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Parshas Mishpatim - The Attention Span Myth      25 Shvat 5779

01/30/19 22:32:57


Question: Has digital communication changed my attention span? When asked about the effects of digital communication, people often note that the ability to maintain focused concentration has changed. According to a study conducted by Microsoft, the average person’s attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to less than 8 seconds today – which is shorter than the attention span of a goldfish.

Scientific evidence indeed suggests that sustained ability to attend to a task is changing – but this does not imply that attention spans are becoming shorter. As psychologist Gemma Briggs points out, “The average attention span is pretty meaningless. It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is. The actual definition of ‘attention span’ is the interval during which an individual can concentrate, as on a single object, idea, or activity.” We can assess and illustrate some of this theory by evaluating an event that will take place this coming Sunday.

MarketWatch estimates that a full hour of the Super Bowl broadcast consists of advertisements, while the halftime show usually lasts about 13 minutes. That means that even if you don’t watch football, you watch 73 minutes of the Super Bowl. If everyone did this, we would cumulatively watch the Super Bowl for 8,168,700,000 minutes — 15,541 years or 219 lives on Earth.

Most live football coverage is replays, people standing around and men talking. The actual action of the football game — when the ball is in play — is about 12 minutes long. If you wanted to watch the entire “Super Bowl” for the love of the sport, you could do so in less time than it takes to heat a frozen lasagna in the oven or even daven Mincha. So why is it that people can stay involved and pay attention to something that lasts for so long? Could they listen to a series of Torah classes for that same period? There are claims that kids don’t have the attention span that kids had a generation or two ago. I flatly disagree. They have enormous attention spans. For example, kids and adults alike are able to play video games with the greatest intensity and concentration for hours. It is not about the ability to pay attention; such sustained focus is determined by the material and kind of activity that is being viewed.

In this week’s parsha Mishpatim the Torah states in the very last verse of Shmos 24:18: “Vayavo Moshe B’soch He’Anan VaYaal El HaHar, Vayehi Moshe BaHar Arbaim Yom V’Arbaim Layla”: “Moshe went into the cloud and climbed to the mountain top. Moshe was to remain on the mountain for forty days and forty nights”. This narrative continues in Ki Sisa Shmos 31:18 with the episode of the Golden Calf.

The introduction to the sefer HaChinuch says that Moshe learned the entire Oral Torah on Har Sinai for forty days and forty nights. If he were there only to receive and learn the ten commandments, he would have finished in one day. Truth be told, Moshe didn’t even need forty days to accomplish all the learning because it was Hashem teaching him; Moshe could have easily completed all this learning in fewer days. God intentionally took longer so as to demonstrate that Moshe, and subsequently every Jew, should learn Torah with a clear, focused head while being calm and patient. In addition, this taught us that it is necessary to instruct every Jew to study until he clearly understands what he is learning. It is only in such an environment that a person can learn a lot with calm. This is the only way a person can attain the highest level of learning; a person cannot learn impulsively or in haste.

The purpose for Moshe being on top of the mountain for precisely forty days -not less and not more - is connected to the formation of a fetus in the mother’s womb. The forty days in heaven is to wipe away and cleanse the limbs connecting the physical world to the spiritual. It is at that precise moment of the forty days with this infusion of holiness that we are able to understand the secrets and the depth of the Torah. We are transformed from a physical blob of bone, flesh and blood to become like a ministering angel with no physical component, becoming a new-born creation. Furthermore, it was during those forty days that Moshe was transformed and was reborn; he was not the same Moshe he had been prior to climbing the mountain to learn from Hashem. The spirituality that he merited on top of the mountain was intense; there was a big difference before and after.

The Yalkut Shimoni brings a story about the Tanna Rav Yochanan who traveled from Teveriyah to Tzippori along with Rebbi Chiya Bar Abba. As they passed a field, Reb Yochanan remarked, “that field belonged to me, but I sold it so that I could learn Torah.” They continued the journey and came upon an olive tree and again, Reb Yochanan stated, “that olive tree was mine, but I sold it to learn more Torah.” They then passed a vineyard, and the same declarations were repeated for the sake of learning Torah. Reb Chiya began to cry and was asked by Rav Yochanan why he was crying. Reb Chiya said, “I am crying because you haven’t left anything for your old age. You had income, but you sold it all.” Reb Yochanan replied, “Is the matter so simple in your mind that I sold something that only took six days to create and bought something that was given over a forty-day period?” When Rav Yochanan died they praised him with the words of Shlomo Hamelech from Shir Hashirim 8:7: Many waters of heathen tribulation cannot extinguish the fire of this love, nor can rivers of royal seduction or torture wash it away. Were any man to offer all the treasure of his home to entice you away from your love, they would scorn him to extreme. This means to say if a person wants to give away all the treasures of his house so that he could acquire the love that Rav Yochanan had for the Torah, you would be scorned. There is no treasure in the world that could purchase the intensity of desire and love for the Torah that he had.

A person who learns with ‘hasmada’, defined either as diligence or consistency, does not necessarily have a greater or lesser attention span. If there is a desire and love for anything, a person has all the time in the world for it. When something is valued, it grabs our attention and we don’t want to leave it or let go. When there is something that we desire, we do not tire from working to attain it. To the contrary, it becomes a part of us. The teaching of Torah should not be altered to accommodate time, rather it is the love of learning itself that needs to be improved upon. Once the love of learning Torah becomes a part of us, as in the case of Moshe, we will not have any issue in learning for days on end, without food or drink to ‘break things up’, because then we WILL have the true attention span necessary to master the Torah and make it an integral part of who we are.

Sat, December 14 2019 16 Kislev 5780