Thursday, June 6, 2019



          One night, an elementary school teacher was sitting on her living room couch grading the essay’s her students wrote about something they wished for. Her husband was sitting next to her checking his emails and social media accounts.
          Just when the teacher thought she’d finished correcting all the essays, she noticed that there was one more. She read the essay once and then she read it again to her husband:
          “I wish I was a smartphone, because then my mom and dad would give me all the attention in the world. Sometimes my parents are so busy with their phones that they ignore me.
          When my mom and dad come home from work, they are really tired, and they spend time checking up stuff on their phones. Even when my mom or dad do talk to me, as soon as their phone rings, they pick it up and forget about me.
          When they’re talking with someone on the phone, even if I’m excited about something that I want to discuss with them, they shush me and motion that they’re on the phone.
          I wish I was a smartphone because then maybe my parents would want to spend more time with me and would laugh and smile and become excited with me, the way they do when they look at their phones.”
          The teacher and her husband were in tears when they realized that that last essay wasn’t from a student; it was from their son!

          The Medrash[2] relates that the Torah was given in the ownerless desert to symbolize that every person has the right to study Torah. No one has exclusive rights to the Torah; it is there for the taking.
          The Medrash adds that there is no cost to traverse the vast expanse of the desert, so too, there is no fee to come and study Torah, only a desire to glean from its depth and profundity.
          The commentaries add another symbolism of the desert; it is a place of silence, free of distractions.
          When the Torah was given there was thunder, lightning, and the sound of the blowing shofar, and the very earth shook on its foundation. But the rest of the world was absolutely silent. The birds didn’t chirp, the angels stopped their song, the waves of the sea did not crash upon the shore, and no one spoke. Only the Voice of G-d emanated throughout the world, proclaiming “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out from the land of Egypt.”[3]
          Many years later, following his epic conformation with the false prophets of Ba’al, Eliyahu Hanavi stood at that same location and had a revelation of G-d. First Eliyahu experienced a whirlwind followed by an earthquake and a fire. But G-d informed Eliyahu that none of those tempests represented revelations of G-d. Rather G-d was to be found in kol demama daka – a thin, still voice - the sound of silence.[4]
          The depth of that message was that if one wishes to hear/encounter G-d, he must listen inwards to hear the divine from within!
          The haftorah for the second day of Shavuos begins: “And Hashem is in His holy sanctuary – let the whole earth be silent before Him!”[5]
          Malbim explains that the world needs to be silent in order to recognize G-d’s glory, and to be filled with awe before Him.
          Perhaps the most well-known component of Kabbolas HaTorah, was when Klal Yisroel declared “na’aseh v’nishma – we will do, and we will hear.”[6] It was a declaration of complete and unconditional submission to the Torah and its mitzvos.
          We seem to have a far easier time fulfilling na’aseh - the things we need to perform and do, then we are about fulfilling nishma – the ‘hearing components’ of the Torah. Nishma entails contemplation, to comprehend and decipher, not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law. It is the ability to comprehend what the Torah demands of us in living a noble and elevated life.
          Deciphering those messages takes patience and thought. One must silence the noise of life in order to hear the messages that emanate from within our hearts and minds. Silencing the background din of life is a tremendous challenge for us in a society inundated and driven by distraction.  
          A Time magazine article from May 2015, entitled “Are my devices messing with my brain?”, explains how smartphones negatively affect output and production. Every time a person shifts his focus there is something called a switch-cost. The brain stumbles somewhat and it takes some time before it can reengage in what it was doing. One study showed that it can take 15 to 25 minutes for a person to become fully re-involved in what he was doing when he interrupted himself to check an email.  
          The article quotes Dr. Paul Atchley, a cognitive psychologist at Kansas University, who noted that lots of device use bombards the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a central role in willpower and decision making. The prefrontal cortex is what prevents us from making foolish decisions, such as eating unhealthily and texting while driving. That part of the brain isn’t fully developed until a person is in the earlier 20s.
          The article concludes with a quote from Atchley: “Imagine Einstein trying to think about mathematics at a time when part of his brain was wondering what was going on with Twitter. People make incredible breakthroughs when they’re concentrating very hard on a specific task, and I wonder if our devices are taking away our ability to do that.”
          For us, as a people who value and strive to maintain concentration and focus when we are davening or learning Torah, this struggle becomes all the more relevant and vital.
          Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok haKohain Kook zt’l explains that when it comes to influencing others, one must speak up and be encouraging. However, in order to receive divine influence, one must be silent and introspective.[7]
          “Silence comes from the depth of the soul and from emotions beyond human speech. When a deep person remains silent, worlds are formed, songs are composed in the heights of sanctity, and a great strength elevates one’s whole being.”[8]
          In order to maintain any positive relationship, there must be communication. Judaism is not meant to be merely a religion; it is also meant to be a relationship.
          In our world, relationships suffer greatly because of overuse of technology. In order to hear each other, we need to be able to shut out everything else. Relationships connote exclusivity. If we are focused on everything simultaneously, we are essentially focused on nothing.
          Shabbos grants us the opportunity to have that internal focus. In order to accept the sanctity of the day we shut out all the distractions of the outside world.  
          In that sense, Shabbos is the perfect introduction for Shavuos and Kabbolas HaTorah, because it is only when we turn inwards that we can connect upwards.

          “A thin, still voice”
          “We will do, and we will hear”    

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] The Following is the lecture I was privileged to give in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbas Kodesh parshas Bamidbar, Erev Shavuos 5778
[2] Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, parshas Yisro, Shemos 19:2; Yalkut Shimoni 286
[3] Shemos Rabbah 29:9
[4] Melachim I 19:11-12
[5] Chabakuk 2:20
[6] Shemos 24:7
[7] Oros Hakodesh, volume 1, p.110
[8] Oros Hakodesh, volume 3, p. 274


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