Social media and our lives

What a “simple” Yud and Hei teach us about the influence of environment.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Rabbi Safran new
Rabbi Safran new
צילום: INN:RS

Our tradition holds names in high esteem.  As much as they identify, they speak to character – particularly when they are changed.  Yaakov, second born and grasping his brother’s heel as he comes out of the womb is transformed to Yisrael, one who wrestles with God.  The change in name speaks to a change in stature, in something essential in his being.

Given the power and importance of names, what are we to make of Moses changing Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua (Joshua)?  What are we to make of this name which means “salvation” being changed to “God is salvation” or “God protects”?  It is a dramatic change; a curious one.  And one which begs the question, Protection from what?


When we think of the need for protection, we most often think of the need to be protected from a physical threat. We need home alarm systems to protect us from intrusions.  We need child safety locks to protect our small children from getting into cabinets containing items that could hurt them.  We need air bags, restraints and crumple zones in our cars to protect us in the event of an accident.  And we need alcohol cleaner to protect us from germs and disease.  Without speaking to the effectiveness of these – and millions of other – efforts to protect ourselves, what they speak to is our near constant concern with our physical well-being.

Rav Elyah Lapian enlarges our understanding when he notes that just as we need protection in our physical selves, our spiritual selves also need protection.  He taught that, “When people sin, they ‘contaminate’ the area with impurity that has a spiritually harmful effect on others...”  
Imagine then, the danger of something that could pose both a physical and a spiritual danger.

How can we protect from that?

Our reliance on devices and our entanglement in social media is a clear and present danger to us, to our bodies and to our well-being.  While the “alarm” is starting to be sounded by sociologists and psychologists it is time that religious leaders lend their voices to the conversation.
We have long appreciated that mobile devices can be dangerous.  They can be a fatal distraction when driving, or crossing a busy roadway.  But more and more, we are learning that the social networks that these devices connect us to pose dangers more insidious and equally as dangerous.
Social networks create a false sense of connection.  A million “likes” is not nearly as important as one, heartfelt hug!  Social networks open the door to cyber bullying – the potential anonymity ironically emboldens cruelty rather than honesty.  It turns out that looking one in the eye when sharing criticism or praise is a powerful human endeavor.

Social networks have robbed us of our privacy and often our dignity.  They are, by design and consequence, addictive.  They diminish our productivity – at work and in life.  

They demean what it is to be alive and to engage in the world and with others.

They are a danger.  

Moses came and spoke all the words of this Song in the ears of the people, he and Hoshea, son of Nun (Devarim 32:44) 

In truth, as Rashi explains, only Moses proclaimed the Song (of Haazinu), but on this last day of his life, on this Shabbos, Moses stood together with Yehoshua, to be sure that no one – least of all those who always think they know better and are quick with their destructive whispers – would be able to say that Yehoshua was only able to lead the people after Moses is gone.  They would not be able to say that he would, “…not even have been able to stand alongside Moses while he was still around.”  In short, it is to avoid the possibility that Yehoshua would not be recognized as a rightful and worthy successor. 

All fine and good, and sensible.  But… but why is Moses’s chosen successor, his star pupil, why is Yehoshua referred to here as Hoshea?   After all, Moses himself referred to him as “Yehoshua” when the Meraglim (spies)  went out to “see” the land.

At the time Moses was concerned that he might come under the influence of the erroneous Meraglim and so he invokes God’s protection by adding a yud and a hei to his name, transforming him from Hoshea to Yehoshua, from “salvation” or protection to one who God saves or protects.  

The Keli Yakar taught that the “Yehoshua” is closely identified with the great test of the Meraglim from whom he needed special Godly intervention.  

With the Meraglim all passed on, his actual name, Hoshea, could once again be used.   

Ohr Hachaim explains that Moses added the yud and hei to Hoshea’s name as a mark of greatness but when his name is mentioned alongside that of Moses, his teacher and master, he is referred to by his original name for it is incongruous to laud the student in the presence of his teacher.  As the prophet Isaiah exclaims, “Can a hatchet glory over the one who chops with it?” 

Chizkuni takes a different approach.  When Moses appoints Hoshea as his assistant he names him Yehoshua.  It was not then uncommon for a ruler to change the name of his assistant, as we find with Yosef, Daniel and others.  But when Yehoshua becomes the leader in his own right, he is called by his original name. 

There are times when God’s explicit protection is necessary.

* * *

What does this teach us, you and me?  

Even after all those years in Moses’s presence, with all that that implies, Hoshea was still in need of additional divine protection to avoid the influence and the negative tarnish of the spies.  And if Moses’s greatest disciple could be at risk, certainly we can never assume that we are at a high enough level not to be tainted, tarnished, diminished and brought down by influences both mighty and subtle.  Despite years of learning in yeshiva at the feet of great rebbeim we are still vulnerable. 

Just as Hoshea needed a “yud and hei”, just as he needed God to protect him so too do we if we are to avoid catastrophe.

A very well-known passage in the beginning of the sixth chapter of Rambam’s Hilchos Deot emphasizes this point. Man is a product of his environment.  There are few protections from a negative, worldly environment.  I can recall teaching these profound passages in Rambam decades ago and telling my students that when one works in a perfume factory, one need not touch a thing to end up smelling like “roses.”  Likewise, merely walking through a factory producing fertilizer leaves one reeking of manure.

Environment is powerful and influential.  

Even Yehoshua ran the risk of being tainted by the spies.  As Rambam teaches, “Man was created in a way that his opinions and actions are influenced by his close friends and colleagues and that his actions will be similar to those of the other people in his area. Therefore, a person should attach himself to tzaddikim and always sit together with wise people so as to learn from their ways.  And one should distance himself from wicked people, who walk in the darkness, so as to not learn from them.”

It is clear; we are impacted for good or ill by our surroundings.  So what does Rambam’s teachings say to us? Would he counsel us to forgo mobile devices or to shun social media?  After all, we cannot claim ignorance of the obvious risks…

But so too did Moses recognize the risks during the time of the Meraglim.  Yet, he did not shun them, nor did he deny access.  He did however create greater protection and greater awareness – that is the lesson of the yud and the hei.

No, we should not insist that our young people (or ourselves!) be cut off from the Internet or social media.  Even if we were to take such a position, it is unrealistic.  The virtual world is everywhere.  Denying that is a fool’s errand.  However, it is wisdom to be aware of the dangers and to guard against them.

The threat of the Internet is not so much in the thing itself as in those who self-righteously assume that it “cannot affect me!”  
Such arrogance is the first step in a downfall.  The Talmud (Berachos 29a) tells us about Yochanan Kohen Gadol, who served as Kohen Gadol for 80 years.  At the end of his life he became a Sadducee.  Can you imagine?  Seems impossible but it is from this story that the Talmud derives that one can never trust himself to be safe from the influences of the evil inclination until the day of one’s death.  “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.”  

Rav Elyah Lapian taught that we are vulnerable to not only physical dangers but spiritual ones as well and just as germs infesting a hospital can make us ill, the spiritual environment around us can demean and diminish us.

We live at a time of constant, relentless demands.  Like Hoshea, we need a yud and a hei; we need God, to keep us protected.