The forty days between the beginning of the month of Elul and Yom Kippur correspond to the forty days that Moshe Rabbeinu spent on Har Sinai preparing to receive the second Tablets of the Law. They form – at least ideally – one continuous process of teshuva (repentance). The most essential ingredient in that process is deep introspection on our part. Only if we know who we really are, and understand the myriad ways in which the yetzer hara has managed to insinuate itself into our lives and taken control, can we hope to change in the coming year.
Unfortunately, thinking deeply about ourselves, or anything else for that matter, is something at which we are ever less adept. The prospect of being alone with our thoughts, without any outside stimulus, terrifies us. If we find ourselves in any of those places or situations where thinking was once possible, we immediately start casting about for people to call on our cell-phones.
The process of human beings becoming ever more shallow has apparently been going full speed for centuries. Consider that there was once an avid popular readership for the pamphlets subsequently compiled as The Federalist Papers, the foremost exposition of the United States Constitution and the greatest work of American political thought. Or imagine Illinois farmers, tradesmen, and craftsmen standing in the hot sun for three straight hours listening to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate in their 1858 senatorial contest. Who can conceive such a thing today when candidates have learned to confine their message to thirty second sound-bites and rarely give the impression that given more time they would have anything of greater substance to add?
The decline in our capacity for thinking in depth has been greatly accelerated by modern communications technologies. A friend of mine, who has been lecturing in South Africa since before the introduction of television, tells me that he can chart the decreasing attention span of his audiences according to the number of years since the advent of the box.
Last year, I watched a friend lecture at one of America's better law schools from the last row in the amphitheater classroom. Every student had a computer in front of him or her, ostensibly to take notes. But a large percentage were busy surfing the web. I pitied my friend.
The new technologies carry with them the promise of access to unfathomable amounts of information and the ability to connect to millions of other people around the globe. The benefits are felt in countless ways, not the least in breaking the monopoly of the mainstream media on news and opinion.
But these technologies come with a cost, and the tools have too frequently become our masters. Rehabilitation centers have sprung up for Internet addicts unable to tear themselves from their computer screens even to eat and sleep. Many teenagers find the virtual reality of Internet games far more compelling than communicating with actual human beings, and spend every free moment in that reality.
Even those of us who have a life often find that time-saving technologies are eating up hours every day. Every ten minutes, we find check our emails, and once there end up consuming every new scrap of information no matter how uninteresting.
Social networking, which offers the promise of hundreds of new "friends" and being able to keep in touch with everyone one has ever known, can end up degrading the level of human contact. Some spend more time every day presenting themselves on their homepage than communicating directly to real people. And in the process, they are either turned into or revealed as insufferable narcissists, who have decided that what they are eating or when they are sleeping is a matter of general interest.
Members of the haredi community, in which I live, spend far less time plugged in than our secular contemporaries. I doubt that many of my neighbors have any idea what Facebook or Twitter are (not that I would be surprised to hear that "kosher" versions of both have popped up in the next couple of years, if they have not already.) But we are hardly unaffected.
Most of us have had the experience of trying to carry on a conversation with someone furiously scrolling down his Blackberry or of being abruptly cut off in the middle of talking on the phone to a friend because he is certain that whoever is trying to get through must be more interesting than we are.
At the brit of my oldest son's firstborn last week, I read from a letter that I had written more than a quarter century ago to friends in the States after my son's pidyon haben. (The friends had just made aliyah, and while preparing their lift discovered this masterpiece in a box in their basement, where it had somehow been preserved from a flood.) As a pulled the onion pages from my pocket, a few of the younger celebrants asked, "What's that?" They had never before seen a handwritten, personal letter – and certainly never written one.
As a biographer, I worry about the loss of the rich lode of material personal letters formerly supplied. But I worry even more that even if the hard-disks of future subjects can be found, that they will turn out to be far less worthy of attention. Composed in haste, generally short, written with little anticipation of being preserved or even reread, emails rarely represent an attempt to convey a well-formulated thought or more than a snapshot of a passing mood. People who never tried to convey more will end up having fewer thoughts and shallower emotions.
THE PERIOD of the year in which we now find ourselves offers the possibility of reclaiming control of our lives, if we can step back and take a deep look at ourselves. The process is incremental. Two years ago, I resolved not to look at emails before morning prayers. It turned out to be the most successful such resolution I ever made, precisely because it was small and concrete. But it also left me feeling that other "victories" are possible.
I always feel something between awe and wonderment whenever I meet someone who doesn't have a cell-phone. I'm not prepared to go there yet. But I've noticed that such people are generally among the deepest and happiest that I know.
Every Rosh Hashanah is a new creation of the world, and brings with it the potential to experience a taste of the primordial light present at creation -- and with it a sense of clarity otherwise absent from our lives. Adam is described as having seen from one end of the world to another, something that is obviously a physical impossibility as the world is round. What this means is that he had absolute clarity that the entire created world exists only because G-d brought it into being and sustains it.
To gain that clarity of vision about the nature of the world and our relationship to it, we must first turn down the noise, cut out the distractions, stop overstimulating ourselves, and accustom ourselves to once again think deeply.