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Reclaiming Conversation

By Rabbi Andrew Straus~ Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2016 / 5777
In our pockets, each one of us has one of the most transformative instruments ever created by human beings. We each have more computing power than was on the Apollo spacecraft that landed a man on the moon. In your pocket, you carry what would have been considered a super computer, and it just happens to have a phone app too! There can be no doubt that the smartphone has changed the way we communicate with each other. In many cases that is good. With a simple tap, I can reach out to anyone in the world from almost any place. I can quickly be in touch with my wife and children and send them a text letting them know what’s going on: “Running 15 minutes late”; “Just got Michael’s SAT scores”; “Just landed. See you curbside.”; “Thinking of you. I love you.”
For many purposes texting is great and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But numerous studies are telling us that due to our ever-increasing use of technology, we are losing the art of conversation.
How could that be? We are the most communicative, connected generation in history. We text, we post, we tweet. Many of us have even begun to feel more comfortable in our electronic conversations than we do with face to face communication or even a simple phone call. Think about it for a second – how many of your children (or grandchildren) use the phone app on their mobile device? I remember when our daughter Elana got her first phone. About 6 weeks later, it started ringing. She looked at us and asked “How do I answer it?” Sometimes we are more comfortable texting or e-mailing than they picking up the phone and talking.
Our smart phones have become ubiquitous. We don’t go anywhere without them. We’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we pick up our phone. There is a lull in conversation, we pick up our phone. We even take our phones with us to the “restroom.” Walk into a restaurant and look at a table – no one is talking to the people they’re with— they’re on their phones. Think of your own dinner table. I know it is true of ours: we’ll be in the middle of a conversation and get stumped by a question, and even though our dinner table is supposed to be a technology free zone, invariably one of us will reach for a device and “ask” Google or Siri. Go to a park and watch the kids playing while their parents are watching from a bench – immersed in their phones. Is it any wonder that children regularly complain about having to compete with smartphones for their parent’s attention? Pediatricians are reporting that kids are talking at a later age, because their parents don’t talk to them and that fine motor skills are developing latter because kids are spending more time swiping then drawing.
We hide from each other, even when we’re sitting together. Even a silent phone – or Apple watch – is disruptive: while engaged in conversation, our eye is on the device. And when it vibrates or flashes, even if you don’t respond, it controls your mind for a few seconds. I wonder, are you really present?
Research shows that many of us prefer texting and emailing because it is not spontaneous: I can carefully craft a response before I hit send. But that is not real life. Real life is spontaneous. One young person wrote that “he is not confident he can express himself without a chance to edit his message. He knows he needs practice in conversation.” How sad. We’re losing the types of real-life relationships in which you don’t always have to worry about getting it perfectly right.
In other cases, the indirectness of electronic conversation emboldens us to say things that we would never say to someone’s face. We are meaner, less compassionate, less empathetic and less caring. Just look at our political conversation if you have any doubt. Numerous studies have shown that our online behavior is rolling over to the way we communicate in person. Teachers tell us – “Students don’t seem to be making friendships as before. They make acquaintances but these connections seem superficial.” One Middle school principal wrote “Twelve year-olds play on the playground like eight-year olds. They don’t seem to be able to put themselves in the place of other children.”
It’s not just our teens. Couples – who should be able to have difficult conversations with each other - are avoiding those conversations and having them via text. They think it is safer. I can compose my thoughts, and I don’t have to see your face. I don’t need to confront how I am angering you, or disappointing you, or making you sad. As one young person asked, “What is the value proposition of face to face conflict in a family?”
In her recent book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle writes “Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if they are left alone with their thoughts for even just a few minutes. In one experiment people were asked to sit quietly – without a phone or book – for fifteen minutes. At the start of the experiment they were also asked if they would consider administering electroshocks to themselves if they became bored. They said absolutely not: no matter what, shocking themselves would be out of the question. But after just six minutes alone a good number of them were doing just that!”
It adds up to a flight from conversation, conversation that is spontaneous, conversation in which we can play with ideas, conversation in which we can be fully present with each other. We are losing the art of empathetic reflective listening, of intimate conversation. We are fleeing from alone time, time to think, time to free associate, time to just be or to day dream.
As Stephen Marche wrote in the May 2012 Atlantic magazine, …within this world of instant and absolute communication … we suffer from unprecedented alienation. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. Loneliness and being alone is not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in quality social connections has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant. The challenge for us is, how do we create those face to face connections? For over two thousand years, our Jewish tradition has taught us that life is lived in community. We grow and develop and thrive only when we are part of a community that is responsible for us, and we have responsibilities to it. Abraham understood that one word could make all the difference. “Hineini” here I am… ready to listen and to respond. On Facebook we, too, say “Hineini,” but there it means “look at me, notice me.” Abraham uses hinieni to open a conversation. Three times he is called and three times he responds “Hineini.” Each time he says the word is instructive for us this evening:
God calls out to Abraham and says “Take now your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there for a burnt offering….” (Gen. 22) Abraham does not hesitate. He responds “Hineini,” Here I am.
My colleague Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z”l) has written, “This is what Hineini is all about – the willingness to respond to the other, the readiness to act on the other’s behalf no matter what is being asked. When trust has been built up and we have a relationship, then each of us has to be ready to respond and act when we are called upon” It is not enough just to click “Like. ” It requires getting out of the comfort of our homes. It requires an arm around the shoulder or a hug that assures us of presence and concern. It requires seeing the other’s face, hearing the pain or joy in his or her voice. At the root of the word korban, sacrifice in Hebrew, is the root karov: to draw near. The korban, the sacrifice of saying “hineini” and truly being there for someone, is not about what we give up but what we gain. To truly be a friend means saying “Here I am. It is not all about me. I am willing to go out of my comfort zone, I am ready to put myself out for you, physically and emotionally. I am ready to sacrifice some of my own comfort and desires, so that in the long run I (we) will have a richer deeper relationship.” When you say Hineini, I need to see your face and hear your voice. And we need to be willing to go out of your comfort zone. When Abraham and Isaac are walking alone –… Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, ‘My father’ and he said, “Hineini, here I am my son.’ And he said: Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? And Abraham said ‘My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering, so they went both of them together.” (Gen 22)
Together they walked on for three days. The Torah does not share with us their conversation but we can only imagine it. They laughed when the old man Abraham tripped; they helped each other over the steep boulders; they shared a water jug and worried together, would there be enough? They sat around the campfire at night talking, singing, gazing at the stars. It takes time for conversation to ripen, to open up. When we first see someone we do not jump right into intimate conversation. We relax together first, share some pleasantry, and then and only then do we begin a real conversation. We don’t need to invest three days of solitude in every relationship, but we do need to invest more than three seconds. Facebook and texting do not provide shared experience; they only allow me to read about your experience. When we are physically together we build a bank of shared experiences and memories. We are able to hear the question behind the question.
A few years ago when I was at Camp Newman I had a fascinating conversation with some 9th and 10th grade girls. It was their second day at camp, and I asked them what they were most looking forward to at camp. And almost without hesitation one of them responded, “Not having technology, no Facebook, no texting, no email.” I was surprised and asked why. She responded, “Because I feel like I am always multitasking and never really paying attention. I’m looking forward to having real uninterrupted focused conversations,” she said. Her bunkmate added: “What we need is time to think and quietly talk to our friends.” Now remember, these are 9th and 10th grade girls, some of the most connected people in the world. They live in a world in which their attention is constantly divided, texting ten people at the same time, while watching TV and doing homework. It’s no wonder they, like many of us, want to disconnect but don’t really know how. Relationships require real face time. Time to say: Hineini: Here I am––ready to listen.
When Abraham has bound Isaac to the altar, the knife is raised, and he is ready to sacrifice his own son, his only son, the one whom he loves, the angel cries out, “Abraham, Abraham.” It is only after the second shout that Abraham finally hears him and responds, “Hineini.” Abraham became so focused on what he was doing that he lost sight of the big picture.
Too often we are too focused on the present moment to see the big picture. So much of social media is ultimately one-sided; look at what I’m doing. As my college Rabbi Rick Jacobs has written “We can be driven to the point of being totally oblivious to individuals in our lives whom we ostensibly love and who love us. Like our biblical ancestor Abraham, we too can fail to hear the voice of those calling out to us” How often are we sitting in the same room with our loved ones, each on our own device?
If we truly want to regain the lost art of conversation, if we truly want to regain intimacy and friendship in our lives than we are going to need to work at it. Reclaiming conversation begins with the acknowledgement that speaking and listening with attention are skills that need to be learned and practiced. The first step is for each of us to create technology free zones and times in our lives. Kids when you get home from school, when parents or partners get home from work, give yourselves device free time to talk and check in. As Sherry Turkle wrote: “What we know is that our phones are seductive. When our phones are around, we are vulnerable to ignoring the people we love. Given this, it doesn’t make send to bring a phone to dinner with your partner or children. Accept your vulnerability. Remove the temptation.” When we have conversations with our children and partners we develop qualities like trust and self-esteem, and the capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy. Perhaps, turn Friday night into Shabbat for your family. Even if you don’t come to temple, in your home make it a tech free time. No phones, maybe even no TV or Hulu or Netflix. Maybe we can play old-fashioned board games or cards together, for while playing a game, conversation happens.
If you want to connect with your children or grandchildren – take advantage of the car. It's a great place to have deep conversation. Rides are time bound; you can ask deep questions and hear each other’s voices, but you don’t have to look each other in the face. And when it gets quiet, one can always look out the window and enjoy the scenery or daydream. At least on Shabbat, when I am in the car with others, I turn off the radio and the music – and suddenly the silence is filled with conversation. During these next 10 days, these days of repentance don’t email or text your friends saying I am sorry. Get together with them panim el panim face to face and say those three magic words “I am sorry I …” an email that says “if I offended or hurt you….” Just does not do it When I apologize panim el panim face to face I can see your reaction, the love in your heart, the appreciation that I acknowledged my mistake, and your willingness to rebuild our relationship. These are just a few suggestions, talk with your family and see what other ideas you can come up with that you would like to try.
Of course there is a place for technology. It does wonderful things and allows us to connect in ways we could never imagine. But we cannot rely on technology to say “Hineni.” We all need time and space to put down the technology and say “Hineni” face to face, eye to eye. Norman Cohen has written: “If only we could learn as Abraham learns that we can experience the greatest holiness in the world in those moments when we are truly there for our children, our spouses and partners, our friends, those whom we love and love us. When we are awakened to their importance in our lives and the blessings that comes through relationship, when we hear their call, and see their faces, then we will see God’s face.” Three times the call went out to Abraham and each time he was able to respond
Hineini: I am here with you.
Hineni: I am listening to you.
Hneni: I am ready to respond to you.
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