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Do Not Hide Your Face: Houston and the Cellular Eclipse

In this week’s Torah portion we read about hashavas aveidah, the Mitzvah to return lost objects. There is a positive directive associated with this Mitzvah, “hasheiv t’shiveim, return the lost object” and there is also a prohibition associated with this Mitzvah, “lo tuchal l’hita’leim, do not hide your face.” It’s the latter directive which is most difficult to fulfill. Walking down the street, you see an item out of the corner of your eye – pick it up, find its owner – meh! It’s much simpler to pretend you didn’t see it. To that the Torah reminds us,“lo tuchal l’hita’leim, do not hide your face.” Our Sages understand this directive to have ramifications far beyond returning lost objects. There are other examples of hiding one’s face which I’d like to speak about today. 

This past week, we saw numerous examples of people who did not hide their face. They saw something, they could have easily felt bad, maybe even donated a few dollars, but they did so much more.

Whether it was Mattress Mack, Jim McIngvale, the owner of two tremendous storehouses of mattresses in Houston, who sent his trucks throughout the city to pick up stranded people – Regardless of how wet, dirty, or smelly they may have been, they were invited to stay in his warehouse, to be fed, and to sleep on his merchandise, on his mattresses.

Whether it was Dr. Stephen Kimmel, a pediatric surgeon, who was called by the local hospital and told that a 16 year old patient of his needed emergency surgery – Despite his own home beginning to flood, he left his family and started driving to the hospital. Along the way, he had to stop because of rising waters. Rescued by two volunteer firemen, the three of them canoed as close as they could to the hospital, he walked the last mile with water up to his waist, entered the hospital drenched, changed into his scrubs, and saved the teen’s life.

Or whether it was the thousands of local volunteers driving around on boats rescuing those who are trapped, or the countless other volunteers -All of them lived up to the Torah’s directive of lu tuchal l’hitaleim, of not turning the other way, of not hiding their face.

If you have not yet done so, the very least we can do at this time, is to contribute to one of the many organizations providing help for the thousands upon thousands of displaced and suffering people in Houston, Texas. They need our help and it is incumbent upon as Jews and as fellow citizens to not hide our face.  

But unfortunately, while there are many heroic people who do not cover their face, who do not simply walk on by, there are many others who do, all the time. While I was away these past two weeks I noticed a very different form of hiding one’s face. In Pittsburgh, at a pizza shop, I saw a group of friends sitting together but at different points in their meal, covering their faces. In Toronto, at the many kid-friendly activities we went to, mothers were covering their faces, fathers covering their faces. In Niagara Falls, most of the tourists were covering their faces. And scariest of all was the drive from Toronto to New York, where many of the drivers were covering their faces.

I call this phenomenon the cellular eclipse; everyone’s face seems to be covered by a smartphone. And very much like the solar eclipse, it’s rather dangerous.

Louis C.K. is a comedian with a rather incisive perspective on society. If you could sanitize his routines, he could easily be a preacher. He once said the following about why he’s not buying a cellphone for his daughter:

“You know, kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’”

And he’s right. Face to face communication is what allows us to develop empathy. Screen to screen communication doesn’t allow for that.  

He goes on, “[I was driving the other day and a Bruce Springsteen song came on… And it gave me a kind of fall, back-to-school-depression feeling and it made me really sad. And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’

I just cried like a …. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.

And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.”

“The thing is,” he concludes, “because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone …. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”

He shouldn’t quit his day job, but I think it’s fair to say that he nailed it. And now that I’ve gotten quoting Louis C.K. in a sermon off my bucket list, I could tell you that it’s not just comedians making these points. The most-read article on The Atlantic over the past month is an article titled, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The author, Jean Twenge, cites a wealth of data that demonstrates some pretty scary trends among teenagers, trends that have developed and grown specifically over the past five years. Here’s a few: Teenagers are reporting to be far lonelier than they’ve ever been before. Teenagers are being bullied far more often than in the past. Teenagers are being treated for depression at alarming rates. And teen suicide has been climbing higher and higher, causing some psychologists to suggest that a mental health crises is on the horizon.

So what happened in 2012 that caused all these terrible trends?

Suggests the author, smartphones. 2012 was the year when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. And so she suggests, based on a few studies, that the more screen time, the less happiness. Her closing suggestion is that we limit, severely limit our children’s time on their phones.

However, in a thoughtful response and rebuttal to this well-read article, Alexandra Samuel argues that we have completely misunderstood the statistics. Because it’s true, she writes, smartphone-use crossed the 50% threshold in 2012. But teenagers were still using dumbphones in 2012. You know who really started using smartphones at that time? 18-59 year olds. Another name for 18-59 year olds? Parents.

That’s right. It’s not simply the ‘screens’ fault, it’s our fault. Parents. It is our fault that teenagers are sadder, it’s our fault that they’re less resilient, and it’s our fault that teens these days are less social. We parents have modeled poor communication skills; we fight via text, we love via Skype. And we interrupt the most tender, intimate moments, with a glance at our phone. “True love,” wrote one contemporary philosopher, “is a lack of desire to check one’s smartphone in another’s presence.”

We’re terrible models of the vibrant, rich, and enjoyable social lives we grew up with. But far more serious, is that thanks to our smartphones, us parents have ignored our children.  

There is something called minimal or distracted parenting. Studies have shown that when we’re distracted we respond more slowly to children, and we respond for shorter periods of time. Worst of all, there is an increase in negative interactions because we need to balance our control of the child and whatever it is we’re being distracted by. And, studies have shown that it’s not even turning to the phone that’s distracting. Simply having a phone nearby, expecting it to go off at any minute, causes a significant amount of distraction. I think we should just get rid of the term – distracted parenting is not just not parenting.

Now for Hindy and I, we didn’t really have a struggle with our cellphones this vacation – as soon as we crossed the border into Canada we had no cell phone service. And let me tell you, it was the biggest blessing ever. It was awesome. We would leave our cellphones at home and if they were with us, our emails, WhatsApp and Facebook messages simply weren’t going through, and it made a world of a difference.

I remember one back and forth with our children that went on and on – I don’t even know what we were discussing. I’m embarrassed to share this but I will. I turned to my wife after, and I said, “Sadly, I don’t think we could have such a conversation on a weekday if we had cellphone service.” That was a scary, scary thought.

Every Pesach we read about the Four Sons. And all the 20th century commentators marvel at the Torah’s sensitivity to the different personality types that exist in our children. But you know what’s even more impressive? And perhaps more impressive specifically in the 21st century – The Torah is speaking about one parent! One parent who is engaged enough with their four children, attentive enough to their differences, and available enough to respond to them – that’s a powerful message. Lo tuchal l’hit’aleim, let’s not cover our face. Let’s look our children in the eye, let’s be there for them, let’s model for them, and let’s be parents.

There are many important causes in the world, in Baltimore, Israel, Houston, and beyond. But to be quite honest, if we turn our face away from the people in Houston, and we shouldn’t, but if we do, there are millions of others who can help them. If we turn way from Israel, and we shouldn’t, but if we do, there are hundreds of thousands of others who can help. But if we turn away from our children, if we hide our face… There is no one else who can be that child’s father, there is no one else who can be that child’s mother. Let’s put our cellphones down, pick our faces up, and let’s look deeply into the eyes of those who need us most.  

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