I recently wrote about technology and tefilla and asked with the great competition for attention with information and technology students today have a hard time reflecting. Rabbi Goldberg makes several tremendous points that should reverberate for all those who teach tefilla and what is now called "experiencing the absence of presence". I think this vignette poignantly captures the advantages and challenges before us:
The proliferation of technology in every aspect of our lives brings with it incredible blessings, opportunities and advantages, but at the same time poses new challenges and difficulties. Many of the challenges are obvious and have been addressed somewhat broadly, such as the easy access and addictive nature of inappropriate and graphic material and images on the Web. Responses and strategies have been offered to combat this particular malady, including installing filters and only allowing Internet access in public spaces within the home.
We would be severely remiss, however, if we didn’t acknowledge some of the other challenges posed by technological progress, many of which are subtle and go unnoticed.
Research shows that smartphones, with their abundance of apps, access to social networking sites and text messaging, are as addictive as drugs and alcohol. The unrelenting urge to check the incoming message or notification has yielded a new phenomenon called “absent presence.” When people are physically in proximity to one another but their minds and attention are elsewhere, in reality they are absent. Couples sharing a meal together but responding to text messages, men checking their e-mail while donned in tallis and tefillin, parents pushing their children on the swings while talking on their cell phones, are all experiencing absent presence.
When Moshe Rabbeinu ascends Har Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem tells him “alei eili ha’harah, v’heyei sham,” “Ascend toward me on the mountain and be there.” If Moshe is told to go to the top of the mountain, why does he need to be instructed to also be there? If you read between the lines, you can almost hear Hashem saying to Moshe, “I know you are responsible for hundreds of thousands. I am aware that they need your attention and that you are currently occupied with countless responsibilities, but when you come on top of that mountain, put it all aside and be there. Be with Me and Me alone.”
If we are going to experience quality, meaningful time in our relationships, be it with our spouses, our children or with Hashem, we must learn to disconnect. We must rediscover the capacity to be fully present in all that we are doing at any given moment.
There is one relationship in particular in which the pervasive interruption of technology is most destructive and damaging, and that is the relationship we have with ourselves. Real personal growth and progress occur when we have the time and space to think, contemplate and consider. With the explosion of technology, people are less comfortable being alone and experiencing quiet. The constant pings, beeps and alerts create a running background noise in our lives that precludes and prevents silence.
“Vayivaseir Ya’akov levado,” Ya’akov wrestled when he was levado, alone, by himself and without noise or interruption. Our lives are being lived at warp speed, driven by an obsession with technology and leaving us with no time, energy or mental space to wrestle with ourselves, thereby stifling growth and advancement.
The addiction to multimedia gadgets has left an additional casualty in its wake, one that afflicts the younger generation in particular. The ability to daven meaningfully requires the effective use of the imagination and focused vision of the mind’s eye. When we reach out to our Creator praising Him, listing our needs and thanking Him, there is no accompanying music, Youtube video or great app for that. Effective and uplifting davening relies solely on our ability to connect without the help of electronic stimuli and tools. If we and our children are to find meaning in our prayers, we must protect our ability to generate inspiration internally, without the help of gadgets or gimmicks.
Technology has made the world smaller and opened up avenues of communication and connection that were never dreamt possible. And yet, while communication is easier, the quality of our communication is diminishing. Many teens cannot articulate a thought that is longer than 140 characters, the length of a text message. They speak in acronyms such as lol and ttyl. The cell phone bills reveal only a few minutes used but thousands of text messages sent.
Even adults are celebrating major milestones such as semachot, birthdays or anniversaries with a text message greeting rather than a warm phone call. An e-mail or text wishing comfort to a friend who is sitting shivah can never replace the even silent companionship of a personal visit. I heard recently that in dating it has become more popular to break up via text messaging rather than in a dignified person-to-person meeting. Facebook has replaced real face time with real friends and Twitter has supplanted the verbal exchange of ideas.
Technology has given us access to unprecedented amounts of information, but rather than digest it fully, slowly and methodically, we can only read it if it comes in a digest. The trend of reading in snippets, summaries and blogs has infiltrated our Torah learning style as well. Rather than pore over primary sources in all their breadth and depth and subtlety, absorbing their full content, we lean toward seforim and compilations that summarize, condense and present Torah in a manner requiring little thought or exertion on our part.
We must be deeply grateful for the blessing of technological progress. But at the same time we must be vigilant in setting boundaries, creating protocols and being discerning in the technology we embrace and how we relate to it.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida.