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Time? Space? Continue ‘Em

Or Twitter and the Tabernacle

Liel Leibovitz
March 20, 2009

Last week, in one major American city, time began to move backwards.

If you happened to be in Austin, and paid close attention to the throngs of 20-year-olds who covered the town like locusts clad in ironic T-shirts, you may have gotten the impression that the earth had just begun spinning in reverse, that the economic meltdown of the last few months vaporized into the mists of time, and that it was once again feasible for youngsters who hadn’t yet had their first shave to raise their first round of funding for their new social networking site.

Such is life at South by Southwest, the annual festival for music, film, and interactive media. Mushrooming in size from a few hundred participants when it was established in 1987 to tens of thousands in recent years, SXSW, as the cognoscenti call the gathering, has become the closest thing we’ve got to a barometer of cool.

How, then, does the barometer read this year? To believe the news reports, time is out and space is in.

More accurately put, film and music, entertainment forms that occur largely in time—the time, for example, it takes to watch a movie or listen to a band perform—fail to attract nearly as many people as they had just a few years back. At the same time, participation at SXSW’s interactive media event is up twenty percent. Which means score one for space.

If you’re someone who can’t tell their Flickr apart from their Tumblr, the previous sentence requires a bit of decoding: for several years in a row now, the biggest attention-grabbers at the festival’s interactive event were media applications designed, at least in part, to enable users to place themselves and their friends on a geographical grid. In 2007, Twitter, the microblogging service that is now used by everyone from John McCain to Britney Spears, chose SXSW as its launching pad, rapidly gaining a cult following by allowing the inebriated conference goers to instantly inform each other where in Austin’s downtown area were the best spontaneous parties. And although Twitter has grown up much in the past two years, and has inspired many unintended creative uses, a key function of the service remains the ability to inform a large group of friends of one’s whereabouts for the evening, inviting anyone who may be in the neighborhood to pop in and clink glasses.

This year, SXSW’s belle du jour was Foursquare, a location-based service that allows users to inform their friends of their whereabouts, plan outings to new restaurants and bars, and turn their town into a huge virtual treasure map of leisure spots using advanced GPS technology.

A pattern, then, emerges: the cool kids are telling us they want technology that saves them space, not time. Even though they were reared on the virtual, they’re flocking to any innovation that can help them make sense of their actual geographical location, place themselves and their buddies on a map, and make the big and menacing world a friendlier and more knowable place. And as for things that take time—you know, like movies or live music or conversation—well, they have no time for those.

Neither did their ancestors: this week’s parasha proves beyond doubt that even millennia ago, the cool kids still preferred space over time.

As the story begins, Moses, fresh from killing 3,000 of his own people over that little business with the golden calf, is in a forgiving mood. He gathers the Israelites, and once again reiterates the importance of the Sabbath. It’s the only one of the Ten Commandments he finds important enough to repeat; the stealing and the adultery and the coveting of neighbors’ wives don’t make the cut.

As soon as he’s done speaking of the Sabbath and its holiness, however, Moses gets down to the real business at hand.

“Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord,” he tells the people. “Every generous hearted person shall bring it.” It is time, he adds, to build the mishkan, the tabernacle, a momentous task that requires all the ram skins and crimson wool and goat hair available. And even though Moses began his speech on a somber note”by promising to put to death anyone who violated the Sabbath”the people are nonetheless excited to begin construction, donating so many goods that Moses has to order them to stop. That’s the way it’s always been with us Jews: at the first site of great real estate, the hearts sing with joy.

For all its miniscule details of the Tabernacle’s every nook, the story, however, leaves us with an enormous philosophical question: it begins, after all, with talk of time”the Sabbath”but soon reverts completely to talk of space, the mishkan. And there’s no question where popular passions lie: the people listen politely when Moses pontificates on the purity of the Lord’s Day, but positively leap at the first mention of erecting a concrete edifice and decorating it lavishly.

This is particularly fascinating as Judaism sanctifies time alone: Shabbat, we are told, is holy. The Bible fails to make similar statements about buildings or cities or swaths of land, shying away from the tangible and celebrating the ephemeral.

But people are fickle: they can understand a specific house being sacred, but have a much harder time when the sacred object is not a building but a day. They are human, and they want to worship something they can see and feel. Constantly wandering in the desert, they don’t have the time to sanctify time. The Tabernacle, then, is a great substitute, and it’s the one thing that gets all the folks excited.

If only our poor ancestors could Twitter, they would have had a much easier time putting together their majestic mishkan. If only they could go on Foursquare, collecting goat hair would’ve been a breeze. If only they could join the hip crowd at Austin, they would have learned that nothing has really changed: then as now, with technology or without it, all we want is some space to fill with special meaning, be it a tabernacle or a tiny neighborhood bar. All we want is to know that everyone, even God, has a specific place in the world. And we care less for things we can’t control, be it the Sabbath or a screening of the new Spike Lee movie. It’s just the way we are, and no amount of time is ever going to change that.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.