Big Brother is in My Car! Parshas Tetzaveh 5776
Steve Barkley was minding his own business. Cruising down the interstate near Campbell, CA, he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Depressing the gas pedal, he goaded his brand new Porsche 911 to lap up the pavement with increased urgency. The roof was lowered, the wind rushing through his hair, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture boomed in his ears through the 11 speaker Bose Surround Sound System. Fine motoring didn’t get better than this.
Two months later, Steve was reclining poolside at his Pebble Beach home when the maid brought him the mail. Leafing through it lazily, a strange letter caught his eye. It was from the Campbell Police Dept. Curious as to the contents, he ripped it open, only to find a $45 speeding ticket. Along with it was a photo of his car zipping along the interstate, superimposed with the speed he was driving, the exact time and date, and the location of the camera. It seemed like Steve was yet another victim of the photo-radar speed cameras that were springing up all over the country.
Steve could have afforded to pay a million speeding tickets, but the principal of paying a fine because of a photograph bothered him. So he went to his office, photocopied two twenties and a five, and sent in a picture of $45! Unfortunately, the police chief of Campbell, James A. Cost, was up to the challenge. He sent back a picture of a pair of handcuffs. Your move, Steve. (Based on a story reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
Many Americans are enraged at the proliferation of speed-cameras. They are climbing up the walls of our freeways like parasitic vines, sucking millions out of the pockets of everyday motorists. Some people question their constitutionality; others are enraged by the fact that private companies are making most of the money, only paying a contract fee to the municipalities. But most people are annoyed by the “Big Brother is Watching” vibe they get from them.
Loop 101, a highway near Scottsdale, AZ, is considered to be one of the pioneers of speed cameras. On a seven mile stretch, over six cameras were installed. During the first few months of their deployment, the city only racked up three million dollars in fines, but this was because it was the pilot program and the fines were reduced. But once the pilot program was over, these cameras started clicking in earnest, spitting out $162 fines for anyone going over 76 MPH. Cruise the empty highway at night sometime, and in seven miles you can pick up $972 in fines!
The numbers of speeders has gone down dramatically, and this has given the Arizona Dept. of Public Safety the impetus to begin taking bids from contractors to put up an additional 170 speed and red light cameras along Arizona highways! This is supposed to help them meet their goal of raising $120 million from the wallets of motorists to help bail the state economy out of its billion dollar deficit. Some of these cameras are going to be mounted on moving SUV’s, snapping away as they cruise down the freeways right next to you! Big Brother is Following You!
Just mentioning red light cameras opens a whole new can of worms. A report by the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportations found that, “cameras were associated with an increase in total crashes.” People nervous about getting a ticket either short-stopped or speeded up to get through while the light was still yellow. Rear-end crashes were up by as much as 139% at some intersections! In order to ensure more profits for the companies running the cameras (who have to pay hefty contract fees for the right), cities have shortened the duration of the yellow light.
Although a longer yellow light duration prevents crashes and promotes safety, shortening the yellow light time promotes revenue for cities and camera operators. Case in point: San Diego saw a $2 million increase in revenue from the city’s red light cameras after shortening its yellow period from 0.5-.3 seconds to 0.1 second! In Dallas, 7 out of 10 of the highest revenue-producing cameras have yellows that are shorter than the minimum recommendation of the Texas Dept. of Transportation. Big Brother is intentionally tripping me!
If you think we have it bad, look at our brethren across the puddle in the United Kingdom. Virtually every police force in England, Wales, and Scotland has been equipped with high-tech DVD-cameras which will be used to provide photographic evidence for a whole host of minor offenses. People caught eating, smoking, speaking on cell phones, or not wearing a seat belt while driving will be sentenced with fines, driving suspensions, and even jail time for some of the more serious violations. While most of the cameras in the US can only capture a car and its license plate, the British ones will clearly capture the face of drivers, and the activities they are doing. Big Brother is in my car!!!
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed by now, but I am not a particularly big fan of traffic cameras. (Although I probably won’t go as far as Clifford E. Clark III, of Knoxville, TN who was so bothered by a camera that he parked his minivan across the sheet and shot it three times with his hunting rifle. Tennessee justice at its best!) But whether I like them or not, one thing is clear; people are aware of them and act differently around them. In Loop 101, it means that only 2-6 percent of cars speed over 76 MPH, while near red-light cameras crashes are piling up as people react to the cameras. People realize that they can’t continue to live the way they used to because now there is an extra set of eyes watching them.
The Mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers says, “Consider three things and you will never come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you- a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book” (Ethics, 2:1). It seems that long before traffic cameras were invented, a celestial video camera system was set up which watches us, follows us, and is inside our car! It is also in our houses, schools, synagogues, and even in the pickle store down the block.
We could think of them as a Big Brother tool, constantly watching us, looking over our shoulders, or we can realize that the fact that we’re always being watched is that Someone considers everything we do to be precious! G-d knows just how great our potential is, how much we can accomplish in one day, and wants to give us credit for every action that we do, great or small. All our deeds are recorded because they all have great potential!
The reason G-d watches us so carefully is because He sees each and every one of us like a superstar athlete! Coaches on sports teams watch every basketball shot, swing of the bat, throw of the football, hockey slapshot, or golf swing, that their superstars take, again and again in slow motion, to see if by adjusting the angle of the hand, or the stance of the foot, they can squeeze another .1% accuracy. These stars are getting paid millions, and the team owners want to extract the maximum return on investment, by honing the skills of their stars to its highest level. G-d sees each one of us as a superstar, and wants us to hone our skills through relentless practice and refinement, until we achieve maximum return on the investment He made on us!
When we clock out for the final time here on earth, we go on to the World to Come. There we will watch those videos again and again, for all of eternity. Superimposed over each frame will be the ripple effects each action had, the people it changed, and the legacy it left. The quality of the videos we produce throughout our lives will determine whether we feel like we are in heaven or hell.
If people saw this camera as clearly as the one they see on the wall of the interstate, would they still gossip so much? Would they not spend the extra twenty seconds helping the elderly lady across the street? Would they use coarse language so often? Would they not smile at people just a bit more? Soften the tone they use with their children? Work harder on making beautiful mindful blessings before eating G-d’s delicious food? Let’s go out there and make our own Oscar-winning performance, because the camera’s always rolling!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the vestments worn by the Kohanim, the priests who served in the Tabernacle (the portable temple the Jews used in the desert) and in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. The regular priests wore 4 garments – pants, a tunic, a belt, and a hat. The High Priest had four extra garments, a long robe, an apron-like garment tied around his waist and reaching his ankles, a golden breastplate with 12 precious stones on it, and a golden plate worn on his forehead.
The Torah teaches us an interesting law about the apron and the breastplate, “They shall bind the [lower] rings of the breastplate to the [lower] rings of the eiphod (the apron) with a cord of greenish-blue wool, so that it [the choshen, the breastplate] remains against the eiphod’s belt, so that the breastplate does not move from the eiphod.” (Exodus, 28:28). There is a special commandment that the breastplate not be removed from the apron. Why?
The Sages teach us that each of the extra vestments worn by the High Priest effected forgiveness for different sins that the nation committed. Obviously, each individual had to repent, but these special garments somehow aided the forgiveness. The breastplate helped bring about forgiveness for sins having to do with corruption of justice. In today’s terms that would be described as white-collar crimes, such as cheating in business, overcharging, and fraud. The apron helped forgive for the most egregious of all sins, Avodah Zara, idol worship, which denies the existence or power of G-d. From the fact that the two garments must always be tied together we can derive that the Torah is telling us that there is a strong connection between the two sins.
What is that connection?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986, Lithuania-NYC), in his commentary Darash Moshe, explains the connection. Both a person serving idols and one cheating in business has the same problem – they display their lack of faith in G-d. When a person bows down to a statue of Buddha, ascribing it power, it is clear that he is denying G-d’s omnipotence and omniscience. But when a person sits in his office and overcharges a customer, he is actually doing the same thing. If that person really believed that G-d was there in the office with him, looking over his shoulder, watching him steal, he could never commit that crime. It is only by removing G-d from the picture, effectively denying his omniscience that one allows himself to steal from another.
Not only does the white collar criminal deny G-d’s omniscience, but also his omnipotence. When someone steals he is in a sense saying that the only way he can get this extra money is by taking it, and that once they take it, it will remain theirs. They forget that G-d can easily give them money from any one of a million sources if He wants them to have it, and if He doesn’t want them to have it, there is nothing they will be able to do to hold onto it.
The apron and breastplate are always linked to teach us this important message. Stealing from people and corrupting a just system of law is tantamount to idol worship. (I love how this Dvar Torah happens to fall out right in the middle of tax season!) They both deny G-d’s reality.
Today, we have no High Priest, no holy vestments to help us with our repentance for those two sins. But the message for us is the same. We would never bow down to an idol, never ascribe G-dly powers to anything other than G-d. But we need to be just as careful to never take a penny that is not ours!
This week we read Parshat Titzaveh. Parshat Teztaveh begins with the commandment to bring only the purest olive oil for lighting the menorah. It then continues with the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohain Gadol, (the regular priests and the High Priest). Here is the basic breakdown: all priests wore white linen pants, covered by a white linen tunic, wrapped up in a multicolored belt, and a white linen hat (the shape of the High Priest’s hat differed slightly from that of the regular priests.) The Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, wore four additional vestments; a blue robe, an apron-like garment, a breastplate made of multicolored wool and containing a gold plate with twelve precious stones, and a gold head plate with the words “Holy to G-d” engraved on it. After Ha-shem tells Moshe what the Kohanim should wear, He commands him about the sacrifices and services that will serve as the inauguration of the Msihkan, the Tabernacle.
(Quick lesson: Contrary to what many would like to believe, the clothes we wear make a big statement about who we are. They are the primary way we represent ourselves to the outside world, and the first message we give to those who don’t know us through any other medium. It is for this reason that the discussion of the inaugural service can come only after the commandments telling the Kohanim how they have to dress during the service. One cannot say “On the inside I will serve G-d, but to the outside world I can appear any way I would like.” The Torah here tells us that, au contraire, we must first ensure that the way we portray ourselves is consistent with our ideals before we go in to serve G-d) The parsha continues with the description of the Tamid, a twice-daily sacrifice brought in the Mishkan or Beit Hamikdash, and finishes with a depiction of the incense altar.
Quote of the Week: Today is not a dress rehearsal. This is it!
Random Fact of the Week: The smallest known frog is found in Cuba,
and is about the size of a dime.
Funny Line of the Week: If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.
Have a Smashing Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham