Monday, January 24, 2011

Too Much Information?

A recent article in the NY Jewish Week about TMI caught my attention. In general, we all feel overloaded by information: too many articles, books, blogs (not including this one, of course), magazines. Who could possibly keep up with it all? And yet we try.
I've recently been feeling overwhelmed by a different form of TMI: Too much sad information. As a former rabbi, YU graduate and RCA member, I get emails from each organization. Yet, the single largest category of organizational emails that I get, by far, is death notices. I will often get three notices about the same death. Somehow, every organization seems to feel the need to share the news of the passing of every member - whether you knew them or their close relative or not.
To tell you the truth, I could deal with the death notices. You get used to them. You quickly check to see if it's someone you know, and then delete. Far more challenging to me is finding way to deal with all the illnesses that, thanks to the power of the web, I now learn about.
With the advent of instant international communication, we now are aware of many, if not most of the more tragic illnesses in a given community. I receive emails forwarded to lists (either the local Yad Binyamin list, or a student group I work with, or even rabbinical lists) about tragedies, injuries, illnesses - asking me to pray for recovery and health for the sick.
This is something of a sensitive topic, I realize, and I'm clearly in danger of sounding callous. But I wonder: is it better for the friends and family of an individual to pray for the recovery of a loved one, with passion and devotion, or for as many people as possible to add yet another name to their "list" of cholim? Can't you have both? In a way, I guess you can, but I wonder whether every name we add to the list doesn't reduce our ability to passionately pray for others. Do we have unlimited wellsprings of kavanah? Who hasn't sat through a mi sheberach for the cholim after Torah reading, where people swarm the gabbai with lists of names who they themselves most probably don't even know? Does the fact that the gabbai says a name out loud add additional power to the prayer? It seems clear from our behavior that we assume it does. Yet, when I think about it I'm just not sure.
I wonder, also, about our collective psychological well-being. We now walk around with a great deal of sad, tragic information. Yesterday I learned of the tragic passing of the grandson of a community member. A coworker's son is recovering from a terrible accident, and faces a long, arduous recovery. Those are people whom I know. But what am I to do with the surgery of a daughter of a rabbi living in New York, or the medical procedure of a student's father? Are we meant to carry around that much psychological pain? And if not, how am I to pick and choose whose pain to care about and whose to discard?
Of course we should pray for health for the ill. Yet, I wonder if we've reached the point of too much information.