Parshat Mishpatim is a continuation of Parshat Yitro and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai there was thunder and lightning from which the Ten Commandments were given, while this week’s parsha lowers those great lights to life itself. Through the 53 Mitzvot mentioned in the Parsha the Torah teaches us how to build a society governed by the laws of the Torah.
Parshat Mishpatim discusses tort law or laws of damages. Every person needs to be responsible for their actions and finances and beware of harming others. One type of damage is caused by a pit. One is not allowed to dig a pit on public property, in a place where others may fall into it. Obviously, a pit is only an example of any hazard in a public venue from which a person or animal may be harmed.
In an ideal world, where everyone takes responsibility for themselves and their property, one could venture in public freely with the confidence that there is nothing there that could possibly harm him. But since we do not yet live in a world where people take such responsibility, the duty to beware of obstacles while in public is passed on to us.
Just as that is true in the physical world, so too it is true in the spiritual world. In an ideal spiritual world, the public sphere should be free from the spiritual damage of crooked opinions, immodesty, slander and many other hazards which pollute the spiritual climate. But just as in the physical world, we have not yet reached that level of responsibility for one another and we need to guard ourselves from being harmed, so too the spiritual world is poisoned by many dangers, and the duty passes to us to be careful not to bring into our homes and souls the harmful influences which the world offers, but only let in what is right.
This week marks Israel's national Safe Web Browsing Week, and in its honor, we will give an example of a spiritual “pit” related to the use of smartphones and computers that the vast majority of us use. The internet is an amazing tool; one can easily hear a Torah lecture or read about any topic which interests him.
In the past one had to exert himself to travel to a yeshiva to hear a lecture from a certain rabbi or had to go to the library to read a certain scientific article, but today just typing on the keyboard in the privacy of one’s own home reveals a world of knowledge. But the same ease and privacy by which the internet brings us wisdom can also bring us to the darkest of places. Places that, in the past, if one wanted to visit, he would make a great effort to not be seen by others.
The same is true about WhatsApp. WhatsApp is a tool through which so much good can be done. One can send expressions of love to relatives, can encourage a friend who is in a bad mood, can advertise a found item to perform the mitzvah of returning a lost object, can be a member of a group of daily Halakha study and much more. But at the same time, WhatsApp can be a tool to propagate immodest images, insult a member of a group, and even worse...
So what can be done with something which can be so good and also so bad?
I will share some of my thoughts with you. The first is regarding children and teenagers: the later in life they begin using a smartphone the better. They lose nothing by getting a smartphone at an older age, they just benefit from the delay. There is no room here to expound on the negative effects of the “smart” phone - on its effects on the powers of concentration, addictions, social influences and more, but I can say with complete confidence that the more we delay the age of use of smartphones for our children, the more life skills we are giving them.
It is true that many times one has to think “out-of-the box” in order to placate a child who is the only one in the class who does not have a smartphone, but the creativity is worth it as it educates the child to hold true to his values even when they are not so popular, and also gives him all the benefits of growing up without a smartphone.
The second thought is something very basic: getting a filter for a smartphone or computer and the stronger the better. Filtering greatly - but not perfectly - obstructs much of the bad components of the Internet.
It's like driving a car. A car is wonderful as it saves us time, and takes us to places which we could not have reached without it. But a car can also be dangerous so when driving we must wear a seat belt, and there must be traffic lights and road signs to avoid dangers. So too with regard to the internet. An internet filter is the seat belt and the road signs which help us explore the internet safely. Without a filter one will almost certainly – though inadvertently - reach dangerous places on the Web, so using the internet without a filter is simply impossible. True, a filter costs money, but every shekel spent is worth the investment.
It is true that at times a filter may cause minor "glitches" in browsing but even so, the benefits of a having a filter on one’s phone or computer far outweigh the rare cases of inconvenience. It is so worthwhile for a person to be saved from seeing what is forbidden, even if it occasionally causes him to miss out on seeing something good. In the parable of the car, we would compare this to a person who drives without a seat belt for fear that he will have to escape from the car in an emergency, and the belt will prevent him from doing so. Does it make sense that because of fear of a rare occurrence the person will endanger himself regularly?
In addition to the real spiritual dangers mentioned above, it should be remembered that the internet and WhatsApp are also very significant and addictive time wasters, and that even when using them for good, it is very important to set time limits, and carefully screen the groups we decide to join. It is always preferable join only a limited number of groups in order to prevent ourselves from seeing or reading things that we shouldn’t. And of course, we should think twice before we send a message and cause others to read it ...
By the grace of God, our generation has been privy to tremendous technological development which allows us opportunities which could not even be dreamt of in previous generations. And technological development will continue to increase. But it is important to remember that technology is a tool and not a value in and of itself, and that it is a tool designed to serve us, so we need to use our free choice to use it only for good. We need to ask ourselves constantly, whether the technology is at our service to fulfill values we believe in, or G-d forbid “the golem rises up against its maker” and technology guides us and leads us to places that contradict our values.
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the head of the Barkai Rabbinical Organization and the rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem congregation