Not long before his passing in 1936, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz gave a shmuess on Ikvsa D'Mashicha, the prescience of which can only astound a reader today, when the phenomena described are ever more glaring. Reb Yerucham pointed to the loss of gadlus and kavod – all sense of majesty, elevation, greatness, respect, and moral seriousness – as the defining elements of Ikvasa D'Mashicha.
Just last week, the President of the United States, casually dropped a vulgarity in a television interview. He did so not in anger, but in faux anger: He had been criticized for his detachment from the events unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, and the vulgarity was a carefully calculated piece of political theater designed to show the President's engagement. Though far more profane in private, the President's public vulgarism demeaned the office he holds and the people whom he represents.
All sense of shame has departed. Behavior that people once made every effort to hide behind the walls of their home is now on full public display. Chazal likened one who eats in public to a dog; today eating is far from the basest function on public display.
With the loss of shame, the possibility of tochachah (reproof) is lost as well. No one possesses sufficient stature, in the eyes of the public, to deliver reproof. We are witnessing, said Reb Yerucham, the fulfillment of the final curse of Yeshaya, "The young will domineer over the old; those of lowly stature [i.e., those for whom the most serious aveiros are light in their eyes] over men of honor [i.e., those for whom the lightest of transgressions are matters of utmost seriousness]."
We lack the commonly accepted standards that make tochachah possible. All the eternal verities are now subject to question, Reb Yerucham lamented, long before moral relativism had become the measure of sophistication among Western elites.
The definition of love is no longer seeking the improvement of the beloved, but rather allowing him to act as he wishes. Canaan commanded his sons, "Love licentiousness, love theft, and love one another." Love one another in such a way as to facilitate licentiousness and theft, Reb Yerucham explains – i.e., by refraining from reproof.
Long before celebrations of Man as just a more sophisticated animal had become commonplace, Reb Yerucham identified the increasing focus on physicality as one of the defining characteristics of Ikvasa D'Mashicha. That orientation towards the body explains why Heavenly matters (b'rumo shel Olam) are trampled underfoot? Before they can be trampled, they must first be reduced in stature, and a physical perspective reduces everything to its lowest level. For that reason the gluttonous rebellious son is viewed by Chazal as an apikorus (heretic): For him only the physical and sensory is real.
ABOVE ALL, Reb Yerucham points to the lost ability to think deeply as the source of the degeneration of life. The person of contemplation is viewed everywhere as a "batlan" wasting his time. As Chazal long-ago predicted, in Ikvasa D'Mashicha, "the wisdom of the Sages will become [perceived as] something foul-smelling."
The failure to think deeply about matters leads to their true significance being lost. Among those listed as having no portion in the World to Come are those who desecrate Kodshim (sanctified objects). What is the source of that scorn for Kodshim? Reb Yerucham answers: the failure to contemplate the true nature of a human being and the power inherent in his speech. Viewed from a purely physical perspective, speech is nothing more than blowing air. From that point of view, it is impossible to grasp how the pronunciation of a few words can transform the essence of an object from chullin to kodesh – from everyday to sanctified – or what it means to be sanctified.
Reb Yerucham passed away nearly seventy years before the Internet became ubiquitous. But a rapidly developing body of scientific evidence and social commentary points to the way that the Internet is changing how we think and the kind of people we are. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, gathers experimental proof of how the neural connectors of our brains are being reshaped by constant exposure to Internet.
But The Shallows is also, in the words of Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf, a sustained essay about the "loss of human capacity for contemplation and wisdom, in an epoch where both appear increasingly threatened." She worries that the type of reading encouraged by the Internet – bouncing from one text to another text, image or video, while being bombarded by messages, alerts and feeds – is inimical to our capacity for "deep reading," and "the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction."
Internet allows no white spaces, no time for absorption and reflection. Chazal knew that such pauses are crucial for ideas to have any impact on the recipient. The white spaces in the Torah – the psuchos and stumos -- reflect the breaks that Hashem provided Moshe Rabbeinu so that he could absorb each parashah properly.
Chazal also knew that the medium through which information is transmitted affects our very thought. For that reason, they viewed the recording of the Oral Torah as a cosmic tragedy. In the Socratic dialogue The Phaedrus, Socrates articulates similar concerns. He worries that reliance on the written word will substitute for memory and the knowledge people once carried in their heads. Without an oral transmission, says one of the dialogue's characters, people will "receive a quantity of information without proper instruction; . . . they will be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant," and the "conceit of wisdom will replace real wisdom."
One of the goals of education has traditionally been to develop the capacity for sustained immersion and concentration. In those terms, the beis medrash remains the last bastion of education. A former high government official remarked to me last week that the broader Israeli society has no idea how many "gaonim" are being produced in the yeshivos. Interestingly, he credited the gedolim for having so restricted access to the Internet.
Our task is to take the habits of deep thought of the beis medrash and apply them to every aspect of our lives in order to avoid the worst curses of Ikvasa D'Machicha.