The Medium And The Message

Last time I was in America I went for a walk around the Warner Brothers store. It was amazing. All of my childhood memories come to life. Original animation cells of Lady and the Tramp (a mere $500). A Batmobile that looked so real you could get a parking ticket for it. Bugs Bunny ashtrays, pajamas, cookie jars. I have never seen a store so full of things that I didn't need.

More than forty years ago that Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "The medium is the message." He diagnosed that Western society had replaced form with feeling. It wasn't so important what you said anymore, but rather the way you said it. A former B movie actor could rise to be the most powerful man in the world. The entertainment industry had enshrined the principle that "feeling good" was the embodiment of the American dream. Feeling preceded thought; feeling had replaced thought as the vehicle of communication.

Shavuot is the festival of the giving of the Torah, the blueprint of the world, the ultimate expression of what reality is. Necessarily, then, the way the Torah was given must also express a truth about the nature of reality.

The Torah was not given to the Jewish people as a group of individuals. Its giving required them to be a klal, a united entity; the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

When the Jewish people stood at Sinai, they were "like one man with one heart" (Rashi, Shemot 19:2). Interestingly, Rashi (Shemot 14:10) uses almost exactly the same phrase to describe Pharaoh and the Egyptian army at the crossing of the sea: "with one heart like one man." A subtle reversal of the order. The Jewish people are "like one man with one heart." The Egyptians, "with one heart like one man." Why the change?

The heart represents the raw matter of existence. The raw material that waits for an imprint, a form to define it. The heart is the medium. The nature of emotion is to be molded, to be channeled, not to lead.

The form of something is its spiritual component. Its purpose. The form is the message.

A spoon, for example. A spoon consists of two parts. Its matter is the metal. Its form is the purpose it is made for: to eat with. That's why it has a scooped shape at one end and a long handle. Its form expresses its purpose. The function of a thing is its spiritual dimension, its spiritual identity in the world.

The nature of physical things is to be passive. The nature of spiritual things is to be active. The shape of the spoon dominates the metal and defines it. Not the reverse. That is the correct order of the world: form shaping matter. The message shaping the medium.

The word for "man" in Hebrew is ish. Ish comes from the word eish, meaning "fire." Fire symbolizes spirituality. The nature of fire is to rise; the nature of spirituality is to aspire upwards. The nature of fire is to dominate; the nature of spirituality is to rule. A small nation imbued with a spiritual ideal can overcome a large nation that is apathetic and decadent. This has been the lesson of history throughout the ages. Someone with a spiritual motivation will always rule over someone with a physical motivation because the physical desires inertia, to be passive, to take it easy.

When intellect dominates emotion, when form dominates content, when the message dominates the medium - that is how the Torah was given: "Like one man with one heart." The man - the intellect, the spiritual component, leads the heart.

However, when the heart dominates the mind, the medium becomes the message. The "one heart" of the Egyptians preceded and predicated their being "like one man."

Then you have a world that is the antithesis of Torah - a world where Bugs Bunny becomes the president.

More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.