A New Darkness DescendsYonoson Rosenblum
A generation of too many Eisavs
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
"V'choshech al pnei tehom — darkness over the surface of the deep" (Bereishis 1:2), Chazal teach, refers to the Greek exile. The Greeks sought to darken the eyes of Yisrael and to cover the light of the Torah. By translating the Torah into Greek, they threatened the unique relationship between the Jewish People and the Torah, which is the inner light of the world.
At the recent Mirrer Yarchei Kallah in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Elefant described a new form of darkness that threatens the very ability of Jews to learn Torah: modern information technology. That technology has left us awash in information, most of it without spiritual or intellectual content, but presented in attractive, eye-catching formats.
His warning needs to be heard by every parent, every yeshivah bochur, and everyone who aspires to one day marry a Torah scholar.
Above all, modern technology holds the power to destroy our ability to think. "Let us create Man in Our image, as Our likeness" (Bereishis 1:26), Hashem said to His heavenly court. Rashi explains that "Our likeness" refers to the human ability to understand and to acquire wisdom. That capacity for reflection and contemplation constitutes our very soul — i.e., the Divine part of us.
But we can cause our seichel to atrophy through lack of use, and thereby render it unfit for learning Torah, which is the penimius (the hidden essence) of the Creation. Rabbi Elefant relates how on a recent flight, he found himself seated in economy class next to four children whose parents were seated up front in business class.
The latter were not concerned that their children could not occupy themselves or would bother those around them. All had sufficient gadgetry at hand to keep them fully occupied. The 16-year-old next to Rabbi Elefant busied himself watching both the El Al movie and another one on his iPad, while listening through a pair of expensive headsets. When the action waned, he played an advanced basketball game on his iPad.
Meanwhile, his eight-year-old sister did not utter a peep the entire flight. She was too transfixed by making doughnuts on her iPad. When she mastered that relatively simple task, she moved on to something more complicated: cheese fondue.
Rabbi Elefant thought to himself: What rebbi in the world can compete with this? Even Yeshivas Mir's Rav Asher Arielli, as presented by Walt Disney, could not break through the mental numbness resulting from staring at a screen for 12 straight hours.
As it happened, the same boy who had been sitting next to Rabbi Elefant on the flight showed up in the high school yeshivah at which he was speaking the next day. And the latter was struck by the absence of any light in his eyes; his pupils did not dilate.
One who is attached to the superficial, the chitzoni, argues Rabbi Elefant, loses his ability to attach to anything, especially Torah, at a deeper, more penimiusdig level. He has effectively turned himself into an Eisav.
The Torah identifies Eisav with superficiality, as capable of grasping only that which appears immediately to the eye, unmediated by any reflection. Thus Eisav refers to the stew that Yaakov is making as "ha'adom, ha'adom hazeh — this very red stuff." The external color red, one that draws the eye, not taste or smell, defines the food for him.
When he seeks to find favor in his father Yitzchak's eyes, he emulates the most superficial, least important fact about Yitzchak — that he married at the age of 40. The pig to which Eisav is compared shows his cloven cliffs, but lacks the internal siman of kashrus.
Rabbi Elefant is concerned that we are producing a generation of too many Eisavs. On the outside, all is in order — tzitzis out, black kippah. But on the inside something has died.
The issue is not one of watching forbidden material. We are not discussing the realm of issur v'heter. Rather it is one of being bombarded with mindless images that require no thought. It can be a good comedy routine, even a moving clip of a visit to Auschwitz. But in the end, it requires no engagement, no mental activity.
Listening to Rabbi Elefant, I was reminded of how the Alter of Slabodka wanted to know which bochurim went to hear the itinerant maggidim and cried. Those who were brought easily to tears, he said, would come as easily to s'chok, frivolous laughter. When we make ourselves superficial, mindless people, no part of us remains untouched.
Without building up an inner realm, a place not shared with the entire world and accessible only to us, we have no place to retain chochmah, of which Torah is the ultimate expression. That, as Rabbi Elefant explicated at last year's convention of Agudath Israel, is the meaning of the verse "V'es haznuim chochmah — to the modest comes wisdom" (Mishlei 11:2). Only one who has a vibrant internal life that is not shared with all and sundry can store chochmah.
Rabbi Elefant did not content himself with speculation about the negative impact of technology on our ability to learn Torah; he sought to prove it. As a result of natural population growth in the chareidi community, we should expect to see a ten to fifteen percent rise in the number of yeshivah bochurim coming to Israel each year. Yet, in recent years, that has not been the case. Indeed, the number of yeshivah bochurim has gone down.
It would appear that more and more young men — young men who still identify with the community, who dress yeshivish and go to minyanim — are going out to work without going to Eretz Yisrael or after a brief time there. And that, Rabbi Elefant suggests, is because they find no sipuk (satisfaction) in learning Torah. They are no longer built for it; their minds have been rotted by overexposure to technology.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE? Rabbi Elefant relates that the question most frequently asked him on trips to America is: My seventh-grade son is pressing me for an iPhone or an iPad, what can I do? When he presented the question to Rabbi Elya Brudny, the latter replied, "Only in seventh grade the question came up? What were the parents doing in first, second, and third grade? Were they showing their children a cute clip of a cat chasing a ball of string on their smartphone? A comedic routine? A funny sign someone took a snapshot of? In other words, did their smartphone seem like the repository of all kinds of fun? And if it did, who can blame the kids for wanting one?
But even parents who recognize that the electronic devices are bad for their children do not have an easy time saying no. Many parents today have lost the ability to resist requests they consider a total waste of money — e.g., an extra $20 or more for the cool symbol on their basketball shoes — and even those they consider positively harmful. Cries of comparative deprivation by their children vis-à-vis their classmates do not fall on deaf ears.
At least some parents, however, have united to fortify one another's resolve. In September, a Brooklyn mother of seven children, ages 3 to 18, wrote to me after reading a piece of mine discussing Professor Jean Twenge's much talked about Atlantic article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?"
She had been thinking about how to lessen the peer pressure, and thus the pressure on parents. And she came up with the idea of having all the parents in her daughter's sixth grade class pledge not to purchase iPads or smartphones for them. The idea spread rapidly — ironically, via WhatsApp — and within 24 hours, parents in 20 different classes were on board.
And thus was MUST (Mothers Unite to Stall Technology) born. But as the name implies, the mothers know that they are doing no more than pushing off their children's acquisition of technology for a few years at most. As my correspondent wrote me, "The longer we can stall and hold off, the better off our kids will be... The hope is that we can hold them off until the end of elementary school, and that will put high schools in a position to be able to make rules [against devices] that can be enforced."
MUST is a commendable and innovative response, which should be widely followed. But ultimately, to win the war will require more. As Reb Feivel Shraga Mendlowitz said in an earlier period of American Orthodox life, ultimately the only way to combat the forces of tumah is with a stronger force of taharah.
Discovering that power of taharah, Rabbi Elefant declared at the end of his address, will require homes in which children are so proud of being frum Jews, so proud of what their family stands for, a home so happy, so geshmak, that being part of that family fully compensates its members for being different from their classmates and provides them with the ability to say no for themselves.
The big question is: Do we know how to do that?