Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Some Toys Teach You Lessons Forever

Rabbi Larry Pinsker
Rabbi Larry Pinsker (Courtesy of Pinsker)

By Rabbi Larry Pinsker

Conversations with grown children often bring unexpected, quirky memories.

Case in hand: A quarter century ago, our family was joined by a guest for our annual summer vacation, a close friend of our youngest, age 11.

The kids had brought along another guest, a Tamagotchi-like toy called Nano. These digital-electronic pendants usually displayed dogs, cats or other animals, but ours was a human baby. Images of its birth and maturation filled a liquid crystal screen. It beeped, chimed or chirped with its every action and expressed need.

At the baby’s “birth,” the proud new parent bestowed a name. Then the work began. The baby needed feeding, washing and changing, playtime, medical attention, discipline for misbehavior, sleep regulation and environmental management.

The scale of its life was one year for every four days of our time. As the “years” progressed, it learned to walk, grew taller and acquired a flair for fashion. When the Nano-baby reached 3 simulated years of age, it acquired a new sibling, and when that new arrival reached age 3, all were declared a “happy family.”

One more thing: When you failed to meet the Nano-baby’s needs, it died. The screen simply said, “The End.”

Schools banned this toy because children literally broke into weeping when their neglect caused their electronic baby to die. The good news was that the Nano-baby could be reset.

One of the children went swimming with the device in her pocket, imposing an unprogrammed death. I contacted every local toy store. No one repaired them. Replacements were unavailable.

I decided to perform “surgery,” disassembling the toy. I immersed the screen and other parts in dry, uncooked rice overnight and reassembled it. The Nano-baby was “reborn.”

Unexpectedly, that memory of the Nano-baby raised more solemn thoughts about the year now closing and the upcoming High Holidays.

Living as Jews, we promote a particular brand of realism. The “reality check” is that this is the time of the year when we acknowledge that we cannot wish away the past. We live with the consequences of our actions. In real life and real time, our High Holiday liturgy says we can’t push a button to make wrong choices and inappropriate actions disappear. We may forgive shortcomings in others and ourselves, but many won’t be forgotten. We must learn to live with their residue in our lives. That is a healthy aspect of “guilt” and “shame,” both of which can express our gratitude and connection to others. If we are fortunate, we can apologize and repair harm. By resolving to change our behavior and not repeat errors, we make a partial reset.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, is always read on the Shabbat before the New Year, part of an annual reminder that healthy, thriving lives depend on each person doing their best in the complex network of mutual aid and mutual accountability defined in our vision of covenantal human life. Nobody else can do this for us.

L’shanah tovah tikoteyvu. By our deeds may we be inscribed for a good year!

Rabbi Larry Pinsker resides in Maryland after having served congregations throughout the eastern half of North America. He is currently enjoying the blessings of retirement.

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