Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Towers We Build

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Noach 5774 October 4 2013
One of the many joys of my career is that there’s enough flex in my schedule that I can, at least a few times a year, go volunteer in my son’s class. So I was thrilled that we and the other parents got a special invitation last week to “Pizza Friday”. What’s pizza Friday? On the last Friday of the month, the kids get to have lunch in the classroom rather than the cafeteria, and the parents are invited to join them. But there’s a catch: our job is to demonstrate appropriate conversational skills to the kids; engaging with them and each other and showing them how people are supposed to talk to one another.
So I’m sitting at a table, my knees up to my chin, talking to my son and a handful of other six-year old boys about what they did at recess, their favorite cartoon characters, what projects they’re working on in art class, all the while showing how to speak politely, respectfully ask and answer questions, and the like.
What struck me, though, were the other two dads at my table. One spent almost the entire time on his phone. The other tried to converse with the kids but clearly got overwhelmed. As we were walking out of the classroom the dad next to me said, “I don’t know how teachers do it, talking to kids all day long. It’s too nerve-wracking for me.”
Now, I get that Lego Chima, Pokémon and ninjas aren’t the most scintillating topics, and I understand that conversation is a skill, and some people are made anxious in social situations: I get all that. Nevertheless, this experience made me sad. This was an artificial mealtime conversation, I get that. But how many families experience the same thing, where the parents don’t know how to talk to the kids, therefore aren’t teaching them how to converse meaningfully, how to share their thoughts and words and ideas? How many are learning that the phone, the screen, is more interesting than the person across from them? What happens when those kids become adults and have to impart ideas to others—in a class, or a job interview, or work? What happens when they encounter someone they disagree with? How will they share their viewpoint? Will it be an act of sharing at all, or will it be two individuals speaking past each other, pushing their own argument without hearing the other? Or will they even open their mouths at all?
This week’s portion describes the building of the Tower of Babel. How was the Tower created? We’re told that the People were all of one speech and the same words, and they wanted to make a name for themselves. The rabbis understand that this meant that generation suffered from groupthink; they had no diversity of opinion or perspective, didn’t know how to share a difference of thought, and they needed their speech confounded so they could really talk to each other, disagree meaningfully with each other. That was their tower, but I fear we are creating a new tower, a different tower, one where the speech is at best trolling one another without meaningful listening or worst, anxious silence.

It’s not just first graders who need to learn to talk to one another, it’s all of us. We need to make a commitment: to share ourselves meaningfully, to connect with one another. How much do we really know about our co-workers? How much do we know about each other, sitting in this room together? What do we talk about around the dinner table—do we even talk around the dinner table, or are our noses and eyes directed at our screens? It’s a new year: let’s commit ourselves to looking at each other and engaging in meaningful conversations—with our colleagues, our friends, our family and yes, here at the synagogue, before our tower grows too tall. Amen. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting perspective on Migdal Bavel. Sometimes unity is a good thing and sometimes not. Herd mentalities remain common.

    Conversing with people has not really disappeared as either an imperative or as an art. Computers in my exam rooms have become a blight since I stare at the screen and click circles as the illusion of taking patient information. Not so at the hospital bedside where there are still people with all sorts of maladies to sort through, mostly via patient history. Most of us spend a fair amount of time on the phone which is generally interactive in its own way. We watch Jon Stewart or Colbert or professional journalists interview people. Town meetings of various types are still highly valued, forums where people can ask questions.

    One's comfort with doing this depends a lot on one's experience with doing this. For Rabbis who routinely engage people from the eighth day to their final sh'ma creating interactive conversation or surrogate types of engagement must be part of the professional curriculum, as it is for physicians or teachers. How well we master that task varies a lot.

    There is, of course, a gradient between my professional world where people tap into my thoughts all the time and my Jewish world hardly at all. I think many organizations from Federations to my congregation are more interested in my dues than my intellect.

    As I tap into the various resources of Jewish cyberspace these past fifteen or so years, I think there is a cultural aspect to it. When I pose a query to one of the YU professors or an orthodox source, I can anticipate a response. Non-orthodox source I'm either not worthy of a response or need to find a rabbi of their stripe to function as my agent. Not 100%, of course, but consistently enough to leave that impression.

    Or as Ron Wolfson implied in his magnificent Relational Judaism, the connections and loyalty derive from engagement. If you cannot create this the programs don't matter.