Kodesh Moments

[Shana Tova. Wow. It is such a blessing to be up on this bimah, leading our congregation this morning…before I start my sermon, I just want to capture all this. Do you mind if I just grab my phone for a quick pic? Clergy? Wanna get in on this? OK- Rosh Hashanna selfie!! #selfie #PTBE #HighHoly Days #shanatova]

A little over a year ago my husband and I got married. Like every couple preparing for this momentous simcha, we considered each and every detail: food, flowers, and photographer. We worked for weeks with my childhood rabbi to plan a ceremony that captured both of our spirits, and included our friends and family. It seemed like almost an afterthought when Rabbi Billy handed us a piece of paper. It read, “I agree that there will be no use of photography during the exchanging of marriage vows. I will ask your guests not to use their cameras. The photographer is not allowed under or behind the chuppa. The photographer must remain behind the last row of chairs during all parts of the ceremony.”

“This is my picture policy,” Rabbi Billy explained. “If you want me to officiate at your wedding, you and your photographer must abide by these guidelines.” He explained, “You’ll have plenty of times for pictures at your wedding, but your vows are not a Kodak Moment. Let them be an opportunity for you to both to be present with one another. That will be the memory.”

We honored our rabbi’s requests, and he was right; we have plenty of memories from our wedding – some in pictures, some not. But it wasn’t until I officiated at a wedding that I really understood his position. As the procession began into the wedding ceremony, I looked around at the congregation who had gathered to rejoice with the bride and groom. Yet instead of seeing bright eyes and smiling faces, I saw cell phones and iPads, pointed at the couple. In some instances, you could not even see who was who, as a recording device covered someone’s entire face.

The phrase “Kodak moment” was developed over 50 years ago. The film and camera company wanted to show the public that photography was no longer confined to professionals in studios. Instead, the layperson should be keen to capture daily life. In the 60’s, colorful scenes of unbridled happiness- like families on vacation, the kids getting a bath, trips to the zoo, camping in Yosemite and a filled Grand Central Station in New York City. Thanks to a genius marketing campaign, these images were more than just pictures, but ‘Kodak moments.’ Finally trademarked, “Kodak moment” became part of the popular lexicon.1 It has even earned a spot in the online slang Urban Dictionary with the definition: a rare, one time, moment that is captured by a picture, or should have been captured by a picture.

I’m sure you all, like me, have boxes, books, piles, and files of Kodak moments. There are the photo albums in my parent’s den that document every milestone I ever reached from first diaper to first day of college. And of course there are some memorable ones: Standing with my family at the Grand Canyon, my cousins and I at sleep away camp, and holiday celebrations with people who are no longer with us. Pictures record our memories and in turn we remember our pictures. I surely would have repressed the horrendous MC Hammer style windbreaker pants I wore to my 10th birthday, if it wasn’t for the ridiculous image that my grandma keeps in a frame on her piano!

Kodak is the company that made photography a popular pastime around the world. It made a tremendous contribution to how we see and remember everyday life. But the film giant also convinced us that a moment not captured never really happened; lost in history like a vanishing thought. But I wonder if that if that really is the case, and what we lose and gain by capturing the moments of our lives on camera. And what is the difference between having photos of the significant highlights, versus photos of the everything, everyday?

In 2010, the chief marketing officer of Kodak developed a new twist on the old campaign declaring. “It’s not a Kodak Moment unless you share.”2 Like so many of you, I enjoy taking and sharing pictures. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram. On my feed you’ll primarily see photos of my dog, along with some fun sites my husband and I have visited around the Bay Area. Since moving across the country, I have been grateful to social media for how connected I have remained with family and friends on the East Coast. I love virtually witnessing the children of my friends grow up, even if I can’t be there, or through snapshots, enjoy meals at a favorite hometown restaurant with my parents. I particularly realized how important these first hand images were this summer, as I followed friends in Israel who posted scenes from their everyday lives, as their home was disturbed by war. The visual connections our lives can have- around the world, offer us a sense of intimacy and company we have never known before.

But as we share, we are faced with serious questions about the value of our posting habits. Our lives can become cluttered with things that are not important, and instead of our captured moments turning into memories, we can decrease the importance of a picture, from 1,000 words, to just one like.

In a New York Times article, “Facebook Made Me Do It,” the author writes about how our online behavior translates into real-world feelings and consequences. Instead of feeling and seeing and exploring the world, we are looking towards others to tell us we're doing a good job at it.3 Articles directed at teens are warning about the danger of tying one’s self-esteem to the comments and likes one gets when they post. And psychologists affirm that a new form of social anxiety FOMO- the Fear of Missing Out, is on the rise. Our photo sharing habits may be increasing feelings of loneliness instead of fostering connection.4

And these are just our emotional sacrifices. This summer, the Huffington Post published a story that started out like any typical day on a beach. Families were out enjoying the sunshine and waves when a baby shark washed up onto the shore. Amazed at the occurrence, a man picked up the shark and posed with it. Drawing attention, even more beach visitors, kids and adults alike, took turns posing with the shark as its torso wiggled and its mouth gaped open and shut. The shark was passed around while people posed for Shark Selfies…and as you may have now guessed, the shark died before anyone thought to throw it back into the water.5

If we are experiencing one another, nature, and the great wonders of our world behind the safety of four-inch screens in exchange for living among one another in reality, we are teetering dangerously close to preferring satisfaction in the virtual world over the real one. In short, we are ceasing to see. Using our eyes to appreciate beauty is no longer enough. It feels like it has to be documented for some other time.

In Judaism, there is a tradition of saying 100 blessings a day based on the miraculous wonders of our earth, and the diversity of humanity that we encounter all the time. Everything has a blessing- from seeing a long lost friend, hearing thunder, smelling flowers, or seeing a rainbow. Upon seeing these small miracles we can recite, “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, oseh maasei v'reishit” We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes the works of creation. While these would certainly be considered Kodak moments, they also require you to step out of the encounter to capture it. The moments you didn't capture on film, the ones where you simply see are the kodesh moments. Kodesh, meaning holy, are those sacred moments of our lives that are best captured by being fully within them6.

Once in a while, a moment seems to hang on for a fraction in time - holy, OMG moments - when we sense we are glimpsing a piece of some larger picture taking shape around us - something important - but it’s hard to tell exactly what. I think we can get so overwhelmed by these moments that we are developing a fear of forgetting. They feel so overpowering and awesome; we want so badly to hold on to them. Yet the contradiction is: these kodesh moments are the ones that will certainly be lost when we reach for our cell phones. In the film, The Secret life of Walter Mitty, the main character, Walter, goes on a quest to meet his colleague, an obscure photographer. When they finally meet, on a mountain top watching a snow leopard, Walter asks, “So when are you gonna take the picture?” The photographer looks at the ‘Ghost cat’ and puts down the camera, saying, “Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” I challenge us to do the same, to restrain ourselves. Embrace these moments for the meaning and wonder and for the blessing that they are.

But this doesn’t mean no pictures or posting. Social media is here to stay. Our Jewish challenge is to use it to elevate the holy without getting lost in documenting the mundane.

In a blog post, called “Instragram as my spiritual practice,” Rabbi Hara Person writes about how posting pictures, helps her access the sacred. She writes, “These little squares of images enable me to express a form of spontaneous awe and gratitude. They’re my modah ani – a daily reminder that life can be beautiful and sweet, and that I have much to be thankful for.”7 Or maybe, the picture can help us return to these moments. When I look at those shiny, baggy, bright colored pants I’m wearing on my grandma’s piano, I am transformed back to a dark bowling alley. I am surrounded by old friends and relatives I grew up with. I smell greasy pizza and feel sticky ice cream on my face. And I remember my dad, holding a camera, telling me to smile and “Say cheese.” Photos can return us to these kodesh moments, but we walk a fine line of trading the memory of the moment for the memory itself.

Standing under a chuppa, scoring a goal at a soccer game, hiking through redwoods, singing along at a concert, or eating a delicious meal: kodesh moments are meant to be remembered for how they felt, not for how they appeared. Today I propose one more way to battle our fear of forgetting, and translate our pictures into kodesh moments. A new blessing, number 101; the blessing of taking a picture. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, she’ ozerli l’zchor et ha z’man hazeh. We praise you God, Ruler of the Universe, who helps me to remember this moment. Because that is what picture taking is really about. Remembering the way we feel now, so we can access those holy moments, over and over again.

While my childhood rabbi forbade the use of photography during holy moments, here at PTBE, we are searching for more ways pictures can connect us.

For example, we encourage photo sharing that helps people experience a feeling of inclusion rather than being left out. Our #PTeenBE encourages our Wednesday Night students to connect with each other outside of the temple in addition to when they are here, through the positive experiences they get from belonging to a community. We take pictures all year long during Rishonim and Gesher, with the hope that our children will see themselves in the culminating slide show and recall all they have learned during the year. And at our B’nai Mitzvah Services, we have transitioned from forbidding photography in the sanctuary to allowing a professional photographer to capture the amazing experience. We want our families to have memories of kodesh moments, not only to reflect on the experience for years to come, but to help parents be present and proud, as their children reach a milestone. And I hope that if you look for my Rosh Hashanah selfie later, you’ll find a blurry image of yourself, standing with your Jewish community on the holiest day of the year. Feel free to Tag yourselves.

From preserving memories to sharing experiences. At our essence, our relationship with pictures describes how we choose to interact with the world. We are striving for balance between appreciating what the tech can do and living in the moment. “Yes, take the picture. Share it far and wide. Then challenge yourself to put the phone away and allow yourself to simply be here, in this moment

Together, we can continue to capture and remember the kodesh moments of our lives without trading our own memory for the picture. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, she ozer li lzcor et ha zman hazeh.” We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who helps us to remember this moment. Shana Tova

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1: Elliot, Stuart. Modernizing the 'Kodak Moment' as Social Sharing 25 April 2010. NYtimes.com

2: Elliot, Stuart. Modernizing the 'Kodak Moment' as Social Sharing 25 April 2010. NYtimes.com

3: Wortham, Jenna, Facebook Made Me Do It 15 June 2013 NYtimes.com

4: Winter, Jessica. Selfie-Loathing 23 July 2013 Slate.com

5: Zelman, Joanna. The Day a Dozen Parents and Children Killed a Shark for a Selfie  18 August 2014. Huffingtonpost.com

6: Phrase first seen on Google post by Jewish Educator, Ira Wise

7: Rabbi Hara Person Instagram as a Spiritual Practice  16 February 2014 www.haraperson.com