Thursday, June 30, 2016

Shelach Lecha, Dreams and Likes

How many times, after posting a picture to Facebook or Instagram, do you go back and check to see how many likes you have accumulated? How often do you read the comments that friends add to your posts or secretly wonder why this friend or that one did not comment on your recent picture? Think for a few moments about how important those likes and comments have become to your day’s mood.

Another example. Airbnb and Uber are built on mutual reviews. Both the driver and the apartment owner rate their experience and impression of the consumer. Leave too many apartments unkempt and you might find it more difficult to rent another Airbnb, or you might be thrown together with apartment owners who likewise don’t clean up. Such is the magic of algorithms.

Likes and stars govern more and more of our lives.

Big data drives the shared economy. That might very well be good for business, but I worry about its effect on people. I worry that our personalities are increasingly shaped by the likes and comments of others. We appear to be building a culture, and society, driven more by what others think of us than what we, ourselves, aspire to be.

This week, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, we read about the spies who Moses sent to scout the land of Israel. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, returned with a positive report. Ten came back with negative impressions. These ten spies whipped the people into a frenzy. The people became consumed by fear and were then unable to gather the strength to move forward to the Promised Land.

In that moment, and on that day, they lost sight of their dream.

God, in turn, became so angry with them that God decreed the people would wander the wilderness for forty years: one year for every day the spies scouted the land. Then, and only then, a generation born in freedom would feel empowered to cross the Jordan into the land of Israel. Then they could realize their dream.

Throughout the generations commentators argued about what was the great sin of the spies. Was it that they incited the people and sowed fear? Was it instead that they lacked faith in God and God’s power to lead the people to victory? Was it that their impression of the land, and its inhabitants, was in fact false? Were the Canaanites indeed mighty warriors and the Israelites feeble soldiers?

The ten scouts reported: “All the people that we saw in the land are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

The Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, comments: “That was the sin of the spies. One can understand their statement, ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,’ for that was the way they really saw themselves. However, what right did they have to say, ‘and so we must have looked to them’? What difference should it make how we appeared to them?”

Indeed, what difference should it make how we appear to them.

When our self-image is driven by how many likes we accumulate, how many followers we amass, and how many like-minded comments we garner, we lose sight of our aspirations. We lose focus on our true inner selves. We take leave of the dreams that animate the heart. We become more about how others see us rather than how we wish to see ourselves.

The Torah reminds us.

Better one dream than a 1000 likes.

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