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ב"ה

Manipulation

Friday, 11 November, 2022 - 6:14 am

There’s a big hoopla online about Twitter’s on-again-off-again Blue Check verification system.  The world’s richest man has taken over the social media company, and quickly began implementing changes.

One proposed change was to charge $8 a month to achieve verified status, earning one’s account a Twitter Blue check. However, that system apparently attracted lots of trolls. In fact, Elon Musk’s own account (as well as Tesla’s), was impersonated in a widely-followed parody. So, it’s gone faster than it had appeared.

In the age of social media, when anyone can broadcast their ideas to the entire world in a flash, manipulation seems to be a big issue. It can affect stock prices (cue Eli Lilly), democratic elections (via bots), and people’s health (through misinformation).

I’m not a social media expert, and have mixed feelings about it in general, so I’ll leave that to others to debate and decide.

But, it beggars the question, ‘Is manipulation ever acceptable?’ Do the ends ever justify the means? What about millions of bots to counter the bad guys?

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A story of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, told at www.chabad.org, may shed some light.

The Rebbe (the founder of Chabad) was arrested on false charges of treason against the Czar and imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress, situated on an island in the Neva River in Petersburg. During his 53-day imprisonment, the Rebbe was frequently ferried across the river to a building on the mainland to be interrogated by the Czar's secret police.

One night, as the small boat was making its way across the river, the sky cleared and a quarter moon illuminated the skies. Wishing to avail himself of the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of kiddush levanah ("sanctification of the new moon"), Rabbi Schneur Zalman requested from the official in charge that the boat be stopped for a few minutes. The official refused.

Suddenly, the boat came to a complete halt. Nothing the ferryman could do would advance it a single oar-sweep. Rabbi Schneur Zalman stood up in the boat and recited the first few verses of Psalm 148, which preface the blessing on the moon.

But the Rebbe did not continue with the recitation of the blessing itself. As suddenly as it had halted, the boat resumed its movement toward the opposite shore. Again, Rabbi Schneur Zalman turned to the official in charge and asked that the boat be halted.

"If you give me your blessing, in writing," said the official, "I'll stop the boat."

The Rebbe promised to fulfill his request. At a word from the official, the ferryman pulled in his oars and the Rebbe proceeded to perform the mitzvah of kiddush levanah.

The most remarkable aspect of this story is not that the boat miraculously stopped. It’s that the Rebbe did not perform the mitzvah when he had the opportunity to do so. Why didn’t the Rebbe recite the blessing of the moon immediately?

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In this week’s parsha Vayeira, Avraham is visited by G-d. The first Jew was 99 years old and in a lot of pain due to his circumcision three days prior. The purpose of Hashem’s visit was to visit the sick and alleviate some of Avraham’s pain.

Yet, if Hashem wished to show Avraham compassion and help with his healing process, why wait until the third day? Why not pay a visit immediately?

The answer lies in the fact that circumcision has a natural healing process. The third day is the apex of this process. If G-d would have appeared to Avraham earlier, it would have contributed to a quicker healing. And, since circumcision was a mitzvah, G-d would have essentially been manipulating the process and aftermath of this mitzvah.

Similarly, the Alter Rebbe refused to perform a mitzvah by miraculous means – for this would rob him of the process naturally required. Miracles are nice, but mitzvot are designed to connect our natural selves to Hashem. We are meant to invest our energy and sweat into our relationship with Hashem.

I don’t know whether manipulation is ever acceptable on social media. But, when it comes to mitzvot, there are no shortcuts. It’s the natural process that pleases Him so much.

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