Tom Wolfe dubbed the ’70s the “Me Decade.” A poor economy sent Americans away from the social caring of the 1960s and into a retrenchment of insecurity and self-focus.
Today, along with massive economic setbacks, we are enduring a decade of almost endless self-aggrandizing. We feel empowered by our consumer choices; there are millions of things to buy and watch and listen to, such that we spend our days jam-packed with stimulation. But what does this really bring us?
Beneath the barrage, our hearts feel unfed and unloved. Interest in social action has gone out of style, as has involvement in spiritual community, as we withdraw into our homes, replacing friendship with Facebook.
Los Angeles Times Op-Ed columnist Meghan Daum dubbed us a “nation of jerks” for our collective addiction to social media. Instead of connecting when we leave our homes, we “bang into each other when we exit movie theaters because we’re buried in our iPhones.” Almost daily we hear of new mass shootings, perpetrated by people whose only motivation is emptiness.
I propose we call the 2010s the “I Decade.” The individual has moved from “me,” the object of everything, to “I,” its subject. Generosity of spirit, the will to see all people as equal creations of God and to connect with them from a place of depth — the “Thou” of relationship as explained by Martin Buber — is gone from our popular culture.
By admiring self-determination and callous manipulation, and filling every millisecond of our time with shallow interactions, we worship the ultimate non-God: stuff. This is idolatry, the real meaning of the “I Decade.”
“Aleinu, it is upon us,” as we say at the end of every prayer service, to take direct action against this cancer on the Earth we call “I.” We need to restore the “Thou,” and fast. Doing so starts with us — each and every “I” — and the will to want to relate to others, and to God, as a truth as equal and as beautiful as our own. To find the strength to overcome shallowness and truly be present, to trust and to love, is the central struggle of life today for the spiritually alive person.
This is what we learn in this week’s Torah Portion, Shoftim, or Judges. In it, God lays out the key elements for living a good life, a life deserving of the land that God is about to give the Israelites. Central among these is the tenet to never set up a post as a thing of worship, or to bow down to foreign gods. The person found guilty of this must be stoned to death, God adds through Moses. “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.”
Yes, that’s harsh. God wants us to know that it takes a hard-line policy to make a system function. In this case, the system is ourselves and our willingness to be distracted from truth and connection. To take a call in the middle of a conversation. To text while driving, watching movies, sitting in synagogue or taking a hike in the hills. To fill our time with pettiness, instead of giving our minds time to be open to the world, to think about our lives and how we are behaving in them, to truly connect through love. To be.
But how do we overcome so pervasive an addiction, especially when it involves devices and information we do need in order to get by in this modern age?
Medieval kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital finds the answer in our parasha, which begins, “Appoint judges at all your gates.” Vital notes that this is phrased in the singular (you, a specific individual), because it is meant to address each one of us, and our work to overcome the sin of chronic distraction.
We all have six “gates,” Vital says, namely, our eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands and feet. At each portal, we must “station a judge,” a metaphoric guard, to enforce upon us limitations on what we look at, listen to, say, touch and run toward.
As the High Holy Days approach, take some time today to ask yourself — what am I doing to ensure that I spend my time meaningfully?
“Every intelligent person should take this [teaching] to heart, while he is still alive,” Vital said. “He will then merit to have the gates of righteousness open before him (at the time of death).”
Rabbi Avivah Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com).
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