I remember as a child in Kingsbury shul, the Chazzan, on Shabbat Bereishit would always sing the Kedusha to the beautiful music of the 2nd movement of Dvorak New World. (The Hovis music for those who don’t know!)
As Shabbat Bereishit 2020 arrives – it certainly is a New World!
All over this blue and white planet, humanity is finding itself fighting a microscopic enemy with no sign of victory in sight. One of the prominent solutions that has and is being used to stop the spread is to separate us, to keep humanity away from each other – to lock us down. The problem is, that by pursuing that strategy is the cure more harmful that the disease?
I have no idea, but I watched something this week that made me realise that we have a bigger problem on our hands.
Someone recommended a documentary to me – ‘The Social Dilemma’, which explores the dangerous human impact of social networking with the tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.
It was very disturbing.
For me the most depressing statistic was the rates of hospital admissions and suicide by girls aged 10 – 14 in America. Up 189% for self-harm and up 151% for suicides since 2009 – when social media became available on mobile phones.
The basis of the documentary was how artificial intelligence is changing the way people think and feel as the algorithm buried into Facebook and twitter keeps finding ways to make sure you are clicking and liking and watching and sharing.
As one review said ‘Social Media is not only scarring self-esteem, making people question their self-worth, causing dissatisfaction in life increasing depression and suicides at an alarming rate but now has transcended past to more dangerous territory. It is now altering behaviour and changing the perception of how people perceive this world.’
Bereishit said it best ‘loh tov heyot adam levado’ – ‘It is not good that man be alone’. Social media and the like, means that more and more people are alone. Who needs to go anywhere when the world is on your phone, where you can play games and even chat to your friends, lockdown is not so bad…..
However, as Hashem tells us – we need each other. We need to be with people who will disagree with us, who will challenge us. The algorithms just massage you, show you either what you want to see or what it thinks you need to see.
Yet, we must realise that in the digital age we also have incredible opportunities for increased connectivity, education, enjoyment etc.
How do we navigate this minefield?
There is an amazing insight in the Parsha brought down by Rav Ari Kahn.
We all know the story. There were two trees in the centre of Gan Eden, Etz Ha Chayim – the tree of life and Etz ha Daat – the tree of knowledge.
Chazal noted that there was no problem with tree of life. In fact, the original plan was to first eat from the tree of life and then the tree of knowledge. It seems that the sin of Adam was to eat from the trees in the improper sequence.
According to the Midrash, Etz Ha Chaim is identified with the Torah. So what is the Etz Ha Daat?Surely knowledge should be associated with Torah? However, this knowledge is very specific. In Bereshit (4:1) we read that ‘V’Adam Yada et Chava’ and Adam knew Chava’ here, it clearly implies experience.
The plan in Gan Eden was for man to eat from Etz Ha Chaim – Torah and only thereafter, with the onset of the first Shabbat, to eat from the Etz Ha Daat as well. The issue is what should come first – Torah wisdom or experience? The advantage of Torah preceding experience is that Torah, once internalized will serve as a basis from which subsequent experiences will be interpreted. Torah becomes a vantage point from which experiences are viewed and understood. If, however, experiences are acquired first, they will serve as a basis for the interpretation given subsequently to the Torah. This latter sequence can lead to distortion of the Torah. Torah must precede experience. Torah must be the benchmark by which Jews lead their lives and mould their views.
The ‘experiences’ of social media, the internet etc. need to be seen through the prism of Torah, to understand what our priorities are and should be. People may say that an algorithm really understands people but nothing understand us better than our ultimate Creator and Designer.
Of course, He placed the ultimate solution to solve online addiction in Parshat Bereishit,‘Vayevarech Elokim et Yom Hashivi, Veyakadesh Oto’ – ‘And Hashem blessed the seventh day and sanctified it’.
Shabbat, 25 hours of sanity in a mad world.
Having the weekly break from the 24/6 of the world on our gadgets and devices definitely demonstrates us putting etz ha hayim before etz ha daat or etz hadata in today’s parlance!
We don’t know where the world is heading or how corona will play out. However, we do know that we have the inspiration and blessing of the Torah for our instructions through the minefield. As Chazal taught ‘Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world’ – it is the blueprint for creation.
We have that blueprint, we live that blueprint and through living Torah, we should have the strength and the ability to engage with the world around us and find our way back eventually to Gan Eden – by creating a new world for all.