As we were developing the cover story for this year’s Passover issue —“Are we e-slaves?”— I couldn’t help thinking about a little girl in Israel, Amit, who suffers from a neurodevelopmental disorder called Rett syndrome.
According to academic literature, Rett syndrome is characterized by “normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures and intellectual disability.”
I learned about Amit a few months ago when I spoke at a dinner for Beit Issie Shapiro, the innovative center in Israel that has been caring for Amit and other children with disabilities.
That evening kept popping into my mind as I reflected on the notion of e-slavery. Because slavery is key to the Passover story, it was only natural for us to explore the idea of our modern-day enslavement to technology.
Has this technology become so incredible that it is starting to own us? Has the power to access virtually any information instantly at any time, or the power to connect instantly with anyone at any time, taken over our lives and made us slaves to science?
For so many of us who have smartphones grafted to our hands, these are legitimate questions. But the evening I spent with Beit Issie Shapiro gave me a whole different take on this subject.
I saw the power of technology not to enslave us but to liberate us.
Specifically, I saw how a wondrous digital machine like the iPad can transform the lives of children with severe disabilities.
Amit, for example, comes alive as she touches the screen of a specially designed iPad, which allows her to play games, discover music, create art and, most important, communicate.
Her mother also comes alive. “She has this horrible syndrome, and I didn’t think I would be so much happy and pleased,” the mother says on a video, as we watch her play an art game with Amit on the iPad. “She actually moves her hands better … we just enjoy the light in her eyes when she sees it [the iPad] and she uses it.”
For someone like Amit, whose life has been improved immeasurably by this technology, the idea of being an “e-slave” must seem ridiculous. I can just imagine her seeing our Passover cover and thinking: “What are these people talking about? Technology saved my life!”
There’s some irony in the fact that the very latest in digital progress, the iPad, has returned to that most basic human function — physical touch. For many kids with disabilities, simply touching something is the one thing they’re most comfortable doing.
They don’t have the luxury to indulge in figurative language. Their slavery is real. It’s physical. It’s more like the slavery of our ancestors. They can touch it.
People without disabilities can afford to think about slavery metaphorically, but this also can be a limitation. It’s easy to overthink things. Thinking, itself, keeps us in the theoretical realm. Even when we discuss and debate ideas, they remain in the head. We don’t really touch them.
Children like Amit specialize in touching.
They see a screen with beautiful images, and they touch it. They see a mother or a father’s hand, they see a toy or a flower or a dog or a paintbrush, and they touch it.
They don’t wallow in thinking; they wallow in touching. Touching liberates them.
But what about us, with fully functioning brains: Are we thinking too much and not touching enough?
While our brains are overflowing with so much noise and static, do we lose something primal and fundamental, like the ability to touch something real?
It’s clear that a side effect of abusing super-fast technology is that it clutters and speeds up our minds, adding even more mental stress to our lives.
Maybe that’s why Jewish rituals like Passover seders are so helpful. They force us to slow down. They make us think, yes, but they also make us touch. We don’t just tell our story, we touch it. We touch the salt, the matzah, the bitter herbs, the charoset — all the symbols that give our story meaning.
And we tell a story of liberation that touches our lives.
It is this duality of thinking and touching that helps us feel, and helps us reconnect with the things that matter most, the things technology can never do for us: Nurturing friendships, caring for a lonely parent, being with our family at the Shabbat table, walking in nature, helping a stranger, expressing gratitude.
In her own simple way, a child like Amit can help us rediscover this primal, human state.
It is a state that says, I’m neither slave nor master, just a human being doing the best I can with what I have.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.