By Yochanan Gordon

To state that I am camera shy would be an understatement. I have no qualms about expressing my viewpoints on a plethora of topics in this or many other literary forums. I have been maintaining this column for almost two years and have had occasion over that time period to double down on matters that I have written about. Despite that, however, there is something that is unsettling to me in a very deep way about putting my face in front of a camera and expressing the ideas that I often express in written form.

I’m writing about this now because I recently appeared on a live-streamed Charidy campaign for my dear friend Rabbi Shais Taub to benefit his Soul Words platform. It was an invitation that came out of left field, but he texted me a few days prior asking if I would appear in-studio to help generate funds for his annual fundraising campaign. My initial reaction was one of wonderment; why would he ask me, of all people, to make this appearance? I mean, he had appearances from high-profile, public personalities—philanthropists and successful businessmen who wield tremendous influence. I just didn’t see, in my mind’s eye, how I would help the cause in any way. On the other hand, he was asking, and as his friend I felt bad not obliging. Despite the discomfort that it causes within me, as a journalist and someone who has been brought up in the world of broadcasting and media, I felt that this is an anxiety that I have to kick, and what better time than the present, having already been asked.

At the outset of our conversation, which lasted ten minutes, I mentioned to Rabbi Taub that sitting in that seat with a mic on the desk in front of me and cameras shining in my face is an extremely unnatural setting for me. His rejoinder was that it should be completely natural to me as someone who writes a weekly column and is a man of the media. I responded that I felt very comfortable sitting by a computer with a keyboard underhand, expressing myself in that manner. The lights and the cameras and microphones, by contrast, create for me a daunting environment that I haven’t yet grown accustomed to. 

The assumption that Rabbi Taub made was one that I have thought a lot about over the years. Writing and speaking represent two different disciplines. My grandfather, Rabbi Nison Gordon, a’h, who was a celebrated Yiddish journalist, was not particularly adept at speaking. My father, by contrast, who spent the beginning of his career in media as a radio broadcaster, has a greater ability to speak extemporaneously than I imagine his father felt comfortable doing. In journalism, one has the space to develop ideas over a period of time. In the world of video production there is no space for longer-than-usual silence. One has to continue to talk his way through his main idea, and for someone like me, who is more rooted in the realm of thought, having to fill space with endless words is not something that comes naturally to me.

I am not a conversationalist. Yes, I am opinionated and I have an easy time expressing myself on any topic I feel strongly about. However, to just shoot the breeze and talk endlessly about nothing is something that I find difficult. As I watched Rabbi Taub in action that night, across from Chaim Kohn, with whom he spent much of the two nights conversing, I wondered, jokingly, if their ability to talk for hours on end had anything to do with the $200,000 that they raised during the campaign or if that was something that the two of them could do on any given night. However, knowing Rabbi Taub and how difficult it was for him initially to take to Instagram and the online community in promoting himself, I knew that everything that he was doing that evening was perfectly aligned with the depth of character that has always been his benchmark.

I invoked the conversations that the two of us had when we first met a few years ago, in which he expressed a deep-seated discomfort with the whole idea of promoting himself. Rabbi Taub mentioned that he and Chaim Kohn had been speaking earlier in the night about penimiyus, or internality, and he had to figure out just how the endeavor he was embarking upon fit into the mandate of living an internal existence.

I mentioned that I had come across an idea from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the book The Soul of Chanukah, written by Rabbi Shlomo Katz. Carlebach, reflecting upon Chava partaking in the Eitz HaDa’as tov v’ra, analyzes the wording of the verse, namely: “And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and perceptively desirous, and she took from it and ate it.” Reb Shlomo points out that there was something in the way Chava perceived the tree that caused her to be inclined to failure from the get-go. Chava had projected her own thoughts and feelings about the tree prior to partaking of it. Had she simply marveled at its very existence without mixing in her own feelings about it, she would have waited until it was permitted and the story of history would be very different.

It dawned upon me that the tree of knowledge is perhaps an accurate analogy in understanding the nature of social media and the world of technology in an era that has been characterized as the Information Age. The lesson from the way Chava approached the tree was that in order to engage in the internet and social media for the purpose of disseminating a message, it needs to be done without the person marveling or being amazed on a personal level at the tool they are using in order to disseminate the message.

With this, I believe we could understand a Gemara that always seemed enigmatic. Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi, prior to his passing, told his students that he was going to pass away and that he was uncertain which path in Heaven they would lead him on. This is Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi talking, the redactor of the Mishnayos, about whom the Gemara attests that he never derived pleasure from even his pinky finger. How could he harbor any doubt regarding his lot in the World to Come?

The answer I saw brought down is that great visionaries are often filled with a sense of urgency to do things that they see need to get done but without reflecting upon whether or not it is the ratzon Hashem that they do it. Their motivation is completely selfless to the point that they forget to even reflect upon the consequences of their actions in the World to Come. The message here, too, is that in the interest of disseminating the light of the Ba’al Shem Tov to the farthest reaches of existence, Rabbi Taub took to the realm of the internet and social media only once he was assured that it wasn’t at all about self-promotion, but about spreading the message of the soul and the infinite light of G-d.

With the yom tov of Chanukah immediately ahead of us, one’s ability to act selflessly on behalf of others without expressing any personal interests is descriptive of eyes that shine with the light of the Chanukah candles. G-d should illuminate our eyes to see with such selflessness and ultimately usher in the age of Adam and Chava prior to the sin of the tree, speedily in our days. 

Yochanan Gordon can be reached at ygordon5t@gmail.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.

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