The Device is the Message: Technology and the Dignity of Creation

We’re all guilty of it. The alarm goes off, and we instinctively reach for the phone. Before our feet hit the floor, we’ve checked the weather, read the news and responded to emails.

Is it the master or the slave who serves? The answer is as simple as it is obvious, it is the servant who serves the master. The irony is that we live at a time when the very technologies that were created to make modern life easier, more enriching and more enjoyable are conspiring to not only rob us of our privacy and infiltrate our eyes and ears with content that demeans and by their very nature transform the relationship between technology and user, between master and slave.

I am not the first to note the consistency of a typical technological user with addictive behavior. In “Life, Unplugged” Barbara Bensoussan writes, “A typical addict is so wrapped up in getting his ‘fix’ that family and other responsibilities dissolve into tangential concerns, and technology addicts are no different. ‘I took my family to an amusement park last Chol HaMoed,’ Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein says, ‘and everywhere I looked, parents were on their cell phones. None of them were working — this was supposed to be a family vacation day — but the parents were busy on their cell phones!’”

Pay attention! This observation does not once speak to the content on those cell phones. It could have been a text, a weather report, catching up on the news, hearing from old friends, or reading the latest Presidential tweet – that did not matter! It was the act of engaging with the technology – of having to engage with the technology – that rendered the behavior damaging. No matter the content, the use of the technology has effectively separated us, torn us asunder, ripped us from our friends, our families, our prayers, our devotion… from everything! We are isolated in our relationship with our technologies, with our devices. We are addicts. We are an eved ivri.

How oblivious are we to our growing isolation, of the utter enormity of the challenge to our souls? Take, as an example, the mourner who traveled from out of town to attend an old friend’s funeral. Unfamiliar with finding his way, he used a GPS app to find his way. Bustling in just as the service was to begin, as a heavy hush fell on the mourners, the sound of his phone seemed amplified. “You’ve arrived at your destination.”

As existential comment? Perhaps. While there are many who might dismiss such a concern (top Silicon Valley executives and engineers not among them – they by and large forbid their children to use devices!) there are others who raise the concern that this “cutting off” that accompanies the use of devices can cause our seichel to atrophy.

Rabbi Yosef Elefant, the renowned Mir Rosh Yeshiva, recently found himself on an extended airline flight seated in economy next to four children whose parents were seated in business class. If Rabbi Elefant feared these children might misbehave absent adult supervision he was quickly disabused of the concern; they were, in fact, model passengers. “The 16-year-old busied himself watching both the El Al movie and another one on his iPad, while listening through an expensive pair of headphones. When the action waned, he played an advanced basketball game on his iPad.

Meanwhile, his eight-year-old sister did not utter a peep the entire flight. She was too transfixed by making doughnuts on her iPad. When she mastered that relatively simple task, she moved on to something more complicated: cheese fondue.”

Twelve hours! Model passengers. As it turned out, that same sixteen-year old boy turned up at the high school yeshivah where the rabbi was speaking the next day. Frighteningly but unsurprisingly Rabbi Elefant took note that the boy had no life in his eyes, no light or joy; his pupils did not dilate.

“One who is attached to the superficial, the chitzoni,” argues Rabbi Elefant, “loses his ability to attach to anything, especially Torah, at a deeper, more penimiusdig level. He has effectively turned himself into an Eisav.”

Cut off from our good sense. Cut off from the world about us. A study from 2009 demonstrated that distracted cell phone users were unaware of a clown on a unicycle passing them on the sidewalk.

How distracted does one have to be to miss a clown on a unicycle!

Who is the master? Who is the slave?

Not long ago, I was sitting with a fine young man, engaged in what I thought was an important conversation about issues and concerns that were vital for this young man to hear. I had no doubt that he was hearing and listening. Imagine my distress when I realized that as I spoke – with great passion, I should add – he was glancing down at his phone, picking it up, checking what the phone was flashing, listening to a message, responding to a message – while I was still talking!

“You know what you are doing now is really not appropriate. In fact, it’s rude.”

He lowered his eyes and quickly responded, “I know, you are absolutely right. It’s wrong. I know, I know.”

I wonder if he does know or if he only knows like an addict knows his behavior is wrong.

So, if he knows, and I believe he does, how should this bizarre behavior be understood?

This troubling behavior calls to mind the eved ivri who stole and was not able to compensate for the theft. As a result, he was sold to a Jew (who, by the way, is obligated to treat him with respect, deference and fairness) for whom he must work to make restitution. He thereby can compensate his victim and simultaneously start life anew, free from debt when his period of servitude ends.

The Chinuch emphasizes that this, along with many other laws relating to servants found in Mishpatim, is an example of the mercy, kindness, consideration and decency the Torah insists on even for those members of society who are not among society’s “elite.”

Imagine then, when our thief’s six years of work is satisfied and it’s time to go back into society with his head held high, independent, allowed to assume his rightful place in society as a mensch, a free man, a respected member of society, one having paid his debt – it is his chance! – and instead he says, “Never mind. I love my master. I shall not go free.”

What? This man would rather remain bound to a master, rather remain an eved, rather forgo freedom and all its gifts and bonuses? Torah, which holds freedom as a most glorious crown, is not at all pleased with one who rejects freedom and instead chooses to debase himself by remaining bound to the master rather than to the Master.

In response to such a decision, the Torah does not let such a decision pass without a sharp response for all to hear. The Torah teaches that if he indeed wants to continue as an eved forever (i.e., until the Jubilee year) “then his master shall bring him to the court and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever” (Shemot 21:5)

He becomes a nirtza.

Rashi promptly asks, mah ra’aa ozen l’hiratza mikol she’ar eivarim sh’baguf – why is it the ear that is bored, more so that any of the other body’s limbs?

The ear, the ear that heard God declare our freedom from the Egyptian bondage that the Children of Israel are My servants, and not servants to servants, but this eved chose to be a servant to a servant so his ear needs to be bored! He was supposed to hear but he did not listen. He was distracted, separated, torn asunder from his good sense.

Long before the cell phone, he found himself ignoring God and glancing down at some other source of information. The ear hears. The mind and soul understand. A disconnect between the two is the difference between freedom and slavery.

And what about the piercing taking place against the doorpost? the Talmud asks (Kiddushin 22b). Because when God took the Israelites out of the Egyptian servitude, He told them to place the blood of the Pesach offering on the lintel on top of their doors, and on the doorposts. The door and the doorposts were witnesses to the miracle of God taking His nation from slavery to freedom. Therefore, this person who does not want to abandon slavery for freedom has his ear pierced at the door and doorpost.

Were you so distracted that you didn’t get the message?

Even so, the Sefat Emet pushes back against the injury done to the poor ear. After all, it’s not the ear’s fault the foolish man didn’t listen. The ear is only the organ that collects sound. It is the brain and the soul that must make meaning from the sounds the ear collects. Leave the poor ear alone! It didn’t do anything wrong. It was the brain, and the heart that “didn’t get it”.

No, says the Sefat Emet. It is the ear’s fault. And here is the connection to the thief, the student who did not listen to my impassioned counsel, the children on the plane and our generation of device addicts – the message was surely delivered but it remained in the ear! The man heard but only superficially. He did not listen. The message did not penetrate, it was not internalized.

He heard but he “tuned out”. He heard God proclaim Ki li b’nai yisrael avadim – they shall be servants to Me, not servants to other servants! His ear heard it, but he did not listen. He was distracted. He was separated from his sense, torn apart from his heart, held at by from his soul. It was not the content that held him at bay but the thing itself, the tool, the device, the technology.

The eved Ivri who chooses his servitude defined the condition that defines today’s obsessive smartphone and other device users. They are the necessary descendants of the one who declared, “I love my master...”

The one who is addicted to his devices, who knows how dangerous, foolish, distracting it is, who sheepishly confesses, “Yes, I know, I know how rude, how dangerous, how distracted I am” and yet returns to the phone, to the device, the technology is cut off from all that is good and decent, most importantly, his freedom.

He has been rendered a mere spectator, not a listener, not one who understands. He is one with “thousands” of friends who do not really know him at all. He texts, he tweets, he emails, he downloads news feeds, IMs, Facebook posts, WhatsApps and with each he grows more and more isolated; more and more lost in his addiction and loneliness.

He invites noise beyond the ear’s ability to distinguish.

The Sefat Emet adds another dimension to the ear’s “fault” in the injury of not listening. Consider the soft ear lobe. The Sages ask why the ear lobe was created. So soft and indistinct unlike the hard, upper ear. The ear lobe is soft so that when we hear things that are unworthy, silly, insulting, negative, we should immediately use the soft ear lobe as a plug to plug our ear and keep out the negative things.

Indeed, we need ear lobes to plug up all the trash and trivia coming our way daily. If only we plugged our ears we could tune out the nonsense that fills up so much of our attention.

Why, it is asked, don’t we bore the eved’s ear soon after he enters his servitude? Why wait until he declares his willingness to serve forever? After all, one becomes an eved ivri either when he steals and cannot repay, or when so impoverished that he sells himself into servitude by virtue of his absolute need.

The answer speaks to our contemporary servitude to our devices.

When the eved is initially sold into slavery, he is impoverished; he has no way out of his poverty. His situation is difficult but legitimate. His options are few, or none. What’s more, he does yet fully appreciate the downside of being an eved. But after six years of servitude, when the full truth of being a servant is clear, when you have tasted the bitterness of avdut, the choice going forward should be plain. To choose to continue as a servant to a master is inexcusable.

There are, of course, countless legitimate and positive reasons to use a cell phone. The possibility of communication is a gift. But when we lose the correct balance, when we become the servant rather than the master, when we are cut off and cut out, when we barely flinch when the beep of a phone message pierces the holiness of the daily minyan then we have gone too far. We have implicitly declared a love for our “master” and compromised our freedom.

Let us beware. The cost is dear indeed. Servitude is not a state to be trifled with. Those ear buds might seem like comfortable, plastic devices that free our hands for other activities (texting? tweeting?) but they are, in fact, like bores being drilled through our ear lobes, marking us forever as servants and not masters, avadim and not free men.

Rabbi Safran’s recently published book on all parshiyot haTorahSomething Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah – is now available on Amazon at greatly reduced price.