Friday, December 28, 2018

Parashat Shemot: Horizontal Thought

Horizontal Thought
Thoughts on Shemot 2018
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The Torah’s description of Am Yisrael’s slavery in Egypt bears several striking similarities to the earlier episode of Migdal Bavel. Whereas the people of “all of earth” had once come together to construct a “city and a tower with its top in the heavens” with mortar and bricks (Bereshit 11:1-4), Am Yisrael were now forced to use mortar and bricks to build store-cities (Shemot 1:10-14). And similar to the motive of that initial construction to “make a name” amidst the fear of becoming “scattered over all the earth,” Pharaoh – “King Rameses” now feared that Am Yisrael would “go up from the land” and thus commissioned the building of “Rameses,” a city that bore his name.[1] What is the underlying message of these parallels?

Consider, in this context, the Torah’s very next narrative in Sefer Bereshit: the life of Avraham. God’s first words to him of “Lekh lekha – go forth” (Bereshit 12:1) contrasted to the anticipated settling of Bavel’s city-construction. And whereas the people of Bavel had futilely pursued a “name” with their stable city, God then promised Avraham “a great name” (12:2) by means of his movement.[2]

We possess the ability, as individuals and a society, to grow in two different directions: vertically and horizontally. Growing upwards means strengthening preexisting foundations by continuing along the path that was already begun. Growing sideways, in contrast, means chasing your thoughts or dreams into the precarious realm of the undiscovered. The “builders of Bavel” had singularly focused their growth on a vertical trajectory. They feared the instability of venturing out sideways, and so they built up on steady foundations. Avraham’s growth was differently focused, however, as he followed God’s word to spread out and grow horizontally. By doing so, Avraham endeavored into the realm of the unknown and sought growth along the uncharted paths that loomed at his sides.

The verdict is still out regarding the essential role of the Internet to our intellectual growth. There is no doubt that we have grown by the unprecedented ease of access to information that it has brought. The question remains, however, whether our continued intellectual growth as its result points horizontally or vertically.

Describing the way that the Internet changed his mode of thinking, Nicholas Carr wrote: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”[3] He explained that a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection.[4] Carr therefore bemoaned our increased tendency to superficially skim information as a result of Google’s immediate search result, and yearned for the “deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea or narrative” which he had once enjoyed.[5]

Tom Nichols similarly suggested that the art of “research” has been lost to people’s “search for pretty pages online to provide answers they like with the least amount of effort and in the shortest time.”[6] Citing studies which found that people don’t actually read the articles from a search on the Internet, but rather glance at the top line of the first few sentences and then move on, Nichols reflected: “This is actually the opposite of reading, aimed not so much at learning but at winning arguments or confirming a preexisting belief.”[7]

Living in a world that is increasingly governed by Google searches, our thoughts have become vertical. We busy ourselves with building higher and higher in our collection of data. The skill of horizontal thinking, however, is at risk of extinction. We are slowly forgetting the art of creative and in-depth thinking.

The Torah’s parallel descriptions of Am Yisrael’s slavery in Egypt and the episode of Migdal Bavel teaches about the shortcomings of a society stuck in vertical growth. Although Am Yisrael proliferated in Egypt – “And Bnei Yisrael were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew very fast, and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:7), their growth was stunted by an inability to move outward. They were trapped in a land of vertical growth and the only way out was redemption.

Although distant from a life of physical servitude, today’s intellectual environment also suffers from the difficulty of horizontal growth constraints. Paving our own path to redemption, we must seek return to a world of imaginative thought and discovery. Embracing our generation’s unique tools for vertical growth, we must focus our minds upon the path of horizontal growth.

[1] For a further analysis of the similarities between these two episodes, see Judy Klitsner’s Subversive Sequels in the Bible (New Milford, CT, 2011), pg. 31-62.
[2] Recall our lengthy discussion of this in our message for Lekh Lekha, “Movement.”
[3] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” The Atlantic July/August 2008.
[4] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York, NY, 2010), pg. 168.
[5] Ibid., pg. 156.
[6] Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 111.
[7] Ibid., pg. 120.