Face to Face

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot |  October 3, 2015


We’re almost there. Almost through another busy, energetic, and full Holiday Season. And along with them, we’re almost through a very busy time of year. With Holidays, school and work getting back into session, there’s been a lot happening keeping many of us always on our toes. But even outside of these obligations, there’s been a lot to keep track of as the baseball season comes to a close, believe it or not, tomorrow. With playoff positions, and awards still up for grabs, there’s been a lot to stay informed about. But of all these important implications, the most interesting happening in baseball this week took place in the stands.

On Wednesday evening, the TV broadcast at the Arizona Diamondbacks game captured a group of 8 young women keeping busy during the game by taking many pictures of themselves. In one shot, you see each girl either posing for a picture, or looking at other pictures they’ve already taken. The announcers of the game were more than a little amused by this and had fun discussing it on the air. At one point an announcer commented, “The beautiful thing about a baseball game is that it’s a chance to sit and have a face-to-face conversation with your neighbor.”

Face-to-face. It’s a simple, yet sometimes challenging concept. The idea of sitting one on one with another person, without any distractions. This concept has been with us throughout human history, but it is becoming more and more difficult today as commitments, connections are there to distract us more and more often. It’s oftentimes challenging to find opportunities to engage in face-to-face conversations, especially as our technology becomes more and more accessible and portable, and sociologists and psychologists have begun to take notice.

Just this past weekend in the Sunday Review section of the NY Times, there was an article entitled “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” Written by Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program of Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T., and author of the book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” the article examines “what has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk.” Turkle has spent time with children, teens, college students, adults, and families to see what the impacts are on conversations and relationships. In one instance she describes the “rule of three” that plays out among college students in dining halls. She explains, “in a conversation among five or six people at dinner, you have to check that three people are paying attention – heads up – before you give yourself permission to look at your phone. So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel that they can drop in and out.”

On one hand, I suppose it’s thoughtful that we check to make sure other people are paying attention to the conversation before proceeding to check our phones. And the students do see benefits to following this rule. The fact that you can put your attention wherever you wait it to be, you can always be available elsewhere, you never have to be bored.

It’s easy for us to say, ok, that’s just college students, that doesn’t happen with adults. Turkle though describes a conversation she had with a 15-year-old girl, who would be consistently frustrated when her dad constantly took out his phone to look up information and add “facts” to their conversation. “Daddy,” the girl said, “stop Googling. I want to talk to you.” A 15-year-old boy told her that “someday he wanted to raise a family, not the way his parents are raising him (with phones out during meals and in the park and during his school sports events) but the way his parents think they are raising him – with no phones at meals and plentiful family conversation.”

Ok, we’re thinking. I’m not that bad. I’m not looking at my phone all the time. I just have it out on the table. But this too is problematic. As Turkle writes, “studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.”

This is a struggle that effects many of us, myself included. I frequently have the urge to reach for my phone, just to check to see what’s happening, while out to dinner, while in a meeting, and even first thing when I get up in the morning. Trying to overcome that desire, that need to feel connected, to be in touch, is something that’s becoming more and more difficult, which in turn means that it also is becoming more and more important. (This is part of what makes Shabbat so special, but that’s a topic for a different sermon.) But whatever we can do, to try and limit these distractions is helpful so that we can spend more time face-to-face.

Face-to-face. In Hebrew פנים אל פנים. It’s a term we know well, thanks in part to the wonderful program in Washington that shares the name, but also because we know that this was the relationship between Moshe and God. On Tuesday morning as we read the final verses of the Torah we’ll read “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, פנים אל פנים, face to face.” (Deut 34:10) In ספר שמות, as Moses prepares to plead with God on behalf of the Israelites following the incident of the Golden Calf, just one verse before our Torah reading this morning, there too we read “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” (Ex 33:11)

So it seems simple then to say, that we should strive to make our relationships like that of Moses and God, speaking to each other face-to-face.

But there’s a problem. This morning, in the Torah reading chosen for this occasion of Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot, we read the dramatic encounter between Moses and God, as Moses goes up to Mt Sinai to argue on behalf of the people. To plead with God for His forgiveness, to overlook the mistake that they made with the Golden Calf. Moses calls out to God saying, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (Ex 33:18) But God answers, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” (Ex 33:19-20) So on one hand we learn that Moses and God spoke face to face, and on the other we read that no one, not even Moses can see God’s face and live. How can this be?

The commentators present a few options. Without getting into the nitty gritty of it, they suggest that maybe Moses did speak with God face-to-face in the literal sense, that is to say he didn’t actually see God’s face, but their relationship was more direct, more intimate, more personal, than God would allow for anyone else. And this is why during the encounter we read, that God does permit Moshe to see His back and experience His presence.

Experiencing someone’s presence. These are the relationships and conversations that we tend to strive for, and these are also the experiences that our technological and phone cultures take away from us. For the college students eating dinner together and following the “rule of three.” Are they experiencing each other’s presence? For the father who sits Googling each of his daughter’s questions instead of trying answer them himself, is he experiencing her presence? When all of us sit together, with our phones just out on the table, is this experiencing each other’s presence? How can we find ways to be with the people around us not just literally face-to-face, but figuratively too, spending time and being fully present with those close to us.

Turkle has a suggestion. She writes, “To reclaim conversation for yourself, your friendships and society, push back against viewing the world as one giant app, (expecting the world to always respond quickly and efficiently). It works the other way, too: Conversation is the antidote to the algorithmic way of look at life because it teaches about fluidity, contingency and personality. This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours. We have time to make corrections and remember who we are – creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky, and face to face.”

I hope that we can find an opportunity, on these final few days of of our Holiday season, to have a face-to-face conversation. To be fully present and to experience one’s presence. To emulate the relationship of Moshe and God. And to consider how we continue these discussions, ideally in person, over the coming year.