By Daniel Mackintosh
Last weekend, I watched the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, about the impact of social media on our world. It is a set of fascinating interviews with some of the creators of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Whatsapp and Pinterest, who have become shocked at how the tools they created to connect the world now threaten to rip it apart.
Some of the most powerful scenes are these computer designers, amongst the brightest of their generation, who slowly realise that they are addicted to social media. The irony is not lost on them – they, who intimately understand these tools because they built them with the help of psychologists and human behaviouralists to play on human vulnerability and ensure that we donated our lives to social media companies to make them rich, cannot help being hooked themselves.
The social media companies then collect a massive amount of data on us – learning exactly what we read, what we like, what we follow, how long we spend looking at images or stories, and then feeding us a variety of prompts to get us to stay online for as long as possible.
The sweet spot is when these companies can generate anger or sadness in us, and even better, if they can generate in us a need to be publicly validated, so that we get a ‘like’ and a hit of dopamine, the ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’.
Through social media, we become other-directed people seeking to be liked, not respected, constantly anxious if we don’t get the thin public recognition sought.
The documentary details how a number of these designers have crises of consciences when they see their young kids become addicted (and sad) through their social media addiction, fueled by spending their lives on screens.
As the documentary says, the only two industries to call their customers ‘users’ are the drugs trade and social media companies.
So, if you find yourself wanting to check your phone in bed, or at the dinner table, or on the toilet, that is by addictive design.
And what does our Torah have to say about this moment?
First, in Shabbat, we have Judaism’s most powerful tool to check and control our social media addiction.
Shabbat says, like Gandolf in Lord of the Rings, ‘You Shall Not Pass’ – that there are things more important than us making social media companies rich through our addiction.
Shabbat is about investing our time and energy in real, physical relationships, in supporting one another, investing in the life of the congregation, in studying our tradition to learn its wisdom, in eating, in intimacy, in nature, in stopping.
And what wisdom does our parasha have to share?
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The meaning is about the story that we intentionally connect ourselves to. It is always a choice which stories we choose to feel part of. Is this my story, too?
Personally, I have found solace in these words since becoming a migrant. When I arrived in London, in a freezing February in 2013, I was lonely, sad and angry, wondering how I could ever create a meaningful life. Realising that Lech Lecha was my bar-mitzvah portion, which is a spiritual foretelling of your future, and then reflecting on the fact that the Jewish people, and my ancestors, were themselves migrants, put my own struggle into perspective. This was just the next chapter – it was my chance to add my link in the chain of Jewish tradition in a new place, just as we have done for thousands of years.
Avraham, the iconoclast, this man born into a world of idol worship, did as G!d told him – he ‘lech lecha’-ed, he ‘went to himself’. And he became an iconoclast, having this radical revelation that the idols were just clay, and that there was one G!d.
As it says in the Talmud (Bereishit Rabba 42:8), Avraham took the time to cultivate an inner voice, so that he had the courage to ‘be on one side while the rest of the world was on the other’.
And what did he do with this inner, courageous voice? He discerned a mission.
His mission was agreed with G!d in a covenant. And what was the mission? As it says in our next parasha, Va’eira (Bereishit 18:19), Avraham’s mission was to:
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃
For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Avraham what He has promised him.
Avraham was to instruct his children in the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.
Perhaps one of his greatest achievements – beyond his intellectual recognition of monotheism, beyond the cultivation of his courageous, inner voice – was that he was able to encourage the growth of an inner voice in his children, our people, to want to do what is just and right in the world, regardless of what that world looked like, where they lived, or how it treated them.
So finally, how do we develop a courageous inner voice?
As G!d encouraged Avraham to ‘lech lecha’ – go to ourselves – so too can we emulate our ancestor and spend time reflecting on what motivates and moves us. We can think about what we want our legacy and mission in the world to be.
My mission statement, that I try to re-read at the start of each week, starts by saying: ‘I want to build a just and peaceful planet through integrity, kindness, courage and laughter', and seek to achieve this by ‘building organisations that outlast me’. That is what originally made me want to be part of creating Makor Hayim.
If we start the inner work, Judaism can give us the tools and the framework to nurture that voice, reinforced by study, prayer and being in community. Taking Judaism seriously, studying it with others, finding a multitude of ways for it to flow into our lives, rejuvenate, inspire and challenge us, through learning and acting as a kehillah – a sacred congregation – changes and fortifies us.
Our social media addiction makes us obsessed about how other people see us, seeking validation, making us brittle people.
Judaism, and intentionally connecting ourselves to the story of our people, toughens us up. It cultivates our inner voice, it deepens us, making us into kinder and more connected people. By reflecting on our story, we can see that ‘we have been here before’, and our community and tradition have had the resources to overcome it.
May we all support one another to study and understand the great wisdom of Judaism so that it can help us to be like Avraham, and develop a resilient and courageous inner voice.