Eroding Values

Rabbi Joshua Lookstein
Sermon on Parshat Vayechi
WDS Middle School Shabbaton
Rabbi Joshua Lookstein
January 14th, 2017, 5777

So what exactly happened during those 17 years? Vayechi Yaakov bi’eretz mitzrayim shiva esrei shana, And Yaakov lived in Egypt for 17 years. So what was he doing all that time? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that these 17 years were a gift from God to Yaakov for surviving the craziness of the rest of his life. He lived a peaceful existence. But what did he do?
Well, let’s look at what happens at the end of those 17 years and see if we can figure it out from that. He blesses his children and grandchildren and he tells his children what is going happen to them Bi’acharit hayamim, in the end of days. And these are no typical pesukim. They look different and they feel different than other pesukim. And they are the result of the previous peaceful 17 years that Yaakov had. In these pesukim, we see three elements that due to modern innovations, one in particular, are tragically becoming a lost art.
First, creativity. The language that Yaakov uses is poetic. It is not the kind of language that gets composed in one sitting. Pachaz kamayim al totar, with water-like impetuousness you cannot be foremost, he says about Reuven. Kibes bayayin livusho u’vidam anavim suto, he will launder his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes he says about Yehudah. Yihi dan nachash aley derech shififon aley orach, Dan will be a serpent on the highway, a viper by the path. It’s poetry. It takes time to compose, to edit, to write and rewrite. It takes downtime with no distractions, when the mind can think and wander. So first, Yaakov was using his time to be creative.
Second, Yaakov was developing patience. We see this in his words to Shimon and Levi. His harshest words are for them for what they did to Shechem and Chamor to avenge Dina. Arur Apam ki az, cursed be their rage because it is intense, achalkem biyaakov va’aphitzem biyisrael, I will separate them within Jacob and disperse them in Israel. But this rage is many years later. When the event actually occurred, Yaakov reacted differently. It was a practical reaction. He was worried that the inhabitants of the land would hear and gang up on him and wipe his family out. His reaction at the time was what was needed then to keep his family safe. But in the end, Shimon and Levi still needed to be disciplined. He was patient. He was measured. He waited many many years to take the action he thought was necessary. Without going into too much detail, the story in the Haftorah parallels this patience. As David Hamelech is on HIS deathbed he tells Shlomo to kill Shim’i ben Gera who had cursed him earlier in his life. When the event occurred, David didn’t kill him. His reaction then was more practical. But many years later, Shim’i needed to be punished. Patience. The second element that Yaakov worked on for 17 years.
And finally, relationships. Yaakov had 17 years to develop his relationships with his children and grandchildren. Rav Soloveitchik notices that at the beginning of Vayeshev we also see the number 17. Yosef ben shi’va esrei shana haya, Yosef was 17 years old before his real story begins. And the Rav said that Yaakov taught Yosef for the first 17 years and then re-enforced those lessons during these 17 years. They spent quality time together. Yaakov got to know Ephraim and Menashe well enough to know who should receive which bracha. And he continued to get to know the brothers well enough to be able to sum them up in 1-2 sentences. That doesn’t come from NOT knowing someone well but from knowing someone well. Yaakov spent 17 years developing relationships.
So creativity, patience and relationships.
Over winter break, my family went skiing upstate. Well, really, my four-year-old daughter Trudy went skiing and the rest of us watched her enjoy two days in ski school. She and her friend Charlie went down the same 40 foot trail about 100 times and it was amazing each time. A few days after we got back, someone in shul said to her, “Trudy, I heard you’re such a great skier!” She smiled sheepishly. He said, “Do you know who told me? Charlie!” And Trudy looked at him and without missing a beat said, “Charlie doesn’t have a cell phone!” As if, how could you possibly have heard anything from anyone if they don’t have a cell phone. And I thought oh my goodness, what have I done. I had been doing some thinking about my own cell phone usage and cell phone usage in general and decided then it was worth a speech or two and here we are. And this isn’t about children and cell phones but rather about adults and cell phones. Yes, they are linked and children and cell phones present important challenges as well but this is about us not them.
Let’s just say, had Yaakov had a cell phone, Vayechi would have been a much shorter and less interesting parsha. First, creativity. Or to start this off another way: If we take our phones into the bathroom, we have a problem.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, in a podcast called Note to Self - which I listened to on my desktop! - says that there is a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle. Some call it Positive Constructive Daydreaming or boredom. Studies have been done with two groups where participants in one group are asked to read the phonebook for 20 minutes then to look at two plastic cups and come up with things that they could be. The group that read the phonebook was able to come up with far more creative ideas than the other group. As a result of learning the research, the podcast created a campaign called Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out, where they gave listeners a different activity every day that facilitated boredom and creativity. On a more severe note, Time Magazine earlier this year had an article that argued that part of the reason for teen mental distress is the lack of downtime that they have by virtue of their cell phones. They have less time to process and think because they are always generating new tasks because of their phones.
Our downtime has been severely limited. Yes, the bathroom is an issue but so is picking up our phones when we are stopped at a red light, or a stop sign. And of course we are not talking about while the car is moving which is an extreme part of this story. When I am with someone anywhere and that person excuses themselves for a minute, I fight not to pick up my phone but only because I want to be the person who doesn’t need to do that, not because I don’t want to. Here is the definition of irony: there is an app called Moment that tracks how many times we pick up our phones during the day and for how long. It is hard for us to be alone with our thoughts but that is precisely what enables us to think, to be creative and to generate ideas that will be good for us and others.
Patience. The internet has made it easy to get things but our phones have made it easy to get things immediately. A few weeks ago, I was reading the Wall Street Journal and they reviewed the book The Undoing Project about the friendship between Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (which is not entirely unrelated to this issue). It looked interesting so I picked up my phone, opened amazon, typed in the name and was about to hit “Buy with 1-click” and I stopped myself. Did I really need it the next day? There is no way I was going to read it the next day. It would be months - maybe years - before I would read it. Why did I need it tomorrow? But so what? If I can have it tomorrow, why wouldn’t I want it tomorrow? What is the difference between tomorrow and 6 months from now? And I sat there almost paralyzed. There is a huge difference between getting something you don’t need tomorrow rather than when you need it. Every time we instinctively get something quickly, we train ourselves to think that everything can, and should be, achieved that quickly. And we know that very important things take time. But will we realize that when we are in the midst of trying to achieve them?
Which brings us to the final element of Yaakov’s 17 years. Relationships. Someone forwarded me the following story which might be apocryphal. A teacher comes home one night and starts to read the essays that she asked her students to write that day. She reads the last one and starts to cry. Her husband notices and asks what’s wrong? She says, “Yesterday I asked my students to write an essay on the topic What would you like to be in the modern world?” The husband says, “What a great topic, why are you crying?” The wife says, “Listen to what this one student wrote:
I wish I could become a smartphone. My parents love their smartphones and they are always busy with them to the point where they forget about me. When my father comes home from work tired, he immediately looks at his smartphone and not at me. When my parents are involved in something very important, they always answer their phones on the first ring even if I have been crying for a while because I need them. They play on their smartphones more than they play with me. That’s why I want to become a smartphone.
The husband, clearly moved, asks, “Who is the student?” The teacher responds, “Our son.”
Jerry Seinfeld has a routine where he talks about how nowadays everyone puts their phones on the table in a restaurant and sometimes answers them. But often it is a statement that though I am here with you, there may be someone else that I’d rather be talking to. He says when someone puts their phone on the table you’re better off leaving the person sitting at the table and going outside to call them.
Yes, we are able to keep in touch with so many more people through texting, whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat, email and others but the more we keep in touch with, the less we really know.
While I am not offering any answers, the potential to address this issue exists. Shabbat is the proof-text. While there is the issue of “Half-Shabbat,” for the most part, those who consider themselves Sabbath-observant in some way have dealt with – and embraced - the inability to use their phones for an extended period of time. Our ability to turn off shows us that we could do it more, that if we give this the time it needs, we will each come up with strategies to use our phones less and less destructively, to give us more downtime to think and be creative, to be patient for the important things and to strengthen our relationships.
At the end of Yaakov’s 17 years, we are told Vayey’Asef el amav, he was gathered to his people, and despite him being embalmed, mourned and buried, the Gemara in Masechet Taanit says famously Yaakov Avinu lo meit, Yaakov didn’t die.
Cell phones, on the other hand, die, but the values that Yaakov dedicated so much of his life to are everlasting.

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