden’s actions to people who understand American politics more intimately than I. What I am here to say is that Snowden has brought forth to the conscience of American media one of the most important questions about responsibility and culpability: How do we live when we are being watched?

Edward Snowden leaked some documents revealing the expertise of the spying methods of the National Security Agency, the NSA. No other member of the American government, past or present, had explicitly stated the lengths of what the NSA can do. The government may have listened to my phone calls with my family, read my text messages to my friends, or seen e-mails with my employers. The NSA may have access to my bank account information and know what I have purchased with my credit cards, or what videos I watch on the internet, or what recipes I have e-mailed people.

I may be naive, but I hope, and I believe, that the NSA’s ability to wiretap, to listen in on, to read through, and to spy on any American’s activities is enacted for only one of two purposes: (1) to use, unknowingly as guinea pigs, people whom we would never suspect of anything wrong, so the government can practice spying, or (2) to spy on people whom the government does suspect of criminal conduct. To clarify, it may be because I am optimistic here, but I basically have faith that members of the American government have not abused their power of spying on us. If the NSA has in fact spied on me and invaded my privacy, then I am not sure what to say. And this leaves us with a tension that reflects the life I live as a Jew.

I have found that what drives me back to Judaism every day are not the definite answers I have to life’s hardest questions, but it is the hardest questions themselves that drive me back every day. The 16th century Jewish mystic Shimon Lavi once wrote:

דָּבָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ נִ(י)שַּׂג:

Any matter that cannot be understood:

הִנֵּה תְשׁוּבָתוֹ הִיא שְׁאֵלָתוֹ.

Behold, its answer is its question.

How do we live when our lives are under surveillance?

If the question is the answer, then perhaps the Jewish answer is: we live our lives when we are watched as if we are being watched. While wiretapping and internet-hacking and electronic espionage are all hazards of modern technology, the truth is that Jews have been watched by others, and have felt watched by forces beyond our control for much of our history. You may have heard before of maris ayin, or mar’it ayin, literally “what is seen by the eye.” A Jew might say, “I would never enter a store who mistreats their workers. If another Jew sees me, they’ll believe I don’t care how workers are treated.” That’s the fear of mar’it ayin: that someone will see us compromised and imagine the worst. This Talmudic anxiety flies in the face of the Jewish value of not judging others, for we can never know what they have experienced in life. Yet, the Jewish fear of mar’it ayin not only pertains to the domain of human relationships, we also fear what non-human eyes may be watching and evaluating us.

About 1800 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi advised his disciples: “Contemplate three things, and you will never stumble into the pitfalls of sin: Know What is above you: (1)עַֽיִן רוֹאָה , a Seeing Eye; (2) וְאֹֽזֶן שׁוֹמַֽעַת, a Listening Ear; and (3) וְכׇל־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַּסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין  all of your actions recorded in God’s Book.”

In the universe of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, three Divine attributes of the Heavenly Court kept a good Jew in check: God’s watchful eye, God’s attentive ear, and God’s written record of absolutely everything that anyone has ever done. Because of these three things, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi lived a life that was holy. Also we today can look back and suspect that Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi must have been one of the first-ever neurotic Jews. Woody Allen would be envious.

You might be familiar with the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, as told both in the Torah and in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit, where he is rescued by slave-dealers who sell him into slavery in the home of the Egyptian master Potiphar. Joseph, an attractive young man, accidentally catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife, and—though the relationship would be illicit—she attempts time and again to seduce Joseph, who refuses her advances. Frustrated in the end, she falsely accuses Joseph of sexual misconduct and has Joseph sent to prison.

But that’s not exactly how the rabbis retell the story: All the members of Potiphar’s house went out for the day to watch something fantastic. (It was either the Nile, or a theater production. The rabbis debate over what it was.) Joseph stays back to do some work, but, with no one at home to watch him, and left to his own devices, Joseph nearly gave in to Potiphar’s wife. In fact, just when Joseph was about to give in to the seduction, Joseph suddenly sees the image of his father Jacob standing before him, and Joseph’s hot blood cools. By the way, the vision of your parent standing between you and an illicit lover can really put a damper on any situation. And thank God that’s what happened, because Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife landed him in the prison where he was eventually released in order to become the vice Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. All of that, say the rabbis, is because Joseph thought about what he would do had his father been there watching him.

Of course, there’s a big difference between God watching our actions, and a parent watching our actions. During private or intimate moments of our lives, we often don’t want our parents there. But, when it comes to God, we do hope that our private and intimate moments will be in some way sacred. And, if we believe in a God who is everywhere where we accept God’s presence, then there’s no denying God any entry into our private lives. We don’t have a choice when it comes to God.

Regardless of who’s watching us, we’ve got rabbinic approval for that sense of being watched. So, should we thank the NSA for being able to spy on us now better than ever before? Are we commanded to feel watched at all times and celebrate our paranoia? I’m inclined to say “No”—mostly.

You might know about this incident that happened last week in Wayne, New Jersey. Not long after Buddy’s Small Lots closed early on Sunday August 25, four players from William Paterson University’s football team broke into the store—unknowingly. The store was closed, but the lock function of the electronic doors had broken. Anthony Biondi, Jelani Bruce, Kell’E Gallimore and Thomas James, entered the store, searching for a speaker cable and some batteries. They called out for a clerk, but there was no employee to be found. Having found the items they wanted, they went to the cash register and, with no cashier in sight, left with the items they had picked up—after they left exact change at the cash register.

Recalling the experience, these four undergrads explained that they figured the cashier may have been hiding or playing a trick on them. The Internet has footage from the surveillance camera, showing the four of them waving at cameras and shouting for anybody’s attention. What could have been a perfect steal was a careful, honest business exchange, all caught on candid camera.

If I were to bring in two experts, a professional Optimist and a professional Pessimist, to explain what happened at Buddy’s Small Lots, here’s what I think we’d hear. The professional Pessimist would say: These young men saw the cameras and did the right thing so as not to get caught. The professional Optimist would say: These young men did the right thing, believing that life should be lived as if we are always on camera, and now a camera was here to prove it.

I want to pause and take a vote. You can raise your hands: How many people agree with the pessimist that they did the right thing because a camera would have gotten them in trouble?

How many people agree with the optimist that this is how these gentlemen always live, and now it’s on camera?

And how many people think the truth is somewhere in between?

I believe that the truth is somewhere in between, but I would feel dishonest if I denied that a world with cameras reminds us, that not only are we always accountable for our actions, we as Jews are obligated to act in a way that acknowledges that we are always accountable for our actions.

We’ll see time and time again in our High Holiday prayer book Mahzor Lev Shalem: implications that God knows not only our actions, but the deepest of our intentions. In the prayer of “Le’El Orekh Din,” addressing “the God who lays out judgment,” we sing the words levohen levavot, referring to God as bohen levavot, “the Discerner of hearts.” Our God is not distant from our spiritual being. Our God is deeply intimate, revealing the depths of our emotions. The novel 1984 portrayed the surveillance of the menacing Big Brother, but our prayers portray God as the loving Parent in Heaven. If we can let God into our hearts, then we can live lives centered around love and affection—and better yet—responsibility and accountability.

There’s a world of difference of course between God and the NSA. But the way in which we make ourselves transparent to God or the NSA might not be so different.

If you are familiar with TED Talks, then you may be familiar with Hasan Elahi. Professor Elahi, or Hasan (as he likes to be called), is an artist born in Bangladesh and raised in New York City, and the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the totality of the US government always know where he is. Being of dark complexion that hints that he might be an Arab terrorist, he was stopped by airport security in Detroit in 2002. Thet interrogated him to find out if he actually was a terrorist. Although he isn’t, Hasan was erroneously added to the US government’s watch list anyway. He knew that he could be stopped wherever he would travel, so Hasan made it a habit to contact government officials every time he was about to travel anywhere. At first, this was practical, and limited only to when he’d fly from one airport to another. He would take photos at the terminals and send them to the government to let them know he had gotten to and from his different destinations. But Hasan, who travels frequently, decided he would update the government as regularly as possible, even if he was just going to work and back home. He programmed his phone to photograph wherever he was at all times and post it on his personal website, which he set up cheekily in order to allow the government to check in on him 24/7. He began to photograph everything: his meals, his errands, and his rest stops. Hasan, playing along with the government and turning it into a game, designed for himself his own personal surveillance system that would allow absolutely anyone in the world to know exactly where his whereabouts were at any given time. According to Hasan’s theory, the government now has so much information about him that they hardly have the energy to find out anything about him anymore.

Hasan Elahi lives with the faith that whatever he is doing in life is okay for the government to see, okay for friends to see, okay for family to see, okay for strangers to see, okay for anyone to see. In an age where covert surveillance causes fear and trembling, Hasan Elahi has resolved that the best defense against finding out about our secret lives is to live lives without secrets.

And indeed, in Jewish living, how could we possibly live lives where we keep anything a secret from God? Whether we are confessing our sins on the High Holidays or we are surrounded by God’s presence in daily life, God’s Heavenly Court always has a way of uncovering that which we try to hide.

Traditional Jewish life asks us to check in with God the same way that Hasan Elahi checks in with the American government. We are assigned three times a day to check in with God through prayer: when we wake up in the morning, when we’re in the midst of the working day in the afternoon, and before we go to bed at night. There are blessings to be recited before and after eating every meal, and there’s a blessing we can say after we have used the restroom. When all the cameras are off and no humans are watching, there still is God—eyes on us, ears towards us, and blank pages in Heaven, ready to be filled with our stories.

But there’s a difference between Hasan Elahi and Judaism. Hasan’s cameras did not start revealing anything new to God—whether or not Hasan personally believes in God. Moreover, it is easy to challenge that there is a watchful God, if, simply, you don’t believe in God. And if we were to believe that there is no God, and that there is no God when we are alone, then we are not in effect always being watched. So, without God, we need not be accountable for our actions in private.

We would be wise to listen to the words of the 19th Century Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda: “You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.” None of us will ever hold ourselves accountable to God, or for that matter, to any higher authority, until we hold ourselves accountable to ourselves. We must hold ourselves accountable to our own sense of wrong or right. For some Jews, the reason we should do the right thing when no other people are around is because of yir’at shamayim—our fear of Heaven. Our Heavenly God may look askance at us and treat us badly if we behave badly: yir’at shamayim—our fear of Heaven. For other Jews, the reason we should act justly when no one is looking is because of yir’at het—fear of sin itself. Regardless of whether we know our friends and family are around us; regardless of whether we suspect that there is a hidden camera around us; regardless of whether we doubt that there is a hidden God amidst us; we are all obligated to live in yir’at het—in fear of sin itself.

So, do I personally care if the NSA is watching me? Not really. And my reason is beacause of my faith. First off, I don’t believe that the NSA has violated me. And second, I am accountable to a power even greater than the NSA: God.

Regardless of what the NSA knows about you or me, I know that above me there is עַֽיִן רוֹאָה, a Seeing Eye; וְאֹֽזֶן שׁוֹמַֽעַת, a Listening Ear; וְכׇל־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַּסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין all of our actions recorded in a Holy Book in Heaven. If we can believe in ourselves, then we will never be alone anyway. We will always walk side-by-side with God’s loving presence. When we look back, we can see reflections of our ancestors and ask like Joseph did: WWJD? What Would Jacob Do? Or, what would my parents do? God discerns our hearts, entering every intimate moment, not interrupting as a third person, but intertwining as a spirit conferring with our souls. God is not just watching our actions and investigating our hearts. God is bringing our actions to life. God is making our hearts beat in real time. And God is watching, because God cares for us.

May this year be one where we find our best selves, where we accept ourselves, where we see ourselves as accountable, where we love ourselves, and where we do not fear what others may discover about us. What they may discover God will have already found, and we and God will have already found a way to love and accept it: the sounds, the sights and the actions of our best selves, and the sounds, the sights and the actions of our worst selves. And may we each know that nothing about us can be holier than who we can be, and who we can become, in the privacy of God and self.


About jonahrank

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