I’m not the first aunt to think her nephew is awesome. But regardless of any bias that I might (or do) possess, I’ve come to appreciate the Inadvertent Philosopher who lives somewhere in my oldest nephew’s insatiably curious brain.
My nephews were taught Hebrew since their first mewling moments–their parents want their progeny to speak the language with relative fluency, for better communication with their Promised Land contemporaries as well as a connection to the language, text, and people of Israel. One lovely side effect of this effort is that Gil, now 6 1/2 (and probably his 4-year-old brother Dov as well), is also achieving simultaneous interest in the words in the siddur, reading the prayer book over his father’s shoulder in synagogue and asking questions.
Recently, Gil asked his father for the meaning of a phrase at the end of the Amidah (the silent standing prayer at the core of the prayer service)–v’kalkel machashavtam (“and spoil their evil plans”). My brother explained: we hoped that people would treat us all well, but that if people didn’t have good wishes for us, that Hashem (a character who has held my nephew’s imagination since he was very young) would spoil their plans and protect us. “That’s great, Aba,” said the Inadvertent Philosopher, “but what does that have to do with computers?”
My iProducts-obsessed nephew saw the word “machashavtam” (their thoughts) and clearly discerned the word “machshev” (computer) in its midst. Computers and thoughts possess a common Hebrew root, as does the word for “important,” chashuv. While machashevet is used to describe something devised or devious, machshavah can mean thought, consideration, worry, interest, or philosophy–the presence of this root indicates that these things are so chashuv that they’re worth considering deeply.
We may blame technology for any number of things, including the demise of interpersonal communication. But computers are just devices–the good or evil that lurks within both machashavtam (their thoughts/deliberate plans) and a machshev (a computer) is the user who utilizes them both to justify his or her own actions. We use these machines to express our thoughts, our passions, the things that we hold dear and which we think about on a daily basis. How we use the tools to achieve results depends on our intentions, ideologies, and philosophies, and reflects our flawed, human selves.
When we pray that God will spoil the machinations of our enemies, what we’re praying for is not for the failure of the optical drive or motherboard of a physical computer, but the alteration of human inclination. We pray that if someone holds ill will toward us, this inclination should be disrupted, reversed, or perhaps turned off and back on again, like a manual reboot of the human system. Perhaps this prayer casts Hashem in the role of Divine Hacker, subverting the code of our enemies and embedding a virus that takes them down and neutralizes their evil plans.
Many of us who pray utter liturgical words by rote, without stopping to contextualize or personalize them to the lives we live outside the synagogue. If we stop to think about them at all, most of these Hebrew words seem foreign, or disconnected, or even irrelevant. But the Inadvertent Philosopher teaches us to look at the liturgy with fresh eyes, with a young, innocent, personal perspective. If we carefully examine the words we use–both in liturgy and in life–we can identify themes and content that are relevant, timely, modern, and important to us. If we have questions, we should ask them, both in pursuit of answers, and to challenge those around us to think differently and with an unabashedly contemporary lens about our texts, our liturgy, and our tradition.
Good job, Gil. Your Doda Esther looks forward to the next exciting installment of Adventures in Liturgy: Featuring the Inadvertent Philosopher.