Sermon — Chayyei Sarah and social media

Written by Cantor Tamara Wolfson — 30 October 2021

On Thursday, the social networking giant Facebook announced that it was rebranding and would now go by the name Meta.


Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, explained the reason behind this change: “The metaverse is the next evolution of social connection. We want to help bring the metaverse to life, so we are changing our name to reflect that commitment.”


What is the metaverse? The first mention of the word was in 1992 in a novel called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson — one of Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite science-fiction books. In the novel, the metaverse is a shared virtual space that connects virtual worlds using augmented reality.


Augmented reality, or AR for short, superimposes computer-generated images onto a view of the real world. AR is used all the time in films: it’s how dinosaurs looked so realistic in Jurassic Park, how spaceships glided through galaxies in Star Wars, and how games of Quidditch were played in Harry Potter. But we know that when these films end their virtual experiences end too, and our real, lived experiences begin again.


However, the distinction between real and virtual experience is not so clear in Mark Zuckerberg’s new metaverse. As he explained on Thursday, the metaverse will be an “embodied internet where you are inside the experience, not just looking at it. The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person in another place.


“In the metaverse”, he continued,  “you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine — get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, and create. You will be able to teleport as a hologram to be at the office, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room. This isn’t about spending more time on screens; it’s about making the time we already spend on screens better.”


Over the last 20 months, we have spent more time than ever on screens. We have relied heavily on social media, Zoom, Skype, and Facetime to keep us connected, and we have adapted in some truly remarkable ways. We have not only maintained but we have strengthened our relationships here at Alyth, despite our inability to be physically present with one another.


So perhaps that’s why I reacted so negatively to the news on Thursday. In the wake of Facebook’s announcement this week,  I’ve realized how scary it is that physical human presence could one day be manufactured by a large social media company, and advertised as an experience within an alternate virtual universe in which we are all invited to participate.


I don’t want to one day be a hologram visiting another person’s hologram in someone’s virtual living room having virtual cups of tea. I much prefer the real thing.


The Sages of the Talmud would never have predicted that anything like Facebook, let alone a metaverse, could ever exist. But in Rashi’s commentary on this week’s Torah portion, we find something curious: perhaps one of the earliest examples of a Facebook-feed-friendly, filtered description of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.


As Jacob read for us this morning, Parashat Chayei Sarah opens with the line:

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

Rashi found it curious that the word shana, meaning year, was repeated three times when it only needed repeating once.  So rather than simply saying “Sarah was 127 years old”, this verse is translated literally as: “the life of Sarah was 100 years, 20 years, and 7 years”.


Rashi explains that “the word ‘years’ is repeated to prove that all the years of Sarah’s life were equally good”.


The major pitfall of Rashi’s argument is that all the years of Sarah’s life were far from equally good. Her life was complex. Her joys and her sorrows ebbed and flowed.


Sarah was so beautiful that Abraham tried to pawn her off multiple times to male authority figures. Childless until aged 90, she struggled with jealousy as she suggested and then resented that her handmaiden, Hagar, was able to conceive a son with Abraham. When Sarah learned that she would conceive in her old age, she laughed. And then, the Midrash tells us, when she later feared that her only child had been sacrificed, she died of a broken heart. Sarah’s story would be difficult to spin on social media. But it seems that in Rashi’s commentary, he chose to view Sarah’s life as equally good, through a rose-colored filter.


The important thing about Sarah, and indeed so many of our Biblical ancestors, is that we can look at their stories and see ourselves between the lines. There is a reality in our Torah — a recognition that we are imperfect, that our lives are complex. Rather than a picture-perfect space that connects picture-perfect people, our tradition offers us a shared sacred space that connects us to our shared humanity.


Social media is already an alternate universe. I’m not so sure we need another one. But as technology continues to evolve, perhaps this week’s Torah portion and its commentary are a gentle reminder of where the virtual ends and where reality begins. Perhaps we learn this week that holograms and filters can get in the way of the humanity and sanctity we experience when we put down our devices, look up from our screens, and are truly —  physically and mentally — present. Shabbat Shalom.