“Nafshi laShem mishomrim la’boker, shomrim la’boker” (Tehillim 130:6)
By now, I am sure many of my readers have heard about an innovative strategy some of our communities have adopted in an attempt to battle the scourge of the technological advancements that have so radically transformed our world in recent years: “Hashomrim cards.” These colorful cards, some of which are rare – reportedly fetching up to 25 dollars, are adorned with illustrations depicting the horrific effects owning a smartphone is purported to have on a Jew’s spiritual life and are, in certain communities, distributed by parents and teachers to young children. One card depicts the smartphone owner turning into a wild beast. Another shows a father, wearing headphones, his eyes glued to the screen in his hand, stepping on a crying baby. A third, in which cars filled with frum smartphone users can be seen driving into the fires of Gehinnom, likens the widespread use of smartphones to a measles epidemic, stating “Smartphones are more contagious than measles, more lethal than measles, have caused more casualties than measles, and have no cure (other than HaShomrim cards).”
While a militant few steadfastly support this method of deterrence, hoping that the fear implanted by the threats and warnings expressed will protect our innocent children from harmful influences as they enter adolescence and become ever more aware of our spiritually hostile world, the majority of Jews, including many leading Rabbonim, have denounced this initiative. One major objection to the cards is based on the fact that they encourage the children who collect, trade, and play with them to impudently confront and even harass parents and family members who own a smartphone in the hope that adults will be ashamed of using a smartphone in front of their children – undermining the respect children are commanded by the Torah to exhibit toward their elders and the path of refinement, pleasantness, and decency upon which we attempt to lead our youth. Another objection asserts that the violent illustrations and accompanying messages of the HaShomrim cards can grossly distort an impressionable child’s conception of good and evil. Finally, to the historically sensitive Jew, the images on these cards conjure caricatures of German Jews distributed by the Nazi propaganda machine in the years preceding the decimation of European Jewry.
The purpose of this essay is not to detail what is so horrific about these cards and why, in my opinion, they should be banned from every Jewish home and school. I see this as unnecessary, primarily because it doesn’t seem as if this operation has met with much success. Due, in part, to the grotesque nature of the cards themselves, the disapproval expressed by Rabbonim, and the fact that large segments of our communities seem to disagree not only with the manner in which they are expressed but with the very sentiments themselves it seems clear that Hashomrim cards are another example of a well-intentioned but misguided initiative which will fade to oblivion with the passage of time. Additionally, due to the sensitive nature of this topic and the vast spectrum of opinions regarding the proper Torah response to the technological transformation taking place in our world, it is not either my place to express personal feelings on the matter.
However, there is a thought which has been on my mind ever since I first discovered HaShomrim cards (through a YouTube video of two men, a HaShomrim representative and an irate parent, engaged in a vociferous confrontation on a Boro Park street in front of a crowd made up, largely, of children) which I believe is worthy of being shared with my dear readers.
The creation of HaShomrim cards and other such initiatives seem to be founded upon the premise that the proper way of dealing with the multifarious spiritual difficulties faced by many members of our holy nation (tzniyus issues, talking in shul, lashon hara, technology abuse etc.) is to force Jews, in one manner or another, or to instruct Jews to force themselves, into submission to the yetzer tov’s directive toward alignment with the Will of Hashem. While the present case, in which fear (of Gehinnom, turning into a wild beast, becoming engrossed in technology to the point that one may mistakenly stomp on an infant etc.) is used for the purpose of implanting an aversion to smartphones and their users in the minds of little children, represents an offensively extreme manifestation of this strategy, there are other more subtle iterations which have indeed been readily embraced by our communities. Unpopular they have proven to be, HaShomirm cards are in fact an extension of an accepted ideal – the notion that strengthening Yiddishkeit in our generation involves treating the various issues where they arise, often by way of scare tactics and rhetoric of fire and brimstone. Of all the things so terribly wrong with HaShomrim cards, this premise which it embodies is, in my opinion, perhaps the most unfortunate.
One familiar example is the notion that internet filters will alone protect Jews of all ages and backgrounds from accessing inappropriate material on the web. While it is no question that filters are a wonderful thing and are must certainly be employed in accordance with the ruling of our gedolim, have we the liberty of pretending that filters alone will tame the desire for excitement, connection, and vitality innate to the Jewish soul which, when left unfulfilled in a way of holiness, will naturally seek expression in impure experiences? If some strategy were devised that would effectively eliminate the rampant talking in our shuls, could we then claim to have altered the reality which lies at the core of the issue – that many Jews, lacking the initiation necessary to engage with Hashem in a meaningful manner, are simply not that interested in tefillah? How much longer will we continue to treat the various symptoms of a much larger and more fundamental malady – eliminating indications, wherever they are bold enough to appear while ignoring the central issue to which they point – the lack of emotional investment in Yiddishkeit and a vibrant relationship with the Master of the world? Do we really think that, if not corrected once and for all using the tools Hashem has granted our unique and wondrous generation, this colossal challenge we face will cease expressing itself in various forms on its own?
My Rebbe, R’ Moshe Weinberger shlita, has written that the first Shabbos a teenager (or adult) breaks r”l is not the first Shabbos he didn’t keep – even if he followed all of the halachos every Shabbos since his Bar mitzvah. A Jew to whom Shabbos carries deep meaning and relevance does not simply choose to break Shabbos on a whim. It is the culmination of a long process, a process beginning with an inner flame being blown out and, with the passage of months and years, the bare candle disappearing behind clouds of frost as the “k’rirus‘ of Amalek sets in. When Yiddishkeit is bursting with relevance, depth, and personal import, the various indications of rote, disinterest, and disdain simply disappear. A shul where the congregants are actively engaged in communion with Hashem through impassioned tefillah and where davening is approached as an adventure along the well-traveled road of an active relationship with our Father in heaven, there is naturally no talking. An individual who has built a personal rapport with Hashem through personal prayer, discovering his or her unique path to avodas Hashem, and venturing into the universe of p’nimiyus haTorah which lends itself to existential clarity and the passion engendered by an encounter with the deepest truths and is emotionally invested in that bond will find it far easier to avoid discovery and utilization of the loopholes which plague almost every filter, using technology in a responsible way and, perhaps, even to assist his spiritual growth. (This isn’t to say such a person has no need for internet filters; no one is immune from moments of weakness. However, having dealt with the p’nimiyus of the issue, the measures of chitzoniyus arranged in tandem with this inner work will indeed be able to protect instead of merely enabling him to continue pretending on the outside while privately falling to pieces at the office or in other unprotected arenas r”l.)
The Hebrew word “Shomer” has two variant meanings. The more familiar meaning, which the propagators of the HaShomrim cards intend to employ, is the definition of “to guard” or “protect”. However, Chazal teach that the word “Shomer” can also mean “To yearn for”. (See Rashi to Bereishis 37:11) Whether or not the current HaShomrim cards will have their intended effect remains to be seen. Until then, I would like to propose a new version of HaShomrim cards – this one utilizing the second definition of the word “Shomer“; “Yearning cards” – cards containing beautiful lessons which can inspire within our children the overwhelming desire to engage in a life of commitment to building a relationship with Hashem by means of a Torah-true lifestyle. These cards should convey the wonder, depth, and relevance of our holy tradition by relaying teachings of the tzaddikim who unveiled the deepest secrets of the Torah and placed the diamonds of a Torah life into their proper spiritual setting, allowing every facet of Yiddishkeit to shine with brilliant relevance. They should teach our children what an absolute privilege it is to encounter the Creator of the world through the interface of Torah study, tefillah, and the observance of halacha and depict the uproar in the spiritual worlds which takes place whenever a Jew performs a mitzvah or expresses a holy desire. They should detail the various spiritual energies which flood the world with the onset of Shabbos and our precious yomim tovim and teach the sweet, innocent children of am Yisrael that there is an aspect of every Jew’s relationship with Hashem that can never be terminated. They should teach our children about Hisbodedus, the ability to speak to Hashem as one would to his very best friend, directly, in English, and about anything in the world and depict the spark of holiness within each Jewish soul that can never be extinguished, no matter how fiercely the winds may blow. They most definitely should teach that while love and holy desire compel a healthy Jew to strive for the closest relationship with Hashem, it is important to remember in unavoidable and inevitable moments of spiritual disappointment that He loves us unconditionally, regardless of anything we may have done, and constantly believes in our ability to begin again, each and every moment.
Based on the manner in which these teachings and the consciousness with which they imbued my heart and soul have so radically elevated and transformed my life in addition to the lives of so many thousands of Jews all over the world as the Sunlight of Redemption continues to rise over the barren plains of our generation, I have a feeling that this new set of “HaShomrim cards”, filled with lessons that allow our children a chance to truly yearn for a Yiddishkeit of life, joy, vitality, depth, and relevance, will have a lasting, positive, and spiritually healthy effect on our youth.
Friends, regardless of whether anyone acts on this idea and cards of this nature are actually produced, the point remains. Spending our days patching the holes in our generation’s commitment to Yiddishkeit while ignoring the moths which continue their frenzied work in the darkness of night can only go so far. Just as a doctor who prescribes painkillers to treat symptoms of a life-threatening disease instead of operating to remove the tumor can be sued for malpractice, the various takkanos instituted by well-meaning rabbanim, educators, and parents – if not accompanied by proactive measures to strengthen the emotional commitment of our youth – constitute gross negligence in the treatment of the Jewish soul. (It goes without saying that our Rabbonim, educators, and parents must see to it that they actively pursue this emotional connection as well. As one Jewish thinker wrote, “Like Yehoshua and the Jewish nation, in order for a teacher to guide a student into the Promised Land he must have been there himself.”) Instead, a change of focus is in order – a campaign suited to the needs of this unique generation, committed to stoking the latent embers of love, awe, and wonder inherent to the Jewish soul, creating a fire of passion that may succeed in melting away every last vestige of the Amaleki chill eternally awaiting an opportunity to smother the flickering flame of the Jewish spirit.
R’ Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin teaches that while the Dor HaMabul personified the negative passions of youth (“Ra m’neurav“) and the Dor HaMidbar embodied youth’s positive passions (“Chessed n’urayich“), the final generation before Moshiach’s arrival will experience both the positive and negative aspects of this passionate spirit (“Tischadeish k’nesher n’uraychi”); a tremendous drive for impurity in tandem with an unprecedented fire of holy intention. (Tzidkas HaTzaddik 95) Friends, this is our generation – the silent Ne’ilah of history, where, secluded with our Father in heaven in a spirit of renewed commitment and inspiration as the sun sets on our nation’s remarkably successful mission, the tranquil intimacy is continually shattered by the Satan’s furious banging on these locked gates of Heaven on earth. At the very end of our nation’s epic journey from Sinai to Mashiach, we stand facing a crucial fork in the road marked with two arrows: “Dor shekulo chayav” and “Dor shekulo zakai“. Will we continue our feeble attempt to hold back the roaring waves of the ocean with scare tactics and angry rhetoric, a strategy sure to result in our being swept away by the Satan’s deluge r”l? Or will we prepare ourselves, with the most desperate yearning for a relationship with Hashem by way of involvement with the teachings of the tzaddikim and the clarity, humility, faith, understanding, joy, beauty, and passion they have proven to afford, for a new k’riyas Yam Suf? The choice, my friends, is ours to make. Are we prepared to face an uncertain future?