Manti Teo and the Plague of Darkness

One of the most prominent stories of this past week here in the U.S. is the story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o.  He is at center of a bizarre story involving a woman that he met online, who supposedly died in the fall of Leukemia.  This past season, Te’o dedicated his games to her recovery, and then sadly, to her memory.

Some say that Te’o was the victim of an elaborate hoax, while others suggest that he fabricated this relationship and death as a way of evoking support from Heisman Trophy judges.  According to the official version of the story, supported by the Notre Dame administration, Te’o never met the woman, the relationship relegated to “Tweets” and phone conversations.

Texas Christian University Prof. Sage Elwell observed that “relationships that solely exist online often times allow someone to overlook red flags, or character flaws, that may only become evident in face-to-face interaction.” Elwell added that, “…. if you don’t meet face-to-face at some point, it’s hard to know if the relationship is a healthy, or real, one.”


With the Te’o debacle once again raising the issue of the “the Dark side” of social media… other related incidents come to mind: Recently, a Connecticut man hijacked a woman’s Facebook and e-mail accounts and demanded compromising photos of her as ransom.

Here’s another story from this fall’s devastating Hurricane Sandy:

Shashank Tripathi’s resignation from Republican Christopher Wight’s campaign will take effect immediately . Wight is running in New York’s 12th congressional district for U.S. House.

Buzzfeed first identified Tripathi as the man behind the @ComfortablySmug twitter handle. He tweeted a number of false reports during Sandy, including that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded and that utility company ConEdison was preemptively shutting down power in all of Manhattan.

Tripathi later apologized to the people of New York, but the panic that he generated by his “tweets” had already done its damage.

The sinister side of social media.  (In Tripathi’s case, the Conn Edison tweet even claimed that Manhattan would literally be plunged into total darkness!)

These stories got me thinking of a possible connection between the dark use of social media and the plague of חושך, of darkness, in this week’s Perasha, Bo.

Bo features the last three plagues wrought on Egypt, including locusts, darkness, and the smiting of the Egyptian first-born.

Rav Ze`ev Friedman (cited in an article by Goldie Guy) suggests that the Egyptians’ continued blindness to G-d’s dominion over the world – exemplified by Pharaoh`s saying: “Who is G-d that I might heed his voice?” – lead to the physical blindness of the plague of darkness.  Mida k’neged Mida – Measure for measure: blindness begets blindness.

In one internet article dealing with anonymity in the use of social media, the author writes:

…use of social media can go over the proverbial line and become vicious attacks. This is especially true with anonymous or pseudonymous speakers. Identifying anonymous or pseudonymous social media users who act with malice or ill will is not easy.

In an article about the Te’o hoax, the Columbus Dispatch writes,

People can create fake personas fairly easily, said private investigator Dean Boerger of Boerger Investigative Services in Grandview Heights.

“There are ways, easy ways, to cloak yourself and be someone you’re not,” he said.

People can steal photos from another person’s legitimate Facebook page, take on a pseudonym and create a fake phone number on Google Voice, Boerger said.

The perpetrators of the Manti Te’o hoax, the facebook account highjacker, and the Congressional campaign manager whose secret tweets generated hysteria in Gotham City, thrive on the “cover” provided by their social media platforms.

Midrash Hagadol cites this verse in Sefer Yeshaya in reference to the Egyptians:

הוי המעמיקים מיהוה לסתר עצה והיה במחשׁך מעשׂיהם ויאמרו מי ראנו ומי יודענו

Woe is to them that seek to hide their counsel from Hashem, and all their actions are in the dark, saying ‘Who sees us and Who knows’?

This midrash makes the direct connection that we referred to above – the Egyptians’ perceived lack of accountability, the brushing aside of G-d as the watchful eye – in the language of Pirkei Avot – triggered the plague of darkness as more of a consequence than a punishment.

לפיכך לוקין בחושך שנאמר יהי דרכם חשך וחלקלקות

Therefore, they are smitten with darkness, as it says (Tehilim) “Let their paths be darkness and slipping”.

Back in Egypt, another midrash recounts how the Israelites, visiting their Egyptian neighbors during the plague of darkness,  were accompanied by light that would literally follow them into the Egyptian homes and leave with them upon their departure.

כשהיה ישראל בא אצל מצרי לשאול ממנו היה בא האור עמו וכשהיה יוצא היה האור יוצא עמו

The midrash goes on to say that the Israelites on the other hand, had light in their homes because they are involved in Torah and mitzvot, regarding which it says

כי נר מצוה ותורה אור

Because a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.

Now, at that time – in Egypt – there were no overt mitzvoth being practiced by the Israelites, since the Egyptian exile of course preceded the giving of the Torah.

Instead, I would like to understand the midrash as referring to the character of our lives both at the time of the Egyptian exile and for generations to come. We Jews are preoccupied with light.  Rooted in our belief that there is no such thing as absolute anonymity – Hashem observes all of actions – we know that each of our actions is intrinsically significant , and that we are accountable for them.

As Jews living in the modern world, we do not believe that the Torah requires us to insulate ourselves from secular knowledge or modern technological developments.  Just the opposite, a Torah agenda for the world bids us to confront the latest developments and channel them in a kosher fashion, seeing them as tools to further the Torah agenda.  The Jew walks around carrying the enlightened perspective of accountability, of a sense that there is no ultimate anonymity. It is this firm belief that generates a consistent commitment to Torah and mitzvot, to a modern Jewish society that utilizes the latest technologies in ways that create meaningful connections and support causes that benefit the world.

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