The past 12 months have bombarded us with dilemmas. Some, like the balance between lockdown and economic stability, have serious implications on our society, while others may seem trivial, but haunt us nonetheless. It’s in this spirit that I raise a seemingly inconsequential Zoom dilemma. Do we turn our cameras on and parade our faces on the screen, or do we turn our cameras off and retreat, leaving our names as our only identifying mark? I’ve noticed a pattern over the last year. When we first entered the Zoom age, we were super keen to be seen and as the months have slid by, the black boxes in the gallery view have increased.
What’s behind that faceless box? My guess is probably a well-justified couch potato. The rigours of a day’s work have taken their toll. The house chores are finally done. The dog’s been for a walk. The kids are in bed. All that’s left to do is put our feet up in front of the TV and unwind. Then you remember that the shul has a Zoom lecture with an appealing title and you decide to join in. Enter our dilemma. You’re in your PJs, well-positioned in the grooves of your couch, comfort food ready to be devoured. Would you really want to turn the screen on? We know the lecturer feels like he is speaking to a ghost audience. We know it may come off as a bit rude to some, but hey, at least we came and at least we listened. You see, TV is great because it allows us to escape our problems. We can be passive, take a step back and spectate. By day we ponder, pray, and persist with our own issues and by night we turn them off when the remote turns the TV on. The question is, are Zoom lectures the same as watching a televised interview or the equivalent of sitting live in a classroom?
If you are a participant, you are required to present yourself, but if you are a spectator, then you have the luxury to observe without being seen. It’s not for me to answer this delicate question. Each one of us is mature enough to decide, but it does give us an insight into the Seder experience. Maimonides tells us the essence of retelling the story of the Exodus on Pesach night is to bring us to the point where we present ourselves as if we ourselves had left Egypt. The Jew at the Seder is not watching the Exodus through the spectacles of the past. He is not removed from the experience of his forebearers, a passive viewer that has paused his life to be entertained by the Hebrews of yesteryear.
No – the Jew is an active participant at the Seder! He feels the hot sand as he races through the desert and he can hear the agonising cries of his brothers in bondage. When he eats bitter herbs, his life feels bitter and when he gulps down four cups of wine, he indeed feels redeemed and liberated. He eats matzah, not as a memorial to the unleavened bread of the Hebrews, but because he himself does not have time for his bread to rise in his own modern day Exodus tale. On the Seder night, our cameras are metaphorically on (and as an Orthodox Rabbi, I emphasise the word metaphorically). We have zoomed into Egypt and the enslaving, limited factors of our lives. We go on a journey to identify what really keeps us in captivity from growth and then, with the help of our Saviour, we can leave as liberated free people, motivated to move forward with our lives.
If we leave our metaphoric cameras off, then Pesach is not our festival. It is merely an ancient saga of a people long ago.