Serious coffee drinkers know that coffee preceded Starbucks. Arthur Godfrey sold it on black-and-white TV in the 1950s, and they say that it was first discovered in 9th-century Ethiopia. By the 16th century, it had reached Jews in Israel, where it helped revolutionize Judaism.
Prior to coffee, people went to bed early. Once they became wired on coffee, however, they stayed up late, a challenge that led kabbalists to invent nighttime rituals, like midnight prayers. To this day, Jews gather on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah for S’lichot. Traditionally, the service is held at midnight. And yes, I kid you not: it is the result of coffee!
At least the midnight placement of that service is. The idea of such a preparatory penitential service came earlier, but it was held at sunup Sunday morning. Under the impact of coffee, it was moved to midnight the night before.
Looking back, we can see what happened: once nighttime hours were discovered as something to enjoy – not just something to sleep through — Jews learned to outfit them with spiritual potential.
Such spiritual and moral lessons mark other cultural breakthroughs as well. Martin Buber popularizes the account of the Hasidic rebbe who learned from the telegraph that every word is counted and charged; and from the telephone, that what is said here can be heard there.
So I wonder: what might we learn from technology today? Here’s my short list to take into S’lichot this Saturday night.
From e-communication advances like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, I learn that we human being are all connected, one to another. Way back in the 6th century BCE, (Babylonian exile) our biblical ancestors concluded that all human beings are children of one God. “Why does the Torah provide the story of Adam and Eve?” the Rabbis asked. Answer: to teach us that all humanity is descended from a single set of parents.
From Twitter, I learn that in hardly any words at all, it is possible to bring great joy, but also enormous hurt. I love the way our most central Jewish prayer, the Amidah, opens with, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise”; and the way it concludes: “My God, keep my mouth from speaking evil and my lips from spouting deceit.” Like God at the moment of creation, we too bring whole worlds into being by what we say. Just a few words can augment the world’s beauty, harmony and promise; or pollute us all in a haze of violence, filth and despair.
From the icloud, by which I save pretty much everything I ever write, think or record, I conclude that what we say and how we act do not so quickly disappear into oblivion. Generations after us will draw on the moral foundation that we leave behind. When Marc Antony eulogized Julius Caesar, he thought, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The Rabbis, by contrast, believed it is the good that naturally remains behind. The very name of those we memorialize can be a blessing — according to the Yerushalmi, because, “The words of the wise are an everlasting memorial.” Long before computers, Judaism directed us to preserve our people’s wisdom as a legacy for tomorrow.
These are not new lessons to Judaism, actually.
- Rosh Hashanah was already the most universalist of holy days: a time to celebrate God’s rule over a marvelously diverse yet interconnected human family.
- We human beings are uniquely “creatures of speech,” the Rabbis say, who can use our gift of speaking to fashion a world rich with promise.
- Throughout the days of awe, especially, we are urged to leave our own personal legacy of lessons that will be a blessing.
From S’lichot warmup to the end of the Yom Kippur, we get time to marvel at the way old lessons become truer over time; and how they call us to make life matter.