ט״ז באדר א׳ ה׳תשע״ד (February 16, 2014)
By Yonatan Gordon
While walking the streets of Jerusalem on Friday, I noticed flyers for a local high school play called “Attraction to Distraction.” The graphic depicts two teenage girls, standing in front of each other, but busily texting on their cell phones. Having just written about distraction the night before it didn’t take me long to realize that this advertisement had just inspired another article.
In order to better appreciate what it means to be addicted to distraction, I thought it best to travel back to a time before smart phones, SMS and Facebook. While the methods of distraction have become more commonplace, the attraction to distraction is nothing new.
When I was a boy of about ten years old, I visited a water park with my summer camp. Although I didn’t know how to swim, I decided to go into the wave generating pool, committing myself to stay in the shallow end. But quickly, the thrill and excitement of experiencing bigger waves took hold, and I started walking slowly towards the deeper end. Suddenly, a wave sent me under the water and into a state of panic. I thought to myself: why had I ventured forward so far? Grasping for something to push off of to get closer to the ledge, after a few long seconds, a fellow camper happened to be swimming by. I quickly pushed off his shoulders and on to safety. Not knowing why I had interrupted his play time, he was upset and me, and the lifeguard nearby was totally unaware of what just transpired. Unable to explain the events, I kept quiet.
I tell this story because what led me to press on that day is what leads many of us to tread in the dangerous waters of the internet today. While we begin in the shallow area, by the time we realize, we are already swept up by the current. Although in front a computer, the risk of drowning is no less dangerous.
This cycle of events repeated itself many times in my life, especially during adolescence and young adulthood. What was a physical danger as a child quickly turned into spiritual dangers. But while the internet presented a “clear and present danger,” talk of abstaining from it weren’t compelling.
What do I mean? While it took me many years to learn this, when trying to wean someone away from an addiction, the first step according to chassidus is to first understand the core root of the addiction, then present the opposite expression of this attraction within the realm of holiness. For instance, some weeks ago I was asked for a suggestion in how to encourage a Jewish girl who was then in an ashram in India, to return to her roots. My suggestion was that she should travel to one of the Chabad rabbis there trained in Rabbi Ginsburgh’s system of meditation. As she is looking for a meditative system, she needed to be presented with the counterpart within the realm of holiness.
While AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, now primarily promotes abstinence, the conceptual start of the program is best depicted in these words from psychologist Carl Jung, written to Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, about Rowland H.:
His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness …: the union of G-d.
From the above we can begin to see that the question is not why we are distracted, but being that many in this generation are distracted by the internet–even so far as to wade into treacherous waters–our obligation then is expose the core root of the attraction in the hopes of publicizing the cure.
In response to Paul Miller of The Verge’s abstinence from the internet for a year series, I wrote a piece about the search for connectivity in Jewish thought. But while the concept of “connectivity” is the great attraction to technology in general, in our article now we are speaking specifically about an “attraction to distraction;” to be attracted to something that seems new, notwithstanding the consequences involved.
What I am about to write–as the result of Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class last Thursday night–is something that would have saved me tremendous hardship over the years. Long before the Internet Asifah, the response given to me was always abstinence. But abstinence doesn’t answer the longing of the thirsting soul, as even Carl Jung realized to a degree.
There are two concepts being expressed in today’s youth related to our discussion. The first is a desire to experience the new. The second is a willingness to experience the new to the point of self-sacrifice, mesirat nefesh. To the extreme, the result is suicide, G-d forbid. But going to forbidden sites is also a manifestation of this willingness to sacrifice oneself.
As cited in the headline of this article, the cure is to first promote what exactly Jung’s “union with G-d” means. Joseph became known as the “revealer of secrets” (tzafnat paneach) in the merit of standing up to the test of seduction from Potiphar’s wife. So too, children should be taught to overcome the test of adolescence by steering their distracted attraction towards revealing new novelties in Torah.*
While I encourage you to read the entire transcript from last Thursday’s class–Part 1. Here, please check back for Part 2**, I thought to end with this quote:
The child’s state of mind is such that for instance when a child enters cheider for the first time, he sits with the teacher and we throw candy at him. He is told that the candy was thrown to him by the angel Michael, and that this is the reward given to children who learn. The child’s mindset is such that he believes this. The adults think otherwise, they know otherwise, but in this case, it is the adults who should pick up on the child’s mindset and figure out how to enter the same mindspace. Once a person is an adult, he no longer believes in miracles happening so easily.
It’s not that the child doesn’t know that a miracle happened, it’s that he thinks that this is how the world simply is—G-d performs miracles, this is the world’s nature. The child thinks that G-d is simply required to perform miracles.
Wherever possible, I try and advise people to write about what interests them in the world according to Torah thought. Two years ago I decided to begin CommunityofReaders.org because of my interest in technology headlines and publishing. Instead of quelling that interest, with the encouragement of Rabbi Ginsburgh, I began a site devoted to explaining technology headlines within the landscape of Torah. Now two years and over 170 articles later, with each progressive headline, my enthusiasm over secular news decreases.
While I’m not in a position to say that holding bonfires for smart phones and TVs isn’t a good idea, I can say that this approach didn’t work for me and probably doesn’t work for many of you reading this internet-delivered article.
Above all else, the most important thing is not to get discouraged. In line with the quote above, there is no specific knowledge base needed to experience the miraculous (actually, having a broad knowledge can make it more difficult to see the world through the simple eyes of a child).
All that is needed is a willingness to stand up to trials, specifically, the trial of adolescence.***
You guys are fortunate. No one ever told me this growing up. But I sure wish that someone would have. It would have saved me years of struggle and anguish.
I encourage readers of this article to send me their own writings. While the first step is to begin posting on a personal blog, I am working on a Torah magazine which hopefully will gain greater support in the coming days and weeks. The conceptual basis for a Torah magazine (i.e., relating a fully array of current events to Torah) can be read here.
(Photo credit: Michael Mandiberg)
* According to Kabbalah, the attraction to the distraction of technology relates to the desire to feel connected or united with knowledge, termed the service of making unifications (yichudim), the role of Mashiach the son of Joseph. This is why the first word of advice to people addicted to the internet is to begin making unifications between current events that interest them and the Torah. This search for making unifications according to the Torah is also a clear response to the “seduction of Potiphar” which goes along with nearly every internet addiction.
** Keep in mind that the discussion over reciting birchat hagomel, for our discussion, relates to willingly traveling to dangerous places in order to experience the miraculous.
*** For more on this, read “ TheKabbalah of a Growth Hacker”.
Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 13 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website CommunityofReaders.org.