I've never been a big fan of people who wax poetically about "the good old days." I'm not alone either. Koheles notes that people who say "boy, things used to be so great back then" doesn't say such things from a perspective of wisdom. People who praise home births with midwives because that's how they did it in the old days often forget that in those same old days half the children died in infancy from polio and meningitis for lack of vaccines and antibiotics. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword.
Thus Rav Avi Shafran's recent column caught my eye and made me feel a need to comment. He starts offf by identifying a very legitimate point. In our hustle-bustle society, there are constant demands for attention:
We don’t generally think of our well-lighted spaces as impairing concentration, but the logic is unquestionably there. The more informational input to the senses, the less mental focus. That is, after all, the point behind darkened arenas and spotlights. Our brains are wonderfully able to filter out much that might distract us from tasks at hand, but the extraneous information is still there even if we don’t consciously notice it, background static to our contemplations. Every time I turn on my little light on my winter commute home, I appreciate Rabbi Lopian’s prescience anew.
Rabbi Salomon went on to add the telephone to the list of erosions to deep thought. How often are not only our dinners but our reflections rudely interrupted by ringing or warbling, or trilling? And the more mobile the technology, he noted further, the more opportunities for our concentration to be broken. Anyone who has silently cursed his cellphone knows just what the rabbi meant.
This is absolutely correct. Working as I do in an office with three phone lines and a fax machine, I have come to hate the sound of ringing. I often fantasize about getting rid of my home phone except that I would still have a cell phone which needs to be on at all times so it wouldn't do me much good. And yes, there is little that bothers me more than sitting down to learn, only to be interrupted by the phone not thirty seconds later.
This observation, however, goes a little further and this is where I disagree:
How sadly true. In pre-automobile times, people were rarely if ever expected to travel beyond the confines of their immediate towns or neighborhoods. With options so limited (and towns so small), there was more time to stay put, sit still, stay focused. Many of the things that pull us, unresisting, into our cars and onto our highways, around the corner and around the world, may be worthy ones, but that cannot change the fact that they take us away – from our homes, from our families, and from study and introspection, the pillars of Jewish existence.
Rabbi Salomon was not asking his listeners to return to horses and buggies or oil lamps. He is no Luddite and has no disdain for technology. No, he is simply an exquisitely sensitive observer, someone who sees a broader picture than most of us do. He challenges us to open our eyes to what we have lost even as we have gained. The losses are tragic, even if so subtle that most of us don’t even realize what we are missing.
In pre-automobile times people had to walk carefully along the street or risk stepping in horse excremement. With options so limited, people had no choice other than the stay put, sit still and stay focused. There was no great world to visit, no chance to broaden one's horizons. A peddler's son you were born, and a peddler's son you were likely to die.
But what's more, the long-losted glorified environment did not come without its drawbacks. The ess tog, or "eating day" for example. Back in the "good ol' days" there was no government funding for yeshivos, no major donors with an interest in splaying their names over the fronts of buildings. Instead, people who wished to learn full-time survived on the most meagre amounts of charity (that was real mesirus hanefesh when you compare their lives to the ones of many full-time kollel'niks today). An ess tog was an arrangement a younger boy would make to get fed. On Mondays he would eat by Mr. Fishbeim, on Tuesdays by Mr. Gross. On Wednesday he didn't have anyone so he would make it a personal fast day for his sins.
That's what we should remember when we think of how great it was back when people learned by candlelight. And then we should look around and think that despite what we may have lost, what we have gained is infinitely greater.