My father, who recently celebrated his 78th birthday, has never been much for traveling. But since his retirement, he has become a hardcore homebody, determined to stray no further from his suburban hearth than the local grocery. He has no problem with this. I do. With a worldview informed by Kerouac and Gurdjieff, by a fascination with the mythic American holiness of trains, planes, and roadside attractions, and by the boomer drive to accumulate “real experience” like mutual funds, I find his attitude simply unacceptable.
“You slaved your whole life to provide for us,” I rail at him selflessly.
“Take a trip. Thailand or something.”
He laughs in my face. “Why? If I want to see the world, I go down to the basement and turn on public television.”
As I bang my head against the wall, it strikes me that dad’s low-grade agoraphobia may be my inheritance. These days, what little physical travel I do is largely pragmatic: short treks to attend conferences, weddings, funerals, and back again. The idea of “sacred journeying” is one I can sympathize with (I too dream of the mighty pyramids of Egypt, the rolling cannabis fields of Jamaica), but not one I’ve acted on. Instead, like my father, I satisfy my wanderlust, spiritual and otherwise, mostly at home-through books, CDs, films, and the Internet.
Consequently, the Virtual Jerusalem supersite seemed right up my alley. I’ve never been to Israel–a source of some personal regret, given my Judeo-Christian heritage. The site’s most striking feature is called “Send a Prayer.” It works like this: After becoming a “registered citizen” of Virtual Jerusalem (meaning you provide demographic data along with your fax number and e-mail address), you are invited to type a prayer, which, according to the site, will be “kept completely private and confidential” and be hand-delivered to the Western Wall–where it will be stuffed, per tradition, into a chink in the masonry.
A strange and wonderful thing, I thought. The Western Wall–the remains of the temple destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70–is the holiest site in the Jewish world and a gathering place for Jews from all over the planet. Thanks to this service, the poor and infirm, the time-poor and agoraphobic, can all participate in an age-old ritual. My desk became, in effect, an altar; my Micron Millennia a kind of mercy seat. I reflected for some time, typed in my prayer, took a breath, and clicked on “SEND.”
It was a strange sensation. Though the site assured me my prayer had been received and that it would be delivered to the Wall that day, I immediately began doubting. What if the delivery person was out sick? Or feeling lazy? Would the messages just get dumped in a receptacle near the wall? Assuming they went the distance, were all the day’s cybermessages stuffed into the same chink, or were they separated? Could God really decompress all this data? Are the prayers of doubters and spiritual eclectics ever heard?
In an effort to untangle these questions, I took advantage of another of the site’s features, “Ask the Rabbi.” (“Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat and wondered ‘Why isn’t Moses mentioned in the Hagadah?'” the teaser deadpans. “Then ‘Ask The Rabbi’ is for you!”) It promised an informed answer to all relevant queries in under a week. So I laid it on the line:
I confess that my belief system is pretty foggy to begin with. But I’m doing a magazine article on “spiritual pilgrimage,” and I want to know: Are prayers sent to the Western Wall via the World Wide Web as good as prayers that you put there yourself? And how useful is the Internet for spiritual seeking? I don’t get out much, unfortunately. Thank you.
I’m still waiting for a reply. As for my prayer, which focused on my parents, my sister, and some friends currently down on their luck, the act of creating it inspired me to get off my ass and connect with those people–either in person, on the phone, or, yes, online–to laugh and carp and conspire.
For the moment, I think, I have my answer.