Shabbaton Derasha 2018: Mind the Mind

When Spanish photographer Antonio Guillem went to work one day in 2015, he had no idea that his work would become famous.

While in Girona, Guillem hired three actors to pose for his photoshoot; he thought he’d make a couple of bucks by selling his work to the online stock photo site, Shutterstock. He hoped that a few people might download some images, so he was surprised when he found out that two years after he first uploaded his photos, one of his photos had gone viral. Shared millions of times, with so many different permutations of text- his photo became famous. I’m referring to one of the most iconic memes, ever since memes became a thing. Of course, this is the distracted boyfriend meme. You all know what I’m talking about. It’s a guy walking with someone who is ostensibly his girlfriend, and he is distracted by an attractive woman walking in the other direction. As he looks at the other woman, his girlfriend looks at him in disgust. There are countless versions of this meme. One of the early popular ones labeled the boyfriend as Youth, the girlfriend as Capitalism and the other girl as Socialism. I’m sure many of you have your favorite versions of the meme. Why is it so popular and why is its popularity so sustained? It’s unusual that something which was popular on social media in 2017 should still be popular in 2018. Some say that it’s versatile. It can be a metaphor for anything. It’s more than that. It’s a metaphor that is uniquely connected to our generation. Why this meme broke the internet and overtook even Crying Jordan in popularity is the story of our time and the idea I’d like to explore with you for a few minutes this shabbat morning.

The meme captured everyone’s imagination because it perfectly captures our mood. We are a distracted nation and we are a distracted Jewish people. Why are we so distracted and what can we do to gain our focus and improve our lives?

This week’s parsha begins in a way like no other parsha. Every other parsha begins with a new paragraph. It makes a clean break from the previous parsha and that makes it easier for the baal koreh to find the beginning of the first aliyah. This week, there’s no discernible break. Vayigash ends and then Vayechi starts right away. Why?

Rashi citing the midrash suggests several answers. One answer is that this parsha is completely closed since Yaacov dies in this parsha and at that point the enslavement begins and the lives of Bnei Yisrael begin closing in on them.

I’d like to suggest a different interpretation.  In order to understand why our parsha is missing the space between it and the previous parsha, we need to look at the last words of last week’s parsha.

וַיֵּ֧שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֑שֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ וַיִּפְר֥וּ וַיִּרְבּ֖וּ מְאֹֽד

Bnei Yisrael settled in Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired possessions and their population exploded. End of Parshat Vayigash. Enter directly into Parshat Vayechi, with no paragraph break. Why?

The Torah tells us, they were thriving. The Jews were successful. They were doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. They had busy lives. They had lots of kids. They had lots of possessions. They weren’t satisfied with their iphone 8, they needed the iphone X. They were busy with after-school tutors for the Egyptian SATs, they were building resumes, they were enjoying life, and there was just so much to do. They were always busy. The pasuk emphasizes that ויפרו וירבו מאד- there were so many kids, they were so busy they were so distracted and you know what? They never paused. They never slowed down. They never took time to reflect and be mindful. And that’s precisely what led them to the slavery in Egypt.

Did you ever wonder- once the famine had ended, why didn’t Bnei Yisrael return to Israel? Our parsha states that Yaacov spent the last 17 years of his life in Egypt- that’s many years after the famine had ended. We wonder- why did they remain in Egypt?  But they were too busy to wonder about that. They never paused to reflect and that busyness is what led to the slavery. The lack of a separation between the end of Vayigash and the beginning of the Vayechi is meant to teach us that Bnei Yisrael just slipped into slavery, they could’ve prevented it had they taken time to reflect- where are we going? Where do we belong? If you can’t pause and reflect, then you become a slave- a slave to busyness.  In this sense the missing break between the parshiyot is like the distracted boyfriend meme-The Jewish people are the boyfriend, God is the girlfriend, and Egyptian busyness is the girl who walks by. If only they had paused to reflect things could have been different.

We’re not much different. If anything we’re probably worse.

In a study recently done by Microsoft, it was determined that over the past ten years the average person’s attention span has decreased from from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. The study also found that the average goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds.

Everything is busy. If you don’t pay attention, the next thing you’ll know is that you’ve got 36 notifications on snapchat, 109 unread whatsapps, and for us old people our email inboxes are flooded. The busyness of life, diminishes our attention span. We can’t afford to pay attention to something for too long- there’s just too much going on.

Here’s a great study cited by Adam Alter in his book, Irresistible:  In 2013 two psychologists invited pairs of strangers into a small room and asked them to engage in conversation. To smooth the process, the psychologists suggested a topic: why not discuss an interesting event that happened to you over the past month? Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat idle nearby, while for others the phone was replaced by a paper notebook. Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew acquainted in  the presence of a smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere presence even when not in use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation.

I must admit that I love my iphone and I love the internet.  I love my iphone because I love checking the news on twitter throughout the day and night, I rely on waze to get me where I’m going, I need the zmanim app to let me know what time I can daven wherever I may be. I love communicating with friends and family through whatspp and texts and I enjoy being able to responsibly and quickly respond to students, parents and teachers through email.

I love the internet because of the tremendous amount of information I learn from it. The sheer amount of Torah that I can access online is astounding. In a fit of gratitude a couple of weeks ago I gladly paid the $3 that Wikipedia asked for. I use wikipedia all the time. $3 sounded like a bargain.

So don’t get me wrong, I’m no technophobe, but I think we need to pause, reflect and think about where we’re going. It’s like we’re the boyfriend, real social interactions are the girlfriend and the attractive girl walking by is social media. I fear that we’re all being a little too distracted and that we need to pause and be mindful.

As I reflect I’d like you to share three initiatives with you;

The first is what I’d like to call, not “notification” but “NO-tification.”

I’ll explain the problem. I care deeply about the people I interact with. I want to give my full attention to a student I’m talking to or the colleague I’m working with, but when I feel the gentle buzz of my phone, I know that I just got an email. It might be urgent. Or if I feel a double buzz, I know that I’ve been notified of a text- that seems even more urgent. Maybe I’ll just casually glance at the phone while I’m talking to the student about the religious issue he’s struggling with- I’m sure he won’t notice- but the religious issue he’s struggling with might be that his religious role models are too distracted to pay attention to him. The buzzing of the phone is so constant, that even on shabbos I’ll feel a phantom buzz once in a while even though my phone is at home. Here’s my suggestion: NO-tification. Go to the settings on your phone and turn off notifications. Your phone should never buzz, vibrate or make sounds. You can check it periodically when you want to to, but don’t let it take control of you and demand your attention when it wants you. You should own it. It shouldn’t own you. I turned off my notifications on Wednesday night. It’s been two days and it’s been liberating. I’m so much less distracted and so much more able to give people the attention they deserve. I urge you to follow me and turn your notifications into NO-tifications.

If No-tification tries to make our phones a little less distracting, this second initiative goes big. The second initiative is a Phone Fast.

Let’s conduct a one day  experiment- we are all going to hand in our phones as the day begins and get them back when the school day is over. This applies to students and staff. You don’t have to be Doctor Wolf to know that a fast can have its benefits. Let’s try it and see how it goes. If we like it, then we’ll do it one day a month for the rest of the school year. Imagine talking to somebody at lunch and having their full attention. The crises that you’re imagining right now are not really that bad. You can still keep your streak on snapchat before or after school. You can text your mom about your test grade when school is over. I can write my schedule down on a  piece of paper for the day instead of incessantly checking my calendar on my phone. Let’s pick January 8. Don’t worry, it’s a Tuesday. I wouldn’t try this on a Monday or a Wednesday.

The third initiative is not related to technology. It’s a little more serious and whereas the first two initiatives are designed to avoid distractions, this one is designed to actively point us in the right direction. Let me explain. This has been a very difficult year as far as health goes. Our community has been hit hard. Loved ones have been lost and there are just too many friends who are struggling with serious illness.  How many of us really appreciate our health? Do we take time to pause and express gratitude to Hashem for the simple fact that we are alive. For the gift that we have been given of being able to be in good health so that we can lead deeply meaningful lives? Some of the tragedies this year have helped push me in the direction of being a little more appreciative. In truth, so much of davening is meant to cultivate that gratitude and reflectiveness in us. But one beracha in particular highlights that gratitude. Asher Yatzar. It is such an exquisite beracha in which we thank Hashem for our functioning bodies. This is not just about going to the bathroom. It’s about pausing, being mindful and reflecting on the gift of health. So here’s the third initiative: Project Asher Yatzar- PrAY. If you regularly say asher yatzar, say it more slowly and with more kavanah. And if you don’t yet say it, begin doing so. This is a simple way of pausing, reflecting and expressing appreciation to Hashem for the gift of life. And I’d like to suggest that we pay special attention to the last line of the beracha ברוך אתה ה’ רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות- We bless Hashem for being healing all flesh and his wondrous deeds. Kol Basar is usually understood to mean “all of my body”- we praise God for making our entire body work. But perhaps we can suggest that “kol basar” refers to all bodies- in other words we’re not just thanking God for our own health, but asking God to ensure the health of everyone. When saying the beracha let’s not just thank God for what we have but ask Him to heal those who are not well.  In order to make this plan easier, next week, we’ll be placing a poster of the beracha not just outside of bathrooms but inside each classroom. In case you’re in a rush to get back to class, you can sit down in class and read the beracha off the wall. I encourage teachers to remind kids who took a bathroom break to recite the beracha in class when they return.

To review the 3 initiatives-

No-Tification- just turn them all off so you won’t be distracted

Phone Fast on January 8

And Project Asher Yatzar

As I close, let’s look at the beracha that Yaacov gave his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. The famous line states המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערים. The angel which has redeemed me from all harm should bless the children..”  Who is this angel? Listen to this extraordinary interpretation of the Ralbag: המלאך הגֹאל אֹתי מכל רע – הוא השכל הפועל, שהוא מלאך ה’ יתעלה להשגיח ביראיו ולהצילם מכל רע,

The angel is not some sort of winged creature with a harp and a halo. This angel is sechel- intellect. Yaacov is saying: I’ve been saved throughout my life by stopping and being thoughtful, and my greatest beracha to you, my grandchildren and my greatest beracha to you my students is that you too may develop the ability to stop, to think to focus, to pause and be reflective.

 

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