Rethinking cell phones
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 22, 2004
Near the end of Parashas Ve"Yetzei, Yaakov Avinu informs Rachel and Leah that an angel has spoken to him in the name of Hashem and told him, "Return to the land where you were born."
Rachel and Leah eventually respond in precisely the manner we would expect, "Now, whatever Hashem has said to you, do it!" But before they do, they offer a number of other reasons for having no objection to leaving their father, Lavan’s house.
From this exchange, we learn that even though our response to the Divine command must always be one of strict compliance, it is nevertheless meritorious to add reasons of our own to buttress our decision to obey Hashem’s command.
If that is true of Hashem’s commands, how much more so those of the Torah leaders of our generation. About the recent ban imposed by the gedolei hador on the possession of cell phones by yeshiva students, nothing more needs to be said. The new cell phones, with Internet connectivity, are little more than a candy store for the yetzer hara. Dr. Uri Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child urged secular parents to emulate the chareidim and take a more serious look at their children’s cell phone use.
Beyond the explicit ban imposed by the gedolim, I also read an admonition about the many ways we have become desensitized by this tiny device, even when it is used to make regular phone calls. Introduced as a convenience to make our lives easier, the cell phone has become our master.
Last week, I was at a lecture where the lecturer answered his cell phone, not once but twice, in the middle of his speech and even talked briefly to the callers. I was sure that he would apologize sheepishly the first time this occurred, and that the second time he would be mortified that he had failed to successfully turn off his phone. Forget it. Worse, I seemed to be the only one shocked by his behavior.
One casualty of the cell phones has been interpersonal conversation. Recently I was standing in the hall talking to a neighbor when my cell phone rang, and I answered it. "I thought we were talking," said my neighbor to me, obviously hurt. And he was right to be hurt.
Whence the assumption that the phone caller is somehow more important that the person we are talking to face to face? We make the same implicit statement that anyone is more important than the person to whom we are talking every time we answer the click on our phone telling us that we have another call. The insult is only sharpened when we return to the original call to say that we must get off now.
It is not uncommon to see a husband and wife get into the car and place their cell phones at the ready to receive any calls that come in and frequently to make a few of their own. So much for private time to talk.
Like the idiot box, the cell phone protects us from ever being left alone with our own thoughts. On the street, in the car, on public transportation everyone is poised every minute to take or make a call. To be caught not talking on the phone is to be marked as a nobody. What happened to the solitary pleasures of cogitation and reflection?
Talking on the phone, like chewing gum, is an activity best conducted in private- certainly not in shul, under the chuppah, or at a levaya. The quality of busha (shame), say our Sages, is one of the defining aspects of the offspring of Avraham Avinu. Where is the busha when we carry on the most intimate discussions within earshot of complete strangers on the street or on a bus?
In doing so, not only do we show no respect for our own privacy, but also for that of the stranger seated next to us. He or she must often feel as if there are two people crammed into the adjacent seat as we jabber away on our phones.
Our attachment to our cell phones has taken on many of indicia of an addiction, including the willingness to spend money we do not have to support our habit. [A friend told me that when he first moved to Eretz Yisrael, he could not get a phone for five years, and somehow he never missed an important call. Today he has four land lines, and seven cell phones for his family. ]
Someone recently complained to a friend of mine that he can never make ends meet, but has no idea where the money goes. My friend asked him to bring over all his bills for the preceding month. Despite lacking money for basic necessities, the fellow was racking up cell phone bills of several thousand shekels.
How many of us became the proud possessors of more than one cell phone after having been suckered by some fast-talking salesman? By the time he finished telling us about the free air time, and five numbers we could call for free, and all the specials coming to us if we sign by midnight tonight, we convinced ourselves that the new phones would be practically free. Yet somehow they never are.
No one would admit to being ready to kill or be killed for his phone, but it is impossible to dial a cell phone while driving and concentrate on the road at the same time. But that does not stop us from trying. And that’s in Israel where heavy fines have at least induced many drivers to install handless holders for their phones. In the States, I have frequently felt my life in danger when in a car being driven by someone wrestling with his cell phones. Yet my pleas on behalf of my wife and children have inevitably fallen on deaf ears.
We will do all that our gedolim have commanded us with respect to cell phones. Perhaps we should give some thought to going beyond the letter of their decree.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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