“Selfies”; A Sad Phenomenon of Our Time

The Oxford English Dictionary, the most prestigious guardian of the English language, has declared “selfie” to be the word of the year.

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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran,

Rabbi Dr. E.Safran
Rabbi Dr. E.Safran

The Holy One, Blessed be He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.  Therefore, every single person is obliged to say, “The world was created for my sake.”

- Tractate Sanhedrin

As 2013 comes to a close, I could not help but note that the Oxford English Dictionary, the most prestigious guardian of the English language, has declared “selfie” to be the word of the year.   Defined as, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” selfies seem to capture the fullness of our self-absorption.  At last count (although the counting never ends!)  more than 57 million photographs bearing its hashtag – #selfie – populate Instagram alone.

We live in a selfie world.  “Selfie” has already given way to a myriad of specialized subspecies.  There is the “helfie”, a selfie of one’s hair.  A “welfie”, a selfie taken while working out.  A “drelfie”, a photo of yourself while you’re drunk – as though the world could not survive without such an image coursing through our virtual realities!

There is no event of significance, trivial or tragic that escapes selfies.  President Obama snapped a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s recent memorial service.   Early in December, a woman snapped a cell phone selfie intended to also capture a suicidal man on the Brooklyn Bridge.  In May, the most notorious was reported; in the Bronx Bashid M murdered his mom, and then posed with a picture of her severed head.

Is there no shame?

The name says it all.  Selfie.  Selfish.  Self-absorbed.  It is a tag that claims nothing beyond ME!  Forget the marvels of the world.  Forget the physical beauty that surrounds you.  Forget the rising of the sun over the ocean.  Forget the kindnesses of strangers.  Forget everything but… me!

Selfies represent, by definition, the antithesis of the humble, unpretentious soul, the characteristics that make us a Tzelem Elokim.  Modesty?  Hah!  In a universe where nothing exists but ME! what need does one have for modesty?  One religious leader in the Philippines observed, “We are selfish.  It’s all about I, me, myself.  Like those who keep on taking selfie photos.”  He noted an, “…unnatural self-centeredness… in the smallest to the most powerful.”

Certainly our religious students represent a bulwark against this mindless selfishness in society.  Yet, when I recently spoke with a yeshiva student, sharing my concerns about selfies he surprised me by responding that, “…our chachomim were also selfies.”  To bolster his position, he referred to Sanhedrin 37a, bishvili nivra ha’olam, for my sake was the world created.

I was astonished that a yeshiva student could so misunderstand that great claim.  I recalled the teaching of Rav Noach Weinberg, founder and mentor of Aish Ha’Torah.  He asked, “In what way is the world mine /ours?”  Then he answered his own question.  “It’s ours to take care of.  It’s ours to be responsible for it.”  In short, the meaning of bishvili nivra ha’olam is exactly the opposite of selfie.

The whole world was created for me not as an object of my selfish desire but so that I might participate in repairing it, so that I can assume my rightful responsibility to safeguard its well-being of the world.

It is my world.  Therefore, I am responsible for it.

Rav Weinberg cited Moshe who, “…went out to his brothers and saw their pain.”  Rashi comments that the meaning of the verse is that, “He left Pharaoh’s palace [with all its selfie comforts and selfish luxuries] not merely to see the pain of the Jews but to identify with their pain.  Why would he do such a thing?  Because the world was created for him – to repair and enhance. 

Reb Simcha Bunim of P’shiskha taught that every person should have two pockets.  In one, a note saying bishvili nivra ha’olam.  In the other, anokhi afar va’efer, I am but dust and ashes.  

That yeshiva student was right.  The world was indeed created for “you”, but it is not yet complete; it is not yet fulfilling its purpose unless and until you fulfill yours.   You have countless goals and missions on this world; you have real purpose in life.  The world was created for you.  But, if you should ever see yourself only as selfie, simply dip your hand into your second pocket.  You are but dust and ash.  You are not the center of anything but that God has placed you there.

Haley, a young woman spoke more thoughtfully to the issue when she responded to Cassidy Robinson’s powerful critique of selfies.  “As a 22 year old, I have lived through this era of selfies and have been guilty of them myself.  I had no idea of not only the messages that they were portraying to others about me but also, the messages that they spoke directly to me about myself. When I was asked why I posted so many selfies, I had no good answer. I didn’t know why I did either… I took and posted them for the self-gratification, to be told I was beautiful.  I would judge how ‘pretty’ the picture – and, ultimately I – was by the number of likes and comments I got. How stupid!  I was beautifully and wonderfully made.  Why would I ever doubt that?  

“Although I regret ever stooping to the level of selfies, it was one of the biggest realizations I have ever come to about my personal ‘modesty.’  I realized that the only opinion I cared about was God’s and that He sees beauty on the inside, not the outside. I don’t want to be considered beautiful because I’m wearing red lipstick and a sock bun. I want to be considered beautiful for my loving soul, for being a woman of God, for being caring and compassionate and faithful.” 

She is no longer a selfie. She is no longer selfish.

The world is hers.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer.