I signed up for Instagram a few weeks ago (don’t ask). Not that I don’t have enough to do in my life, or enough distractions, but I’ve been looking at how to start to use its platform, along with Facebook and Twitter to promote the school and our programs to the wider community. And let me tell you, Instagram is a crowded marketplace, filled with Kardashians, exercise and crossfit gurus, people with perfect lives, cut abs, perfect hair and no body fat, and all sorts of beautifully photoshopped pictures of inspirational quotes (like this particularly nauseating one):
My initial sense of it all is that it’s a depressing exercise in promoting the best of ourselves, and showcasing only the parts we want our followers to see. Big news was made this week when teen Instagram star (I know, even the term makes you cringe) Essena O’Neill “quit” Instagram and took a stand against the ideals that social media presents. “I’m quitting Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Deleted over 2000 photos here today that served no real purpose other than self promotion. Without realizing, I’ve spent majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance,” she wrote on an Instagram post from Oct. 27. “Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, and success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement. I was consumed by it.”
Pull back the lens from social media, and you realize that the way the world is marketed to us, the way any product is sold to us, is based on the promise of a more perfect, less stressful life. We are always an “if only” away from fulfilling our potential or finding contentment. If only I was smarter, richer, skinnier… and so it goes.
This is the world our children are growing up in – one in which they often feel that they can never measure up, and the external is always valued more than the internal. And for this reason alone, the powerful thing about giving a child a Jewish education is that they are provided on a regular basis with a reality check and an alternate set of values and ethics, which comes from being exposed to Torah and studying the lives of the holy men and women in the bible. This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, begins with the recounting of the life of our Matriarch Sarah, who has just passed away. After Avraham had purchased the Cave of Machpela as a burial plot for his wife, and buried Sarah, he then turns his attention to going about finding a wife for his son Yitzchak, but not before the Torah (Breishit 24:1) says this about Avraham:
“Abraham was old, advanced in years, and the Lord has blessed Abraham with everything”.
וְאַבְרָהָ֣ם זָקֵ֔ן בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים וַֽיהֹוָ֛ה בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם בַּכֹּֽל
The mystical text the Zohar, in commenting on this verse, focuses in on the seemingly superfluous words “advanced in years” and teaches that “when Abraham aged, he did not merely pass through the days of his life; he accumulated them. Each day was fully utilized, so that they were fully possessed by him“.
While the Torah is teaching us that Avraham had a blessed life (i.e. he had it all), and tradition makes the point that he lived his life to the fullest, it never does shy away from presenting Avraham and Sarah’s life as a series of challenging times and awful moments as well – wandering as strangers in the land of Canaan, famine, a kidnapping or two, a war, family strife, a looooong bout of infertility, and finally, God instructing Avraham to offer up Yitzchak as a sacrifice on one of the mountains in the Land of Moriah (Jerusalem, the future site of the Temple Mount). All those moments came to define Avraham and Sarah, and turned them into the patriarchal and matriarchal legends they are today. Not all of it was pretty, or ideal, or always presented in a rosy light. Their perfection, as it were, is a function of the struggles and mistakes they made along the way, and each lived their lives with purpose and a mission, where “each day was fully utilized”.
Our kids and our students need to be exposed to these stories, so they themselves can make important connections to their own lives and experiences. They need to internalize the message about personal struggle, about perseverance, about making mistakes, because it creates the much-needed resiliency needed to navigate through life.
Emulating our patriarchs and matriarchs is a lofty goal, but one that feels healthy, one that feels right, because when you try and aspire to their example, you realize that you are after something deeper, something internal, something God-driven. It doesn’t require a set of photo filters or a selfie-stick, and requires no social validation or the need for self-promotion to pursue.
And thank our lucky stars that social media did not exist in those days. How many Facebook likes would Sarah have gotten when she posted her 3-month ultrasound (#feelingblessed) at the age of 90? I can only imagine the selfies that Avraham and Yitzchak might have taken in the moments before Avraham tried to sacrifice Yitzchak. What would the hashtags have been? #mydadistryingtokillme, or #givingitupforgod?
Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach.