I’m trying to understand why I’m so perturbed by my kids wasting time glued to a screen. Perhaps it’s because my wife and I brought them into the world with the hope that they might better appreciate the gift of life. Or at least ride their bikes once in a while. As adolescents they see the “real world” as the music, videos and TV shows that they voraciously consume. All the Jewish stuff they have to deal with in day school is a burden to be endured until they can get back online. Plugging in is a divine right. After all, they will live forever, have all of their needs met and perish the thought of having a vacant minute. In this generation you’re nobody until you have the latest screens of all shapes and sizes. Entertainment options from Avatar to Jackass to funny pet videos on YouTube compete for their attention on aptly named iphones, ipads and imacs.
We won the battle easily when our children were younger. We cut off our cable and except for the occasional movie night, our home was TV free. Then something changed about five years ago. YouTube was founded. Bootleg websites started up with TV and film programming including feature films still in theaters. Disney.com and Nickelodeon.com became 24/7 outlets for their shows and suddenly the computers that we had in each room for their homework became TVs. Battle lost.
But we had not yet met our true nemesis. My eleven-year-old daughter opened a Facebook account to shmooze with friends, play online games and post her scores. During her one hour TV allotment each day (ha ha!) she plays the games, watches a show and chats with friends…simultaneously. I can leave for the evening and return to find her in the exact same position. She can handle piano practice for ten minutes but as soon as it’s time to work out a tough passage I can see her desperation to unplug her brain in front of the screen.
Now I realize Facebook is for lightweights. The real addicts have something much more powerful. It’s called World of Warcraft. As in other role playing games, WOW allows my boys to wander an alien world populated by characters manned by players from around the world. They get credits and booty for kills and strive valiantly to get their creature up to the 85th level of power. While it’s nice to see my boys cooperating to negotiate the game, I don’t appreciate that left to their own devices they would never leave the house. After all, we live in Southern California. They might as well live in Rochester.
One flaw in the gaming action is that you can’t just shut if off mid-battle. My kids team up with other players to take down more powerful creatures and to abandon the quest is considered disloyal. They risk losing “honor” points. Poor parents worldwide who are calling their sons to dinner or trying to get them to brush their teeth are faced with, “not now, Dad, I can’t get away.” That’s right, they are honoring their faceless online teammates rather than their flesh and blood parents. Can you imagine? We hit the breaking point last week. My oldest had once again “forgotten” he had a test, played WOW all night and then wouldn’t turn it off when my wife was going ballistic.
When we closed their account and banned WOW from our home my younger son seethed, “I love World of Warcraft MORE than you!” Now they are sneaking out to 7-11 to buy game playing cards and hijacking any Wi-Fi they can find. Anything to stay in the game. We’re thinking it’s time for an intervention. Yes, I’m exaggerating. They’ll grow out of this, just like they did Pokemon, b’ezrat Hashem!
I think part of my opposition to this addiction is that it is so contrary to the Jewish values we desperately are trying to impart. It’s not just the fact that my kids are annihilating virtual humanoids for fun and profit. My wife and I try to model altruistic behavior, helping those in need, giving tzedakah, entertaining guests on Shabbat. I run around the globe trying to increase enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit, connecting people with each other and with God through the vehicle of music. There are not enough minutes of the day to accomplish this task, let alone keep a family together and pay the bills. Why are my kids in such great need of escape? How can we engage them in appreciating their legacy?
The Jewish People are players in a grand scheme I call a “war of worldcraft.” We are in the midst of a 3500 year peer-to-peer networking phenomenon unrivaled in history. With courage and unrivaled stubbornness, we cleave to our ancient texts and way of life, hoping to rub off on those around us. The Torah predicts that we will be an eternalpeople and remain few in number and yet will impact all of mankind by wandering the globe. I would argue that God’s Light Unto Nations experiment is working rather well; here is one of my favorite quotes:
According to historian Thomas Cahill, “The Jews started it all – and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world with different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings…the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular: there is simply no one else remotely like them; theirs is a unique vocation. Indeed, as we shall see, the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.”
Pesach is a time to break free of those entities that enslave us, to get back on track with our national goal of worldcraft. Thankfully Pharaoh is gone from the stage of history, but servitude is still with us. We are trapped in our quest for elusive wealth, societal status, vocational advancement, material acquisition. We are badgered by bosses, teachers, parents and peers. We are stuck in ruts of our own making, forever battling inner demons, addictions and bad habits. We come into this holiday well aware that the issues we complained about last year will likely be with us next year. Does that fill you with confidence that you might enjoy real freedom this year? How can we have a breakthrough this season?
The opportunities during Pesach are manifold. By edict of the Torah it must occur in the spring. Renewal and rebirth are in the air. Pesach is our national homecoming. We press reset, reconvene with our people, reprioritize. First we have to clear out the chametz. All that yummy challah, Oreos, single malt…it’s got to go. The rabbis tell us that the chametz represents our ego. Big bread = big ego. For a week we eat humble pie. Humility is first base. Humility gets you on the playing field. When we aren’t full of ourselves and our entitlements, we create a space to allow for God’s peace, for transformation.
Next we unplug. On seder night we get together with our families, have a celebratory meal, tell our story. Anytime I’m teaching a workshop and see people drifting off, I launch into a story. We love stories! Make the Pesach story real, for adults and children. Act it out. Wear costumes. Demonstrate the plagues with marshmallow hail, throw rubber frogs, wear animal masks and die on the floor for pestilence. Just like Shabbat meals, the three ingredients for a great seder are fun, fun and fun. The key line is “b’chol dor vador…” in every generation we must see ourselves in the Exodus. This isn’t a commemoration of something that happened to distant relatives. It’s our story in perpetuity, in every age, with every enemy of our people that seeks the destruction of our holy mission of tikkun olam.
Note that Moses isn’t mentioned much in the Hagadah. This is God’s night. Pesach recalls a time when we were in our infancy as a people. After womblike protection during the nine months of plagues we were carried through the desert by God’s grace. We often forget that the song Let My People Go omits the end of the sentence (that they may serve me.) In other words, on Passover, we relate to God as a tender, loving parent. Freedom is irrelevant without Torah, the instructions for life. It’s the laws, the holy pathways that God gives us that are our true freedom. We have a simple choice: to serve God or serve man. Choose wisely.
The classic seder songs were chosen by our sages for good reasons. Four Questions: Ask real questions! Inspire your kids to ask their own questions. Become a seeker of good answers. Dayenu: 15 steps of the seder parallels the 15 verses of the song; breaking down our salvation into multiple steps makes us more grateful for each miracle. Chad Gadya: there is a purpose to this grand arc of our history. L’shana Haba’ah: we’re still in exile! Don’t get too comfortable…healing the world is your responsibility. Finally, we finish the night with the recitation of Hallel. It’s unlike any Hallel the rest of the year. First of all, it’s at night and it’s woven into the meal. Secondly, we don’t introduce it with the standard blessing. Why? Because we don’t need to set up the mitzvah of its recitation like we normally do. On the seder night, if we’ve done the work of clearing out our ego, eating the bread of affliction, drinking four cups of wine and singing at the top of our lungs, we are in such an exalted state that Hallel is a spontaneous outpouring of praise. As natural as breathing.
If you don’t get it right the first night, well, you get to try again the next! Holding on to the inspiration of the seder is hard work. Make it a powerful memory! Be a ham, drink liberally and stay up late! A few years back I celebrated with my family in Jerusalem. We joined my brother and his many children for a night of music and laughter that lasted until 4am. Then my brother and I wandered the streets of his shtetl; I was dressed as Pharaoh, he was my Jewish slave and our kids followed closely as we searched for lazy Jews to beat with bulrushes. None of us will ever forget it.
Amazing events and the resulting inspiration are fleeting. Somehow we have to hang on to the revelations, to internalize them and allow them to transform us. We go into Pesach overwhelmed by the cleaning and cooking, overburdened with the rat race, oversaturated by the media. Let’s finish the week transformed and relaxed, with new focus and commitment. Imagine getting stuck driving through a storm and walking through the dark seeking shelter. Once in a while there’s a flash of lightning that illuminates our way. That flash is the seder. We can use that brilliant moment to light the way through the darkness and confusion we encounter the rest of the year.
Pesach gets us back in touch with the big picture. It reminds us to treasure humility and an open heart; that the genius is in the details: in small acts of kindness, or observing seemingly small mitzvot like not over-bakingmatzah by even a moment or dipping delicate greens in salt water. We reinforce the concept that we were redeemed and are continuously redeemed from servitude so that we may serve God with love. The crowning moment of the Exodus is the revelation of God’s will in the Torah; this profound gift necessitates that we take the time to grapple with its demands. When all is said and done we have to sing, at the top of our lungs, from the depths of our hearts. And most importantly, we can’t let distractions like World of Warcraft derail us from our critical goal of serving as soldiers in the “war of worldcraft.”