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Our phones, our stumbling blocks

Texting while on the road is distracting us to death and a passage from Leviticus drives the message home

The 1993 sports drama Rudy, starring Sean Austin, had always been a personal favorite. The movie’s David vs. Goliath storyline is punctuated by the closing scene. Whether I watched the entire movie or even just the last eight minutes, you could count on tears coming down my face. I joked in the months preceding my wedding that in order to cry at our bedeken (veiling) ceremony, the wedding planner could install an overhead flatscreen TV playing Rudy to get the tears to start flowing. I made this comment in the presence of my mother a number of years ago and her response was surprising: “I hate that movie. Hate, hate, hate.” What I didn’t realize was that the movie would always be associated with a gut-wrenching conversation from almost 20 years ago.

“Turn off the TV” she said. I turned off Rudy as a serious aura enveloped the room. My sister and I sat down on the family room couch and began listening to our parents express raw honesty and emotion. Had someone been laid off? Had someone gotten sick? It was much more unfathomable than either of those options. Our cousins’ car had been side-swiped by an elderly distracted driver. Our cousin Rachel, age 9, had not made it.

All forms of death are troubling and difficult to grapple with. When someone dies as a centenarian, it is challenging because we feel they could live forever. When someone dies after a long illness, we struggle with the pain they had to endure and the void left in our lives. When a young life is taken in an instant, we feel shock, anger, pain and the deepest of sorrows.

I share this story as context. Our passions, the issues we fight for, are informed by the stories in our lives that have left the greatest and most indelible footprints. In our community of Jacksonville, Florida, we are still in shock over the death of our beloved Esther Ohayon on Kol Nidre evening. Two tragic deaths, years and miles apart, stick with me when I see others distracted on the road; when I avoid getting hit as a pedestrian or as a driver while someone runs a red light. As technology has changed, so too have the number of ways that one can drive while being “distracted.” As that number increases, it is our responsibility as engaged community members, and more specifically, as Jewish communal leaders, to speak up to our constituents- via sermon, social media, and call to legislative action, in order to crack down on distracted driving. 

What does “distracted driving” actually mean?

Distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. The Center for Disease Control highlights three main types of distractions:

  • Visual: taking your eyes off the road;
  • Manual: taking your hands off the wheel; and
  • Cognitive: taking your mind off of driving.

More specifically, this can include:

  • Texting
  • Using a cell phone or smartphone
  • Eating and drinking
  • Using a navigation system
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player

In the United States, texting and talking on your cell phone has reached epidemic proportions. A 2011 survey by the CDC revealed the following statistics:

Talking on a cell phone while driving

  • 69% of drivers in the United States ages 18-64 reported that they had talked on their cell phone while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed.
  • In Europe, this percentage ranged from 21% in the United Kingdom to 59% in Portugal.

Texting or emailing while driving

  • 31% of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 reported that they had read or sent text messages or email messages while driving at least once within the 30 days before they were surveyed.
  • In Europe, this percentage ranged from 15% in Spain to 31% in Portugal.

Why do we as Americans feel the need to respond to that text, to that phone call? What makes us have a false sense of invincibility? During this past year’s High Holiday messageRabbi Zoe Klein expressed similar concerns about the dangers of texting and driving: 

DWI, Driving While In-text-ified causes 1.6 million accidents a year.

Driving While In-text-ified causes 330,000 injuries per year.

Driving While In-text-ified causes 11 teen deaths every day.

75% of teens say Driving While In-text-ified is common among their friends.

Half of young drivers have seen their parents Driving While In-text-ified.

Driving While In-text-ified makes you 23 times more likely to crash.

Driving While In-text-ified slows your brake reaction speed by 18%.

Driving While In-text-ified is the source of nearly 25% of all car accidents.

Driving While In-text-ified is 6x more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.

Driving While In-text-ified is the same as driving after 4 beers.

Driving While In-text-ified is the same as driving blind for 5 seconds at a time.

At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of a football field completely blind.

Think about that ultimate statement- it is like driving the length of a football field completely blind.

These issues of “distraction” amidst a world inundated with flashing tickers on billboards and on our electronic devices enable our smart phones to make us act stupidly. This is an issue every minute of every day we set out in a vehicle. In this week’s parsha, Kedoshim (meaning “holy”), we find the following verse:

Leviticus 19:14:

.לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה


Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but thou shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD.


This verse focuses on our actions towards others. When we selfishly check that post or try to input an address while going 40 mph down the road, we place a stumbling block not only in front of our blinded selves, but in front of those sharing the road with us.

Our lives and our vehicles are over-programmed. This issue goes well beyond texting and driving. Waze, the social media driven GPS app developed in Israel and recently purchased by Google, is very accurate as well as very dangerous.

And so as we clean our houses from the “non-chametz” we’ve endured through the past few days, lets make sure that some chametz doesn’t make it back into our norm of practice.

A Driving Teshuva 2.0:

  • Live it. Sign a pledge to stop texting.
  • Preach it.

We preach about social issues and politics. Doing so makes others aware of situations they otherwise may never know about. Let us take this period of counting the Omer, a period of deep introspection, to raise awareness in our communities and thus strengthen awareness on the road.

  • Advocate.

Speak to those who fight for stronger driving penalties (as of this article, Florida still treats texting as a secondary offense with a minimal fine).

Parshat Kedoshim outlines a pathway to sacred behavior. If we focus on changing the bad decisions we make behind the wheel, we remove stumbling blocks, allowing our eyes to see the sacredness of our lives as well as the sanctity of others sharing the road.

About the Author
Hazzan Jesse Holzer currently serves as the Cantor of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. Hazzan Holzer received his BA from New York University and completed a Masters Degree in Sacred Music and investment as a Hazzan from the H.L. Miller Cantorial Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2008 . He is an avid sports enthusiast, enjoys travel and playing piano, and is a devoted collector of Jewish music and rare prayer books.
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