Monthly Archives: October 2015

Acorns Dropping

I sat for a time on the curb, a fine fall morning, blue skies, cool breeze hinting of winter, warm sunshine suggesting a summer not far behind. The dog knows my moods, and he quickly settled by my side. “After all, why not,” he seemed to say with his expressive eyes. “I’ve no where to go! No appointments to keep, no place to rush off to, no worries to furrow my brow.” There was a comfortable patch of grass to stretch his long frame. He carefully placed his muzzle on his paws, contemplating the smells of the neighborhood, the hidden code of daily activity only he knows. The sun shone on his thick fur.

Just across the street from where we sat there was an old oak tree. Poised on a hill, its branches reached out over the sidewalk, even the the street. Acorns dropped, one after another, and I counted along. Ten! Maybe more, in a brief span. Was it a minute? Two? Some settled softly in the grass, but others banged the sidewalk or street with a sharp clap. The lucky ones began to roll, beginning a journey that would take them to who knows where. Squirrels were busy, stuffing their cheeks, paws passing over and over the round seeds like some magician polishing a crystal ball. In its stillness the oak seemed bemused, watching the scene unfold around it. Soon its bare arms would be subject to the chill winter winds, unprotected on that rise.

A car sprinted by, breaking my reverie. My dog stirred, opened an eye, raised a single eyebrow. I softly shook my head. The driver took no notice of us, or the stately oak with its dropping acorns and turning leaves. People to see! Places to go! Business to be done! No time for the fall sun or the sound of acorns. I knew I would follow him soon. But the dog? He would stay behind.

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Filed under mindfulness, nature

Faerie Tale Pumpkin

That is the actual name of the odd looking pumpkin on the right hand side of this picture. I can see why. It does have the look of a pumpkin that would appear in a Disney film, or as part of the set on the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies. Recognizable, but just oddly enough looking to perhaps – perhaps – be from some other world. A world where dreams come true, where magic happens, where we are all princes and princesses, kings and queens, heroes and heroines. Where evil is evil, good is good, and all is clear. And, of course, where they live happily ever after.

What I like particularly about this photo is the way the faerie tale pumpkin sits side by side with a regular old pumpkin. The standard version. Serviceable. The one we see in every food store and every farmer’s market this time of year. The one we’ve carved faces into, first digging out the innards, up to our elbows in pumpkin slime. The one we’ve dried and baked the seeds of, the one we’ve put on our front steps, lit candle carefully placed inside. The one that quietly, patiently, even eerily watches the neighborhood in the cool darkness of fall under the bright stars.

In a sense, side by side, the pumpkins represent two parts of each of us. The faerie tale and the reality. The person we always hoped to be, wanted to be, but were never quite able to become. The life we always dreamed of having, the life we actually live. What we thought we knew, what we actually learned. The truth is we need both of these parts, both aspects of our sense of who we want to be, who we are, who we hope to become. To be able to dream with our feet on the ground. And to live happily – if not ever after, at least for a time, on this earth, in this life.pumpkins

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons

Spontaneous Prayer

A number of years ago I was fortunate to be able to go to Israel on an Interfaith Clergy trip sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the ICJS. We left on a bus from the Chizuk Amuno parking lot, and just as we were pulling out the leader of the trip suggested that we should say a prayer at the beginning of our journey together. Since we were an interfaith group it only made sense that one prayer would be offered by one of the Christian clergy, and one prayer by one of the rabbis.

First the Christian pastor got up, and took the microphone at the front of the bus, closed his eyes, and spontaneously began to pray. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of ‘let the Lord God, God of all people, bless our group in fellowship and faith. Let our time together be full of meaning and hope, let us learn from one another, let us grow in faith together with respect and love. Let us journey in safety, let us return to our loved ones enriched by the experience, and let us together say Amen.’ It was a beautiful prayer, prayed right from the heart, on the spot, sensitive to the fact that Jews and Christians were embarking on this experience together, and expressing our shared sense of mission and God.

Then it was the rabbi’s turn. The rabbi walked to the front of the bus, took out a pocket siddur, looked at the table of contents, began to flip the pages, eventually finding the page that had what prayer on it? The Traveler’s prayer, Tefilat Haderech. The rabbi read the prayer word for word, straight from the siddur, first in Hebrew, and then in English translation. The Traveler’s Prayer is also beautiful and meaningful, but it lacked the spontaneous nature of the prayer the Christian pastor had offered, and it felt more like a rote recitation of a text as opposed to an actual prayer that was trying to connect human beings and God. I am not sure what the Christians on the bus thought of that Traveler’s Prayer, or even how the other rabbis experienced it, but to me it was an illustration of the way in general that Jews struggle with spontaneous prayer. We like to have our text, we like to know what page the prayer is on, we like to open the book to that page, say the words are supposed to say, and be done with it, check the box.

Now sometimes there is something to be said for having that book, for knowing the page and being able to read the words. First of all there is a level of familiarity to it which creates a sense of comfort. Secondly, there is the ability even if you didn’t feel any great emotional connection to be able to say I did what I was supposed to do, I read the prayer and fulfilled my obligation. A prayer book also gives you the advantage of having something to say. With a book you don’t need to worry about ‘what should I say, what if I don’t know what to say, what if I can’t think of anything to say.’ None of that matters because you can just read what is on the page. And last, but certainly not least, there can be something powerful about everyone saying the same thing at the same time, about communal prayer, that you can only arrive at with a text. And the siddur gives Jews access to all of that, not by any means to be underestimated.

But the prayer book also comes with a set of problems, and one of the most difficult of those problems is that the siddur never changes. The words we read from the siddur this morning were the same words that were read here on Shabbat morning at Beth El 30 years ago, and in all probability even 50 years ago. The weekday amidah prayer, said by traditional Jews three times a day, day in and day out, never changes. It doesn’t matter if it is raining or snowing or sunny out, if it is fall or spring, if the stock market is up or down. It doesn’t matter if the person saying the prayer is 15 years old, 50 years old, or 85 years old. With very minor exceptions, it never changes.

Now on the one hand this is a necessity. A liturgy, at least to a certain extent, has to be repetitive and fixed. That enables it to be a point of unification for a community, because everyone is familiar with it. I have many times had people tell me that they were traveling and found a synagogue, entered it for services, and felt immediately at home because they recognized the service, the payers, even some of the tunes. And the reason that happens is because the service is standardized and rarely changes. The repetitive nature of the service also lends to the sense of ritual – ritual by definition is repetitive, connecting you into a community, and also to a history, in Judaism’s case with our services a stream of history that is about two thousand years old.

But the problem with a changeless liturgy is that you or I might arrive in shul, open up the prayer book, and we might not be able to find anything in it that relates to the way we are feeling, to what kind of day we are having, to what is going on in our lives. And if that happens once, it is not the end of the world. But if it happens to someone again and again and again, after a while that person isn’t going to be interested in coming to services, and they aren’t going to believe that the prayers in the siddur have anything to say, having any real meaning. And then why would they come?

Spontaneous prayer is a solution to this problem. What do you suppose people feel is their favorite part of this service? Besides the sermon of course! I’ve been told over and over again. The mishebeirach prayer that we recite during the Torah service. That is the one moment prayer wise where most people find the most meaning. Why? Because it is personal. Because while we are singing the words together, in their minds they are thinking about real people in their lives, people they care about, people they hope – and pray – will be healed. And so that moment feels real to them, it touches them, and the spontaneous part of it is that every individual is thinking about someone they know and care about.

This morning’s Torah portion describes the very beginning of Abraham’s journey, just as God calls him to what will become his life long mission. When he first arrives in the land of Canaan Abraham builds an altar, and offers a sacrifice, a way of showing God gratitude for the fact that he had completed his journey safely. And then the Torah uses an unusual phrase – ויקרא בשם ה׳ – in our Humash you’ll find this phrase translated as ‘Abraham invoked the Lord by name.’ And that translation sounds so staid and dry, like the rabbi on the bus, Abraham took out his siddur, looked in the table of contents, found a prayer, and read it word for word. But of course Abraham didn’t have a siddur, and the force of the Hebrew in the verse – ויקרא – is that he called out, he raised his voice, that it was a moment filled with emotion, and that the prayer that he offered came from his heart.

It is that kind of prayer that we need to recover in our community. Not that we should throw out the service, or the structure, the prayers we know so well and have been reciting for so long. But that perhaps the balance isn’t what it should be – perhaps we’ve become overly reliant on the words and the page numbers, and not as comfortable as we might like to be with looking to God and calling out to the Divine straight from our own hearts. May we find the strength, the courage, the hope, and the belief to pray in that way בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך יבשכבך ובקומך – when we sit in our homes, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up –

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Filed under prayer, sermon, synagogue, Torah

One Upon a Time

sermon text from Shabbat services on 10/17/15

I want to first let you know this morning that our women’s group in Israel is doing fabulously well. If you’ve followed their escapades on FB at all then you have a sense of what they’ve been up – meeting Israeli women who are important leaders in their communities; repelling down the side of a cliff in Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon, called Mitzpeh Ramon; and spending a couple of days at one of Israeli’s most elegant spas in the Negev. The group is in high spirits, and although they have made some minor alterations to their itinerary, they are all grateful and proud to be in Israel, especially during this difficult time, by their presence supporting our brothers and sisters in the Jewish state, and affirming the connections between Jews that bind us together as a world wide community. This Shabbat they are in Jerusalem, and they’ll be back Wednesday, richer for the experience, and even more deeply connected to one another, to Israel, and to their Judaism.

In a sense at the center of that connection is the Torah itself, the sacred scroll that we take from the ark each week. It speaks to us of the history of our people, of our origins, of the aspiration that we’ve had for thousands of years to have a land of our own. Israel right now is 7 hours ahead of the US time wise, so it is about 6:30 in the evening there, and Shabbat is just ending. But the women’s group went to shul this morning, and when the Torah came out of the ark in whatever shul they were in they rose, just as we did here a few minutes ago. And the story they read from that far away Torah in Israel is the same one we read here, Parshat Noach, the famous story of Noah and the flood.

That is a story that I’ve long understood as a myth, a story placed in the Torah not because it describes real people and real events, but rather because it comes to teach us important ideas about the world God wants human beings to make, a world free from violence and hatred. We know the arc of the story well. (Pun intended) God comes to believe that the earth has become corrupt to the extent that it is no longer reparable, and God decides to destroy the earth, in essence throwing out the first try at creation for a second attempt. But God sees enough in Noah and his family to believe that they can form the new line of humanity, and God chooses them to survive the flood.

Noah builds the ark, loads it with his family and with the animals, all at God’s command. The waters of the flood come, the terrible rains, waters flooding up from the ground, the oceans and rivers expanding until the entire earth is covered with water. The flood lasts for how long? 40 days and nights! And then the waters begin to recede, and Noah emerges from the ark, with his family, with the animals, and they begin to repopulate the world. The story ends beautifully, with God establishing a covenant with Noah, and with God promising that never again will humanity be destroyed. And God even gives Noah an eternal sign that this promise will be fulfilled – what is it? The rainbow.

And I’ve always felt that the Noah story, with its pounding rain and flooding, with its ark and its animals marching two by two, with its rainbow ending, almost reads like some ancient fairly tale. We all remember fairly tales from our childhood, with their princes and princesses, with their kings and queens, with their dark forests and high castles of light. Almost all of the fairy tales my parents read to me when I was young began and ended in the same way – the first phrase, the classic fairly tale beginning, was – ‘once upon a time.’ And at the end of the fairy tale was another memorable phrase. What is it? And they lived happily ever after.

Those phrases would work well with the Noah story that we read this morning. Imagine the beginning of the story like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Noah, who lived in a far away place. One day God came to Noah and told him that a great flood was coming. And the story would go on from there. And then at the end of the story, after God made the covenant with Noah, after God promised to never again destroy the earth, after God placed the rainbow in the sky as an eternal symbol of that promise, the very last line of the narrative could so easily be ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

But if we wanted to use those fairy tale phrases we’d have one problem, which is this: this morning’s portion doesn’t end with the end of the Noah story. After God’s promise, after the covenant, after the rainbow, there is one more story in the portion. The story of the Tower of Babel. It is tacked on, just 9 short verses, but it serves as a cautionary tale. The earth cannot be fully healed. Human pride and arrogance, human jealousy, these things cannot be eliminated from the world, cannot be excised from human beings. And so God scatters humanity, giving each group a different place to live, a different language to speak, different goals to achieve – and with that one act God places into the world, perhaps forever, the suspicion and distrust that all too often mark human interaction. And so we cannot say, with this tale at least, that they lived happily ever after.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Torah chooses this path. The Torah always seems to find a way to reflect human reality, the real human experience, and of course we all know that in real life, in the real world, there is no line at the end of every story proclaiming ‘they lived happily ever after.’ If anything we get to live happily for a time. But inevitably, in real life, challenges arise. Difficulties confront us. We have our share of happiness and sunshine, but also our share of sadness and doubt and darkness. That is true for every person who has ever lived. As someone once said, life is not a fairly tale.

And neither is the State of Israel. It is a great country, one of the greatest in the world today, but it is not a myth. It is a real land, with real people, beset with real challenges and dangers, challenges and dangers that have seemed daunting over the last weeks. If you know anything at all about Israelis, you know they are pragmatists, and at the very same time they are dreamers. They know that life in Israel can often be hard, that times like this when you feel afraid to walk in the street or to send your child to school will inevitably arise. And yet they walk in the streets. They send their children to school. They get up and go to work and drink coffee in the cafes and laugh and gather together for dinner. That is their pragmatism. They know from their experience that even in the hardest of times they can still live their lives with meaning.

But to be an Israeli is also to be a dreamer. To dream of a fertile land rising from the desert. To dream of a great nation where none existed 67 years ago. To dream of a time when לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה – where nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they make war any more. To dream of a world of peace. We’ve kept that dream alive for more than 2000 years. We will not let it die now. And with that dream will be hope, will be faith, will be strength and courage that a better and brighter day will soon arrive for all –

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Filed under Bible, Israel, sermon

Preaching Politics

At the heart of this issue is of course the question what constitutes ‘politics?’ On the one hand we might say the idea of preaching politics is specific, defined by the guidelines of what you legally cannot say from the pulpit without your synagogue or church losing its non-profit status. And that is, quite clearly, endorsing a candidate. Technically a rabbi (or for that manner any other member of the clergy) cannot stand in the pulpit and say ‘you must vote for such and such a candidate.’ Fair enough, and to the best of my knowledge most clergy folk avoid doing that, and it is something I have never done, nor would ever do. Vote for whomever you believe the best candidate to be. End of story.

But what about issues? Issues that are driven by ideology, that have moral and ethical implications, issues that faith traditions have studied, pondered, perhaps even formally taken stances on? And that is the problem, and perhaps the grey area. There are many issues that are distinctly religious issues that have become highly politicized today. The best example might be abortion. Gay marriage is another. Gun control possibly a third. Religious freedom, building a mosque in New York. The list could go on and on. These are some of the most important, and politically most highly charged issues of our day. Judaism has a great deal to say about all of them. The Conservative Movement has taken specific and public stances on gun control, abortion, and gay marriage. Doesn’t the rabbi have the responsibility of teaching his or her congregants what their tradition has to say about these issues? Don’t the congregants want to know, so that their faith tradition can help them to more deeply understand contemporary life?

I still believe the answer to the first question is yes. To paraphrase the sage Hillel, if the synagogue is not a place for engaging in contemporary life, then what is it? What good is the tradition if it has nothing to say to us about modernity, in all of its complexity? Isn’t that the whole point? Don’t we say to people you can find ‘meaning for modern life’ here? When we say that do we only mean ‘spiritual matters?’ Being a good person, God, treating others well, etc? Or do we also mean that Judaism has something to say about the moral and ethical debates that are at the heart of today’s political discourse?

Judaism has never been a compartmentalized tradition. Judaism doesn’t say follow your faith in this area or that area, but in other areas, don’t worry about it, don’t consider it. Instead, Judaism historically has been comprehensive. The Talmudic sages clearly believed that Judaism should address every area of life, that Judaism should have something to say about every issue, that Judaism should be able to guide Jews in modernity just as it did in ancient times. Not just in the synagogue, but in the public square as well. The Talmud discusses abortion, the Talmud has ‘what’ to say about the death penalty. Shouldn’t we, as Jews, take advantage of our tradition’s ancient wisdom?

Even when the tradition disagrees with us, I would think we might want to know what it says. Is that difficult sometimes? Yes, especially in today’s atmosphere of highly divisive political debate. But Judaism has never been interested in the easy path. The right path, however, is another matter entirely.


Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, gay rights, preaching

In the Image of God

this the text of my shabbat sermon from from 10/11/15

It might seem perfectly logical to us that the Torah begins where it does, with a description of God’s creation of the world – the literal beginning of everything. After all, why not, as we often say, ‘begin at the beginning?’ But there is an interesting argument presented by the sage Rashi in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis, that it might have made more sense to begin the Torah in the book of Exodus. His reasoning is this: if the Torah is a book for the Jewish people, then why not begin it with the history of the Jewish people, which is the Exodus from Egypt?

And the question that Rashi raises stems from a long standing tension in Judaism between what I would call ‘universalism’ and ‘particularism.’ Big words, but fairly straight forward in terms of their meaning. Universalism is the idea that God is God of the entire universe, and that God cares about all people and all nations. Particularism is the idea that God is particularly interested in and concerned about the Jews and the land of Israel. These ideas can work together, but often they are perceived as being in conflict with one another. To get back to our original question about the beginning of the Torah you might think of it like this – if the Torah wanted to emphasize particularism – God’s relationship with the Jews – then it would begin with Exodus and the story of the Jewish people.

But it doesn’t. And by intentionally choosing to begin Judaism’s most sacred text with the story of the creation narrative, the Torah from the very beginning reminds us that the God we are in relationship with as Jews, is also the God that created the entire universe and all people. Think for a moment of the way the Torah describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. It is clear in the text that Adam and Eve are not Jewish, and not just the ‘parents’ of the Jewish people. Instead they are the parents of all people, and that would included any faith tradition, any race, any color, any ethnicity. The one thing the Torah is very clear about is that Adam and Eve were crated in God’s image – בצלמינו כדמותינו says the Torah – in our image, in our likeness. And since Adam and Eve are the parents of all people, it means by extension that all people – again, regardless of race, color, religion – are created in the image of God. This idea is central to Judaism, a core tenet of the faith, and is arguably the most important idea that Judaism has ever introduced to the world.

I had a professor in Rabbinical school who once said ‘the Torah doesn’t tell you something you don’t need to know.’ What he meant by that is the reason it says in the Torah לא תגנוב- ‘don’t steal’ – is because, as we all know, people will steal. They have to be told not to. And I think the same idea is operative with the creation story and Adam and Eve. We need to be told that all people are equal, we need to be reminded that all people come from the same place, precisely because it is something we too often forget. Intellectually most people understand the idea, but emotionally they get caught up in all kinds of things. They are afraid of what they don’t know and understand. They will take the radical actions of a small minority and ascribe it to a larger group. They will stereotype, so that certain groups will become in their minds innately lazy, or violent, or stupid, or money hungry. Sometimes these kinds of comments come from a place of hatred or small mindedness, but I believe most of the time they come from a place of ignorance, of simply not knowing enough about the other to fully understand who that person is and how they live in the world.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen two public examples of that kind of ignorance from presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. As you are probably all aware, the first comment was in response to a question as to whether Dr. Carson believed it was OK for a Muslim to be president of the United States. And he said he did not think a Muslim should be president. He was pretty roundly condemned for that statement, as he should have been. But the fact that he made a statement like that and has nevertheless stayed so high in the polls should make those of us in the Jewish community very uncomfortable. Because there is no difference between saying a Muslim should not be president and saying a Jew should not be president. It is exactly the same thing. It is singling out one religious group, and saying that group does not deserve to have the rights that are extended to all other groups. That statement directly conflicts with the values that this nation was founded on, and it is also clearly against the core value in this morning’s Torah portion, that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God.

Dr. Carson’s second statement, just a couple of days ago, was more directly connected to the Jewish community. In a bizarre conversation that conflated questions about gun control with the events of the Holocaust, Carson seemed to suggest that if Jews had had guns during the Second World War, Hitler would not have been able to kill the six million. I would imagine from that statement that Dr. Carson has no knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or of the armed Jewish resistance that fought against the Nazis throughout the war.

Now perhaps Dr. Carson is just a fish out of water, and he hasn’t yet learned the political game of talking and saying nothing, or at least of talking and saying nothing that will get you in trouble. He is obviously an intelligent man, I don’t think there is a question about that, but in some ways that makes his comments even more disturbing. When taken together, what he said about Muslims and Jews shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the way the rights of minorities must be vigilantly protected. I would hope that anyone running for president would remember that the United States is a country made up of many races, many ethnic groups, and many faith traditions, and that one of the greatest strengths of this country is the way those various races, ethnicities, and faith traditions have learned to live together and respect one another.

There is a classic statement in the Talmud attributed to the sage Hillel: אם אין אני לי מי לי – if I am not for myself, who will be for me? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני – but if I am only for myself, what am I? The Jewish community here in America has done very well with the first part of Hillel’s phrase. We strongly defend ourselves and our rights, and we are intensely vigilant for even the slightest hint of anti-semitism, as we should be. But the second half of the phrase – if I am only for myself, what am I – is also crucial to the integrity of the Jewish community. First of all because Torah teaches us that we have a duty as Jews to care about others, especially those who are marginalized. But the second reason is because if the rights of one minority group are challenged or threatened, then the rights of another minority group won’t be far behind. So when misguided statements are made about Jews, we must speak out, and we do. But when misguided statements are made about other religious or ethnic groups – our responsibility to speak out is just as important. This morning’s Torah reading reminds us of the power and importance of that idea. Let us remember it throughout the year and beyond –

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Filed under Bible, politics, sermon, Torah

The Screen Versus the Stars

It was at a shiva minyan I was at about 2 weeks ago where a young man arrived with his son just a few minutes before the service was about to start. The little boy was I would guess around 3 years old, and he had the moving energy of a child that age, what we have for a long time called in Yiddish ‘spielkes.’ As I finished putting on my tallit and tefillin the young father and his son sat on a couch right next to my chair. And I figured to myself, should be an entertaining minyan!

But just as the davening started, there was an almost magical transformation that came over the little boy. His father took out a little set of headphones, plugged them into his phone, put the headphones over the boys ears, and put the phone into the boys hands. The little boy leaned back and started playing what I guess was a game on his phone, and a look came over his face that was almost blissful, his whole body relaxed, and for the next 45 minutes the only parts of that boy that moved were his little finders over the phone screen, and his little eyes darting back and forth as they tracked the movements of the game he was playing. And I watched him off and on as the service progressed, and it was almost like he wasn’t even physically in the room with us anymore. As far as he was concerned he wasn’t at a service, there weren’t people there, I don’t even think he would have cared if his father got up an left – he was in his own place, almost his own world, that was created by the screen he held in his hands.

That little boy is in good company these days. Current statistics tell us that our children – ages 5-16 – spend an average of 6.5 hours a day staring at screens, whether phone, computer, tablet, or TV. That means that more than a third, and for some children close to a half of their waking time, is spent looking at digital information, and not spent looking at a book, the world around them, trees, the rain, the mountains, or another human face. And we are now starting to understand that this has an impact on the way young people think, interact, and understand one another and the world around them. So what will that little boy at the minyan be like in ten years? How will his life, and even his brain, his intelligence, be affected by growing up with that screen in his hand?

As results begin rolling in from studies that researchers have conducted over the last 20 years, early indications are disturbing. Just over the last couple of weeks Sherry Turkle, a Technology Professor at MIT, published a new book called ‘Reclaiming Conversation, the Power of Talk in the Digital Age.’ She argues that the constant use of smart phones and the excessive screen time young people are exposed to have already diminished their skills in terms of face to face communication and conversation. It isn’t only talking, which involves both the ability to say what you want to say, but also to hear what the other person is saying. It is also being able to read non-verbal cues, like posture and expression, what it means when a person crosses their arms during a conversation, or turns to the side, or steps back, or raises an eyebrow or draws in a deep breath. And young people today have a reduced sensitivity to those kinds of cues. And Turkle’s hypothesis about this is that its come about because these young people have spent so much time looking at their screens that they’ve missed hours and hours of “training time,” which is the time you spend in face to face conversation and interaction.

Other researchers have found that as technology use has gone up, empathy levels in young people have gone down. It is harder for young folk today to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to imagine how someone else feels, and to understand how someone else might see an issue if it doesn’t agree with their own view. The interactions we have via technology are not nuanced. Texting, FB messaging, Instagraming, even emailing – these are communication tools that are meant to convey short bursts of information, and they do that fairly well. But it is almost impossible to have a conversation of depth and feeling in these formats. And since people are using them so often, they are having less contact with feeling, they are having fewer and fewer chances to talk through a subject with another person, to pick it apart, to play ideas off against each other, to test thoughts and let them change over time.

All of that being said, there is some good news that the research is showing. The negative changes that they’ve identified seem to be reversible, and in a fairly short period of time. Young people who spent as few as 5 days at a device free camp showed an increase in their conversational skills and their ability to identify non-verbal communication cues. The same thing with empathy. Just a couple of weeks away from the screen helped young people discover – or perhaps re-discover – their sense of empathy for others.

The question of course is how can we carve out time for them to be away from their screens? One of the laws of building a sukkah is that you are supposed to be able to see at least a few of the brighter stars through the branches that make the roof of the sukkah. But I can tell you that that child at the minyan sitting on the couch would never see the stars, because that child will never look up as long as the phone is in his hand. In the Bible there is a phrase that occurs many times – וישא עיניו וירא – which is generally translated as he looked, or he saw. But a literal translation would be this: he lifted up his eyes, and he saw. And that is our challenge – how can we get them to lift up their eyes?

And there are two answers I would like to suggest today, neither particularly easy to implement. And the first has to do with changing not the behavior of the children, but instead the behavior of the people they are modeling their behavior from – and my friends, we are those people. From the time they are babies our children watch us constantly talk on our phones while we drive, hold our phones and tablets, constantly checking them, while we sit and watch TV, text while we eat dinner or are at their games or out with friends. I don’t know what the amount of time is that adults spend staring at their own screens, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t much different that the statistic for their children. So in many respects, the children are just doing what we’re doing, and until we change our own behavior, and put down our own devices, it is unlikely our children will.

The second solution is a bit simpler, but difficult nonetheless, and it is of course Shabbat. What if you could carve out 24 hours a week, every week, where you AND your children did not spend any time staring at a screen? I know that sounds impossible – almost like a pipe dream – but what we are starting to understand more and more is that that dream can bring great benefits to our children and grandchildren, and to us as well. Maybe it is time to figure out a way to make that dream a reality –

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