The mishnah prohibits the recitation of t’filat shav, a prayer in vain. For example, if one sees smoke rising from the city, one may not pray “May it be God’s will that it not be my house.” Whichever house is afire is already determined; to pray for a manipulation of reality is to take God’s name in vain, for we know the expectation will go unanswered.
The most commonly recited t’filat shav these days is barukh shep’tarani, “blessed (is God) for releasing me.” We are mostly familiar with the full version of the blessing from the bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, when parents turn over the rein of responsibility for mitzvot to their children. But modern technology and the context of near-instant transmission of messages has made the unspoken version of this blessing too common.
I am probably as guilty of it as you. When I am hoping to avoid a long conversation with someone, I may choose to leave a “tag-you’re-it” message during lunch or after hours on a voice mail system. I smugly persuade myself that I have met my responsibility of returning a call. At least I know that I have only postponed the inevitable; I am never resentful when the call gets returned.
Increasingly, however, I am receiving voice mail, e-mail and passed-along messages from people that include the expectation of response (often immediately) from me. Frequently, they arrive after hours or on weekends or holidays. In a different era – not so long ago – a letter or telephone message was a labor-intensive way of communicating, and therefore a richly human process. Today, even when another person is involved in the process, the expectation of the sender is based on the instantaneous technology of the Internet and digital recorder. The level of anger, frustration and personal disappointment among those who do not get what they want, when they want it is astonishing. What is more, “immediate response requested” is the presumed and default setting, and rarely articulated.
Those attitudes are the best illustration of the wisdom of prohibiting a vain prayer. Technology may change and the speed of delivering a message may increase, but the basic make-up of human beings does not. There remain only so many hours in a day and so much capacity to produce. To expect otherwise is to set up the other party for failure.
Do you recognize an interaction with me in this column? You are not alone. Are you angered by it? Deal with it. You deserve accuracy and thoughtfulness, not mere speed. And the people with whom you communicate – including me, the other members of the synagogue staff and people in general – deserve consideration.
It is hard to write a column like this without sounding whiny. I didn’t. But I have a ton of e-mail and phone messages to answer...