By Yochanan Gordon
I am not anti-technology per se, but I do believe that we should be the ones raising our children, as opposed to the many external influences that they are bombarded with daily. Even the most insular and protected families can’t keep out the influences of the street from educating their precious child. Much of our children’s TV education comes from mingling with friends, in or out of school, whose families have TV or allow some level of technology independence.
Our kids’ obsession with gaming doesn’t begin at the school age. I’d say that most of us, at one point or another, have given our phones to our young toddlers to keep them occupied while we go about our daily responsibilities. They may not be able to communicate at that young age, but I would say that their fascination with technology begins then and builds as they grow older and become more educated regarding its capabilities. So while, out of frustration, we may at times blame everyone around us for introducing our kids to the pitfalls of technology, the truth is we are all responsible for it, albeit mindlessly.
What is most affected as a result of the technology of today is our kids’ ability to communicate and develop healthy relationships, both with family and with friends. Text messaging has seriously caused a decline in our youths’ ability to communicate articulately and respectfully. What a parent wants more than anything is to develop a relationship and maintain a healthy line of communication with their child to aid in their overall development.
After the primordial snake coerced the first man and his wife to partake of the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, the Torah spells out its punishment when it says, “You shall crawl on your belly and dust you shall eat for the rest of your life.” The question posed by many commentators is, “What kind of punishment did G‑d give the snake in assuring him that his sustenance will be abundant, and he will never lack anything?” The answer is, what we need more than anything is a relationship with G‑d. By giving the snake all the dust of the earth, G‑d was saying “have what you wish, just don’t talk to Me.”
Our sages write, “One who has a maneh wants two.” This accurately describes the endless rat-race of society, where people continuously vie to amass greater levels of wealth and overall success. What is it that drives this mentality, never allowing people caught up in this race to be content or to reach that point where they could say “I have enough?”
There is an idea expounded upon in the Chassidic texts: G‑d will sometimes bestow goodness upon people but not show them an effusive countenance. In the Chassidic terminology, “it’s like someone who throws something over his shoulder.” So while if we get enough handouts, we may amass wealth, we will not get the necessary satisfaction or recognition that ultimately gives us a feeling of contentment. So perhaps Chazal’s description of human nature—to always want more—applies in a case where that person receives wealth without the warmth and acknowledgement that are just as important as the sustenance itself.
It’s a constant struggle. All the kids want at every free moment is to use the phone to play one game or watch one video—albeit a Jewish one. I strongly believe that, when dealing with kids who are obsessed with watching videos, even Jewish videos are unconstructive. Very little learning is accomplished with these educational videos, despite our countless justifications that it’s not so bad because they are watching a Jewish video. The act of watching, at least for a child, has the same effect on a child’s brain no matter the content. It’s almost as misleading as the sugar cereals that pronounce in clear, large lettering, “Eleven essential vitamins and minerals!” not mentioning the detriment done by all the other degenerative ingredients that they contain.
So the other night, I was charged with getting the four-year-old into bed before I left the house to go learn. The heckling for my phone began even before we reached the staircase leading to his bedroom. I kept trying to think of things to talk about, just to get his mind off this darned device for a second. As we reached the bed, I thought I could confuse him with a little philosophy. So I asked him, “Do you love me?” “Yes,” he responded. I continued, “I don’t think you love me. You know why?” “Why?” “If you loved me, you would want me and not my phone. I’m here and you’re still asking for my phone.” Needless to say, despite the soundness of my argument, I ended up losing.
He may not have learned anything from that exchange, but I certainly did. There is a Mishnah in Avos that states that someone who is learning while taking a stroll, and ceases from his study to acknowledge the beauty of G‑d’s creations, is considered liable with his soul. I recall thinking this through, trying to plumb the depths of this statement in order to come to terms with the great sin perpetrated here that this person is worthy of being put to death. But it continued to evade me. Then I encountered an eye-opening interpretation: There are two distinct levels of G‑dliness, known as yichuda ila’ah and yichudah tata’ah, the higher unification and the lower unification of G‑d. Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad represents yichuda ila’ah and Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso L’olam Vaed represents yichuda tata’ah.
In Chabad philosophy, the concept of “ein od milvado” says that only G‑d truly exists. The world that we perceive is merely a manifestation of His existence. That is Hashem Echad. When we say Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso, we are already acknowledging lower levels of G‑dliness outside of His essence. When someone stops learning to acknowledge the beauty of G‑d’s creations, he is giving up an opportunity to perceive G‑d’s true essence and instead focusing on a world that, in relation to yichuda ila’ah, doesn’t even exist.
There is a mantra attributed to Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi, whose liberation from Czarist prison is celebrated each year on 19 Kislev throughout the Chassidic world. He would often say, “I’m not interested in your Olam Ha’ba or your Gan Eden; I don’t want to be preoccupied with your angels. I want you alone.” When it comes to business or amassing wealth, it’s perceived as a weakness to be content with the little we have attained. However, most people are content with the few rituals that they perform, and are not compelled or pressured in any way to add to their learning time or their comprehension of Torah and mitzvos.
I recently read an article authored by Rabbi Manis Friedman for Ami Magazine in which he makes a poignant and profound point. He asked, “Why can’t we see G‑d?” Philosophers and religious scholars have debated this question for time immemorial and have each answered according to their own research and intuition. Rabbi Friedman asserted, “G‑d knew that if He had an image that we could perceive, nobody would ever take the time out to get to know Him, since they already saw Him. The second we see something, we feel like we know everything there is to know about it.”
A rebbe of mine once related that while he was living in New Jersey, he had taken his daughter to the local mall, where she went to take her driver’s permit test. During the duration of the exam, while he was walking around the mall, he encountered an electronics store. He entered the store and wanted to inquire for service but nobody seemed to be around. He called out, “Anyone work here?” after which the sole employee stumbled out of the office. It turned out that this employee was Jewish, so the rabbi asked if he ever studied the Five Books of Moses. He replied, “I haven’t, but I saw the movie The Ten Commandments.” The rabbi replied, “Everyone knows that the book is always better than the movie.”
If we want our kids to cherish a relationship with us, and not our money or our devices, shouldn’t we want the same with our father, our father in Heaven—G‑d? How could we expect our children to be compelled to dig deep and live divinely inspired lives when we are spiritually content with the minimum and have an unquenchable thirst for more wealth and greater success? When we acquiesce to our kids’ incessant pestering for the phone, we are ultimately saying, “take what you want, just don’t bother me,” just like G‑d gaves the snake everything he would ever need in order that he never speak to Him again.
Let’s learn from our desires for our children how to treat our parents, our grandparents, and ultimately our Father in Heaven. v