Basam settled into his seat at the back of the auditorium. Professor Steven’s Constitutional Law course was one of the most popular classes offered, and even after the optional in person policy the auditorium was usually packed, which was just fine with Basam who thrived in back row anonymity. He flipped open his laptop and got to work. He quickly typed in a fresh Tweet, “Starting class, cant w8 for it 2 b done.”
Basam then opened up his Instagram account. His wall was full of new hits. He had been tagged by a friend from elementary school, poked back by a guy he knew in undergrad, received a message from a woman in Belgrade whom he met through a Facebook group, and twenty four of his 1,681 friends had updated their profiles since he last checked in before lunch break. His Discord account had 29 threads with new messages, and he had 74 Snaps since he last checked his Snapchat account that morning.
As Basam opened a chat box with the woman from Belgrade, he couldn’t help but feel accomplished. He was the ultimate multi-tasker. He was sailing through law school while maintaining a full online social life. Sure, there were people who felt that online friends weren’t really friends, but those people were just Luddite throwbacks who didn’t understand that society was now Society 2.0.
He had waded through about half of his Discord threads, and was just about to win a great game of solitaire in another window, when the Twitter feeds starting going nuts. One friend Tweeted, “sitting in plane 4 25 mins, going nutz.” People started commenting. “I h8 that, hpns to me ALWAYS:-(” and then came “srvs u rite, dont fly spirit nemore.” Basam was really getting into the hype, when he heard Professor Steven’s calling his name. “Basam Kashat, what would be the merits of applying Heldberg’s Principle to this case?”
A pregnant pause followed. Why was the professor bothering him? Whatever happened to live and let live? He vaguely remembered Heldberg’s Principle from his reading a few nights ago, but he had been reading while playing online poker, and he seemed to have a better hand than Heldberg. “I think that it would be good to apply Helberg’s Principle to this case, because it would create a new avenue for tackling the intricacies.” That sounded right, but chuckles and snorts rippled through the lecture hall.
This was the third time that Professor Stevens had humiliated him like this! Once, he had even detained Basam after class to lecture him about not being distracted during class. Basam tried to figure out what made the professor call on him rather than any of the other students. As he looked around, he saw a sea of laptops open to Instagram, Buzzfeed, Robinhood, the Huffington Post, and dozens of other sites. Sure, he probably was a better multi-tasker than the others, he had more windows open than any of them, but was that a reason to pick on him?
Basam surfed to the law school’s website and fired off an angry e-mail to the Dean of Students complaining about his professor. He let the Dean know that Professor Steven’s was discriminating against him because he was Kurdish, and that he had heard from a number of other Kurdish students that this professor was a racist and always picked on them during class. If Stevens didn’t stop picking on him, he would lodge a complaint with the ACLU and the ADL, and that would bring a lot of negative press at a time when the school was really trying to become a Tier II school… Basam knew it wasn’t 100% tight, but he had to fight for his right to a vibrant online life.
Sara felt her iPhone vibrate softly in her pocket. It was Sunday, and she was in middle of dinner with her family, the only meal they’d eat together all week. But if your iPhone is vibrating, you don’t just leave it. It called to her with the force of mythical sirens, beckoning her with its soft vibration. She slipped it out of her pocket, hiding it under the table, and wishing she hadn’t attached the conspicuous bright pink plastic skin. She touched the screen to see what the world had to offer her. It was a friend sending her a You Tube clip. She opened it up, muting it immediately, and then watched with amazement as a boa constrictor swallowed a water buffalo whole on her little screen! Boas and buffaloes sure beat green beans and casserole!
Sung Yin took the looseleaf out of his bookbag, the feel of paper strange after so many years of taking all his notes on a laptop. But Sung had just completed three months at The Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Daxing County, and was trying to free himself from the addiction that had taken over his life (as reported in Time Magazine). His parents brought him there when he collapsed after playing internet games for over 37 hours straight, a fairly common phenomenon in China.
The municipal government in Shanghai banned the opening of any new internet cafe’s, comparing them to the opium dens of yesteryear, but that just made the existing ones that much more crowded. The heat had been intense, and Sung was seeing black around the edges, before he dropped like a stone (and lost his online dragon battle with an eleven year old kid named TiAnJaO from Chongching). He woke up in the treatment center, and spent the next three months doing boot-camp exercises and taking classes in a room with no technology more advanced than a lightbulb.
Today was his first day back in college, and he hoped he could stay clean. He did bring his laptop in case note taking with a No. 2 pencil took too long, but he hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. Forty five minutes later he cracked it open, promising he would not do any gaming in class. But within five minutes of opening the laptop, a little instant message box opened in the bottom right corner. It was from TiAnJaO. “You dragon go dooooown! You ready to fightee fightee?” He couldn’t let that twerp dishonor him like that, especially because TiAnJaO could never have beaten him if he didn’t pass out. Five minutes later TiAnJaO was properly slaughtered and lying on his screen in a pool of blood. Having defended his honor, Sung turned to the next challenger with a glint in his sword….
Sean liked his job. He worked for Mobile Learning 17, a group that was pushing for schools to begin giving their students smartphones loaded with educational programs to use during class. Luckily, he had studies to back up his claims that students learn better from cell phones because they are so familiar with its format. Qualcomm, a giant cellphone chip maker, had shelled out $1,000,000 for research on the efficiency of cell phones in class (as reported in the NY Times). Much to the delight (but not the surprise) of Qualcomm, the research came back showing a 25% performance benefit for students using cell phones with math programs. The results were so powerful that Qualcomm was considering funding research to determine the efficiency of people using cell phones for physical ed.
In the meantime, it was Sean’s job to enlighten the world to the conclusively proven reality that students using cell phones in class will do better. Admittedly, he did get frustrated sometimes by the thick-headed dinosaurs who clung to the notion of teachers imparting information to students by mouth, but he was certain that soon enough there would be a technology that would allow him to simply Control-Alt-Delete them.
In the last twenty five years, communication technology has seen profound leaps forward. People strolling down the street in Madrid can videochat people driving through the Mongolian steppe as if they are right next to each other. People can meet and befriend others in hundreds of countries with little effort, and most people are reachable at any time. But with these leaps, came one of the greatest challenges of our generation – achieving balance in our usage of those technologies.
Nationally, a debate is raging over the use of laptops and cell phones in the classroom. A recent article in The Chronicle described many professors who banned laptop use in their classes, and then heard from the students that they enjoyed class more. In the Central Asian state of Tajikistan, there is a nationwide ban on cell phones on school and university campuses. On the other hand, in the US, the ratio of computers to students is one to three, (at a cost of $1,000 a year for each machine). In NYC, teachers and principals told the New York Post that they no longer even try to enforce the cell phone ban.
The tech-battle being played out in the schools is only a precursor for the guerrilla tech-wars being played out in so many homes across the US. From the father who takes business calls or emails on his iPhone during dinner, to the Poshmark obsessed mother who spends hours and hours scouring for great deals, to the absence of all teens from the dinner table because they’re endlessly scrolling through Tik Tok, or exchanging Snapchat photos with “friends” from Cyprus, Connecticut, or Creepville, this battle rages on.
While there is no yardstick that can measure all situations, one idea that can help us overcome the challenges of the Tech Era is to set for ourselves Tech Free Zones. These are specific times in our day, possibly during dinner, possibly a half hour after a spouse comes home, or for a half hour before we put our children to bed, in which we use no form of techno-communication. We power down the cell phone and put it away. We ignore the home phone, turn off all TVs, and let the computer screensavers do their thing. When all the Tech is put to rest, when we are in our Tech Free Zones, our human interaction meter goes shooting up. We talk more, we want to hear what others have to say, we make eye contact, we’re more relaxed, knowing that nothing can distract us, we live more.
This week, we will read a special parsha called Hachodesh, which describes the first mitzvah ever given to the Jewish people; the mitzvah to use a lunar calendar instead of the solar calendar favored by the Egyptians. The sun always stays the same, the moon is ever waxing and waning. The Jews count their time by the moon to show their desire that they be ever changing in their behaviors, always trying to add things to our lives to make them better. For years, the new thing has been to adopt technology and bring it into our lives. But that is so cliché by now. Let’s really experience Hachodesh newness, let’s be at the forefront of the new wave blowing back at the techno-flood drowning us all. Let’s bring back human face to face relationships which hold far greater power than screen relationships. Let’s not be afraid to do things in a new and different way; it’s in our DNA!
Of course, once our Tech Free time is over, we’re welcome to post an update to our Instagram story, a new blog, or a new Tweet telling the world how much we didn’t miss them.
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded” (Exodus 35:10)
W ith these words, Moses calls upon the people to step forward and begin building the Tabernacle. Rabbi Eliezer Man Shach of blessed memory (1898-2001, Lithuania-Israel) notes that wisdom is usually associated with the brain, not the heart. What exactly, he asks, is the meaning of this verse that refers to wise hearted people?
He bases his answer on something we see in Ethics of Our Fathers, which famously proclaims, “Who is the wise man? He who learns from every person.” (Ethics, 4:1). Rabbenu Yona of Gerona (13th Century, Spain) points out that it doesn’t say, “he who learned from everyone” in the past tense, but rather, “he who learns from everyone” in the present tense. This is because being wise is not as much measured by what you know or what you’ve learned, but by your attitude to learning.
If a person has an enormous amount of knowledge but disregards the significance of continued learning and growth, he is not a wise person, but a fool – comparable to a pack of donkeys carrying hundreds of books on dozens of subjects. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t possess much knowledge, but recognizes the value of knowledge and spends his time in its pursuit, he is a wise man, one who truly knows what is valuable and what is not.
For this reason, the mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers says that a wise person is someone who learns from every person in the present, because that is a person in pursuit of knowledge. Someone who already learned from people, but is on hiatus from learning now, is not what we would call a chacham (a wise person).
Based on this, Rabbi Shach explains what Moses was looking for when building the Tabernacle. He wasn’t looking for people who were head-smart, people with lots of knowledge in their heads, but rather he was looking for people who were heart-smart, people who were looking to expand their knowledge, people thirsty for learning. Even if they were not yet proficient in every field, Moses had full confidence that they would become so.
We see a similar idea in a famous story from the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Tannaim (authors of the mishna), was a simple shepherd, working for Ben Kalba Savua, one of the richest Jews in Israel. At the age of forty he was uneducated and didn’t even know the Aleph Bet. To make matters worse, he had a fierce hatred for Torah scholars. He had an epiphany one day after observing how slowly dripping water bored a hole right through a boulder. It convinced him that the Torah could likewise penetrate his hardened heart – even at such a late stage in life.
Ben Kalba Savua’s daughter, Rachel, saw that Akiva was now a man on a mission; a person in pursuit of knowledge. She told him she would marry him if he went to study in Yeshiva, and they secretly wed. When Ben Kalba Savua heard that his daughter, who could have married anyone she wished to, was married to an ignorant shepherd, he angrily vowed that neither of them would ever benefit from anything of his.
Twenty four years later, Rabbi Akiva returned home as one of the leading Torah sages of his time, accompanied by 24,000 students. Ben Kalba Savua, not realizing that Rabbi Akiva was his son-in-law, came to him to try to annul the vow he made years ago, that had estranged him from his daughter and her family. Rabbi Akiva asked him if he would have made the vow had he thought that the shepherd would become a learned man, and Ben Kalba Savua said that he wouldn’t have. Rabbi Akiva then revealed his identity, and annulled the vow. Ben Kalba Savua hugged him and kissed him, and gave Rabbi Akiva half his possessions.
But Tosafot has a problem with this story. One of the laws of annulling vows is that you cannot annul a vow based on something that, at the time of the vow, had not yet occurred, and Akiva only became great after the vow. Thus the vow should have been unbreakable. Tosafot answers that since Rabbi Akiva had already committed to learning, since he had already acquired the wisdom of the heart, he was already considered a learned person (albeit one with some learning to do!). Wisdom as defined by the Torah is not about what we know; it’s about what we want to know!
This week we will take out two scrolls from the Aron Kodesh. From the first we will read Vayakel and Pekudei,the two final portions of the Book of Exodus. If you’ve been following the parsha all the way through, give yourself a big pat on the back, an extra red star sticker, or whatever else you do to celebrate an accomplishment.
Vayakel begins with Moshe gathering all the Jewish people and telling them about the laws of Shabbat. Moshegoes on to tell them about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. (In the previous portions, Teruma andTitzaveh, Ha-shem commanded Moshe about the building of the Mishkan; now Moshe tells the people, and the people actually build it.) The two concepts are connected in that one is not allowed to desecrate Shabbos for the purpose of building the Mishkan. We don’t break G-d’s special time (Shabbos) to build Him a special place (the Mishkan); it would defeat the purpose.
The Torah describes the donations needed which included gold, silver, and copper (these were the days before titanium-palladium alloys were all the rage), the different colored wools, goat skins, herbs, spices, and, most important, the volunteering of time by the craftsmen to build the Mishkan. Two people were appointed to be the managers of this colossal and divine endeavor, Betzalel, from the tribe Yehuda, which was considered the most royal of the tribes, and Oholiab, from Dan, which was considered the lowliest of the tribes, thus indicating that when it comes to building a dwelling place for G-d, everyone is equal.
The Parsha then describes in detail the making of the curtains, covering cloths, partitions, and walls of the Tabernacle. Next it depicts the creation of the Holy Ark with its cover, the Table, the Menorah, the Incense Altar, the outdoor Offering Altar, the Laver (a special vessel used by the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before Temple service), and the courtyard posts which had cloth sheets that wrapped around them, used to enclose the Temple courtyard. Vayakel ends. One down, one to go!
Pekudei begins with the Torah enumerating the exact amounts of gold, silver, and copper that were donated. (Quick lesson: no matter how great you are, if you are using public funds there should be a level of accountability. Listen up Department of Defense!!!) It then describes in detail the making of the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol (the priests and the High Priest). The Parsha ends with the commandment to set up the Mishkan, and its erection. The Parsha (and for that matter the entire Book of Exodus) closes with the climactic moment when G-d’s glory comes down from on High and rests in the Mishkan that was built for him!
From the second scroll, we read Parshat Hachodesh, in which G-d commands the Jewish people to set their calendar by the moon, the celestial being that goes through constant renewal. May we combine the lesson of renewal with that of humans creating a resting place for the Divine Glory on this earth, and may we energize ourselves and build within ourselves and our homes a place fitting for G-d’s glory to rest!
Quote of the Week: Who dares nothing, need hope for nothing. ~ J.C.F. Von Schiller
Random Fact of the Week: There are 461 stations in the New York City subway system.
Funny Line of the Week: I like when good things happen to me, but I wait two weeks to tell anyone because I like to use the word ‘fortnight.”
Have a Rambunctious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham