Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Parsha Inspiration

This is a new project - a point of inspiration on the parsha, captured on video for youtube.

A huge thank you to Lorne Lieberman for chasing me for 2 years to do this, and Jacob Aspler for doing the video.

Please send me your comments and thoughts on this.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Free Gilad Now!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Is 25 the New 15?

When it comes to age, it seems that subtract by ten is the new rule of thumb. Everyone is living longer, and at all stages in life, people seem to be ten years younger than their actual age. Our current crop of baby boomers, healthier and more youthful than previous generations, has sworn never to grow old. Indeed, fifty is the new forty.

Subtracting by ten works well with older ages; but what about our twenty-somethings? It seems that younger people are maturing at a slower pace as well. As David Brooks noted in the New York Times: “People….. tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family. In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.”

Twentysomethings are maturing far slower than their parents. People in their middle twenties now seem to be experiencing a second adolescence. Why is 25 the new 15?

The relative immaturity of our contemporary twentysomethings is rooted in the positive phenomena of peace and prosperity. Young people in North America need not serve in the military, and most don’t. Middle class twentysomethings can expect to have their parents provide them with cars, clothing, and cellphones. This dependence on one’s parents continues well after high school. Children who are taking entry level jobs are unwilling to live entry level lifestyles, and their parents are willing to indulge them by paying the rent and covering their credit cards. As one twentysomething observer noted:

The fact is, my peers who flood out of designer stores, arms adorned with shopping bags, wouldn't be able to afford their purchases without ringing up a massive credit-card debt. By continuing to provide for their twentysomething kids, parents hinder their children's ability to be financially responsible.

Or, to put it in simple English: we’re spoiling our kids. That’s why 25 is the new 15.

The problem of spoiling children is an old one. Jacob who works hard all his life to achieve success, spoils his beloved son Joseph, giving him fancy clothes and special treatment. It’s no wonder that the Midrash says that that Joseph was immature! The problem of spoiled children is an old phenomenon; we are simply lucky enough today to have the resources to spoil our children.

Unfortunately, handing our children the good life on a silver platter can do more harm than good. A powerful Kabbalistic idea popularized by the Ramchal is “the bread of shame”. If someone is handed a loaf of bread without earning it, they lose their dignity; and even if the recipient may be happy to live life on easy street, the fact that his achievements are unearned is an embarrassment to a man created in the image of God. To truly be a “man”, one must be dignified and independent, someone who is able to earn his own way. Trust funds may pay your credit card bills, but they can also destroy your character.

This issue is of great importance to the Jewish community. In one generation, the much of the Jewish world has gone from deprivation and suffering to breathtaking wealth. It is normal for a community of immigrants and survivors to want to hand everything to the next generation on a silver platter. And so we give too much to our kids. Hard work becomes unimportant when we hand undeserving young men the keys to successful businesses. Spiritual values get lost when materialism becomes the operating principle. And so we make Bar and Bat Mitzvahs that are so over the top they lend themselves to parody, and are sometimes so garish (and expensive) they end up on the gossip pages of tabloids. Our community has survived, and even thrived in the most difficult of times due to faith, community and character. Ironically, our community’s material success threatens to destroy the very values it was built on.

Adolescent 25 year olds are not an automatic outcome of success; it happens when we forget transmit our values to the next generation. If our priority is to provide our children with values, not valuables, we will have children to be proud of.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Buzz, Buzz, I’ve Got Blackberry Brain

How long will you focus on this article? Will your cellphone ring? Will you check your e-mail or your Blackberry?

Attention spans have been dramatically (….oops, wait, I have an e-mail…) shortened. A horde of digital devices emitting beeps, bells and buzzes demand our deliberation. Who has the time to think when we have text messages and e-mails that demand immediate responses? Our electronic servants are exacting taskmasters.

Even though I’m a Rabbi, I’m an authority on digital disruption; I’m a Blackberry toting, internet blogging, cellphone conferencing kind of guy. And for a while, I kept my Blackberry on “buzz” (which, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Blackberries, means that my Blackberry would vibrate every time an e-mail arrived). Eventually, I started to feel phantom buzzing on my hip, even when I took the Blackberry off; my brain continued buzzing, even when my Blackberry was off. This little electronic gadget was starting to drive me crazy, one buzz at a time.

What I was suffering from was “Blackberry Brain”. With this condition, virtual reality displaces actual reality, and urgent messages trump meaningful moments. Over-reliance on electronic forms of communication alter your relationship to reality.

It’s not surprising that researchers in several countries have documented addictive behaviors in relation to cellphones and personal digital assistants (PDA’s). These devices, with their ever insistent beeping, (with a customized ringtone, of course), demand your constant attention; eventually, you feel empty unless you are typing, tapping or texting something to somebody.

Our electronic masters take advantage of a design flaw us humans have. Human beings have a propensity to fixate on details.

Even in the area of religion, overzealousness in the pursuit of piety can be profoundly destructive. The Talmud refers to the “foolish pious man” who refuses to save a drowning woman because it would be a breach of modesty. This fool is so obsessed with sexual impropriety he’d rather allow a drowning woman to die. Details, in this case get in the way; the pious fool is blinded by his petty pieties, and can no longer see the bigger picture.

We may not be pious fools, but a lot of us are PDA fools, victims of Blackberry brain. We love the wide ranging communications abilities that our Blackberries give us, as in “look, I just e-mailed my friend in Hong Kong”; but if we fixate on this buzzing busybody of a Blackberry, we will forget the people standing in front of us. I must admit, that there are times that arrive home (late) to a wife and children who want to say hello, but instead I’m typing away on the Blackberry, knocking off the last couple of e-mails of the day. (I’d have to assume I’m not the only person who does this). At that moment, when “just one more e-mail” gets in the way, we are experiencing the first symptoms of Blackberry Brain.

Blackberry Brain can be very destructive if you don’t nip it in the bud. As the condition worsens, we completely forget how to focus on other people. Old friends go out for lunch, and instead of catching up, they listen to each other with a half an ear while tapping out quick e-mails; as Blackberry Brain worsens, our old friendships are slowly replaced with shiny new gadgets, soulless devices that just make a lot of noise.

To my mind, the affliction of Blackberry Brain underlines the ever increasing importance of the Sabbath. More than ever, we need a night when we turn off the Blackberry and close our cellphones; more than ever, we need a night when the TV and computer remain dark. We need to find a sacred block of time to gather our family for dinner and conversation. Our technology drenched age needs quiet tranquil moments where authentic, person to person connections can flourish. The Sabbath is the perfect time for that to happen. Because connections come from your soul, not from your cellphone.