This week’s Parsha launches into a discussion of the life of the Jewish People in the Sinai Desert. One reason the Jews needed to begin their new lives as a free and Torah nation in a desert, and not in a civilized location, was to keep it free of the influence of surrounding societies and cultures. As a nation that broke with the traditions of the surrounding nations, it was necessary to develop in a protected and insulated framework.
Despite, or perhaps because of our two thousand years of exile among the nations, we need to be ever vigilant of the need to keep the outside society at arm’s length. While this has always been a challenge, each passing year of life in the reality of today’s digital world presents greater and greater obstacles to maintaining the Kedusha, sanctity, of our families and community. It’s reached the point where most people have stopped thinking about it too much – the invasion of the internet and social media into our daily and hourly reality seems to have caused a sense of resigned hopelessness – people feel that’s just how things are, so get with the program and deal with the new reality.
I wonder if this is how the millions of Jewish immigrants who arrived on these shores in the early part of the 20th century felt about Shabbos. The overwhelming majority convinced themselves – times have changed, you can’t fight what’s going on in the `real’ world, but the resulting avalanche of intermarriage and assimilation has been the largest non-violent calamity to befall the Jewish People in our 3500 years of existence.
If we value our lives as Torah Jews, we cannot be complacent. There are varying ideas about how to deal with the challenges we face, but deal we must. If we think we have safeguarded our children, think again. While installing filters is a critically important first step, no parent can then sit back and feel there’s no longer a need to be vigilant. This way of thinking shortchanges just how bright and inventive our children really are. Parents need to be aware of this phenomenon and take responsibility for what in many cases is occurring `under their noses’. I’m reminded of research undertaken in the 1990’s concerning opposing perceptions of teachers and students. While I don’t have the exact statistics in front of me, the research showed that a large percentage of teachers thought their students felt they had a good relationship with them, their teachers, while in fact, only a small percentage of students felt that way. I believe a parallel misconception exists between parents and children concerning internet usage. A large majority of parents `trust’ their children do not have access, while the children laugh all the way to the nearest wi-fi spot, all too often in their own bedroom!
Internet access through smartphones, i-pads and other devices is so pervasive, that unless a child is personally motivated to stay away from it, there are no safeguards and protections that will keep away some exposure to the internet. If it’s not happening in your home, it’s either happening in someone else’s or in the case of a hand-held device – it could be anywhere. In addition, what is happening all too often is that subsequent to an older child’s involvement with the internet, the information, images and ideas are shared with younger siblings. We are facing a sort of double jeopardy. In the past, a tiny minority of elementary aged children may have been exposed to improper language or indecent images from magazines or other printed material. And if it was ever brought to school, it was relatively easy to spot and stop. The current state of affairs finds a larger percentage of children coming in contact with inappropriate materials out of school, and if brought to school, easily sharing images on tiny, hard to spot electronic devices.
Mechanchim everywhere struggle to minimize and even eradicate any negative effect that comes with exposure to other children, but without parental awareness of the seriousness of the issue, it’s likely to be an uphill battle. It is wonderful and most helpful to sincerely trust in your child’s innate goodness and honesty. But be advised – the challenges kids face today are truly unprecedented, and parents would do well to simultaneously respect and precautiously ‘suspect’ their children. If your child is heading towards trouble – it is not necessarily a negative reflection of your effectiveness or sincerity as a parent – it is a manifestation of the tidal wave of exposure that our children are confronting.
Our children need their parents more than ever. Don’t let this frighten you into paralysis in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem – let it galvanize you into action to protect your most precious commodity, your children. Like Bnei Yisroel in the desert, with Siyata deShmaya we can create an insulated, protected environment in our own home, and provide a nurturing, focused atmosphere that can help us succeed in our mission of being a Torah nation. With open eyes, and prayer to Hashem, your vigilance will enable your children to navigate safely to a healthy, sanctified adulthood.
Best wishes for a Kedusha-filled Shabbos and inspiring Shavuos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann