A recent New York Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/health/teenagers-drugs-smartphones.html?_r=0) posed the question, “are teenagers replacing drugs with smart phones?’ Citing a recent survey titled “Monitoring the Future,” an annual government-funded report measuring drug use by teenagers, the article stated that past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project for eighth, tenth and twelfth graders. Further referencing an emerging field of research into the world of smart phones, the running theory is that mobile devices have become both a healthier distraction for teens and a device where usage can produce the same physiological response as drugs.
The article itself raises some poignant questions about how today’s teenagers seek pleasure and stimulation. But a running commentary throughout the article pushes us toward a deeper question: how do we as a society – from children to seniors – connect and engage with one another?
I am one to both bemoan and praise the cell phone. It is simultaneously a tool of distraction, a portal to not-quite-reality and a unique object that enables access and togetherness in a powerful way. As a parent of a toddler, to have the ability to FaceTime Avi’s grandparents, cousins and loved ones whenever we want – to literally see their faces and hear their voices with the touch of a button – is a modern miracle. (It also bears mentioning that our fifteen-month-old can – and does – FaceTime his grandparents whenever he gets ahold of an iPhone.) Yet the cell phone is absolutely a distraction and a danger – see any number of state laws preventing texting while driving as proof – and, moreover, has become a social liability in circles where human engagement and a “back to basics” approach is paramount. (Example A: the sign asking you to “power down and Shabbos up” on your way into Fourth Shabbat in Seattle.)
The sanctity of connection – of having instant access not only to people you care about, but an entire world of information – is not a new idea. In fact, in this week’s parsha, Vayikra, we begin to glimpse both the idea of connection as it existed for the ancient Israelites and their newfound access to a brand new world – one of holiness and grace, God and humans, sacrifice and sanctity. Vayikra changes the game for our ancestors, presenting them with formal rules and restrictions on the “dos and don’t’s”of Jewish identity. It also presents new methods – in the form of sacrifice – for how to engage on a deeply spiritual level. In some ways, the laws of Leviticus form their own type of “spiritual substance,” providing an elevated form of connection not previously witnessed in Torah.
The essential takeaway in Vayikra – and in Leviticus as a whole – is that something must serve as a conduit between God and humanity; between the divine and the profane. That something, in this week’s parashah, is sacrifice. The aforementioned New York Times article focuses on teenagers seeking an elevated experience – to break the monotony and the drama of adolescence – by way of new avenues and methods. As we begin this new book of Torah may we moderns focus on the essential undercurrent of both these concepts: to connect and engage in a deep way is significant, no matter what era we find ourselves living in.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen