January 24, 2019

25 entertainment-free hours

A couple of years ago at around this time, it was widely reported that Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky had unexpectedly passed away. CNN, Time magazine and The New York Times covered the story. In fact, every major news organization devoted considerable space to Rabbi Krustofsky’s death.

You may be wondering who Rabbi Krustofsky was to deserve such attention. The thing is, you will certainly have heard of his son Krusty the Clown, an iconic character on the long-running animated series “The Simpsons.” Yes, you read correctly. Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky is a fictional character on a TV show, voiced by comedian Jackie Mason. Incredibly, in the same week that the Ebola virus hit the United States and an intruder with a weapon made it into the White House, and on the same day that Hong Kong erupted with unprecedented protests, and the United Nations heard competing accounts of Israel’s and Hamas’ role in the Middle East, ink and airtime were used abundantly to report the death of a fictional rabbi who was featured in a quirky cartoon series.

What are we to make of this? What are we to make, generally, of the dumbing down of news and information? Kim Kardashian gets more airtime than President Vladimir Putin of Russia. News that Justin Bieber has abandoned his Instagram account is tweeted around the world in seconds, while reports of the executions in Iran of 12 individuals for drug offenses after trials lasting 20 minutes barely make it into any news outlets. Even real news descends to superficial absurdity, as our presidential candidates turn serious political issues into inane sound bites and personal slurs. How does any of this make sense?

The answer is that it makes eminent sense once you realize that for the vast majority of people, news is just another form of entertainment, and unless it is amusing them, they are not interested. Nobody wants to hear a serious discussion about real news. Analysis is too dense. Context is too obscure. And if the news outlets can manage to make news stories out of the entertainment industry and entertainers — it’s a slam-dunk. Presenting lurid stories about Hollywood shenanigans as news allows the people who read them to pretend they are serious — it’s a news story, after all! — while in fact it is really just entertainment. And entertainment is a source of pleasure. Human beings are constantly seeking ways to feel good, and entertainment makes you feel good.

You might be wondering, if entertainment and giving pleasure is the actual goal of news organizations, why do they report on wars and violence? The answer is, as sick as it sounds, that war stories are also entertainment, in the same way that horror movies are. People are stimulated by the mayhem of war and violent murder. The treatment of wars as entertainment is the reason why many wars are perceived as they are, with negative sentiment directed at the wrong party. If war is presented two dimensionally simply to stimulate a base reaction, the reaction, when it comes, is bound to be ill judged and superficial. Just like our opinions about Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian are probably ill judged and superficial.

All of this will help us understand the laws associated with the annual Jewish holy day known as Yom Kippur. Every year, I am asked as a rabbi why it is that Jews refrain from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, and from other basic aspects of daily life. Surely one would be able to concentrate better on the prayers and on the awesomeness of the day itself if one was able to have some food? By starving ourselves, all that will happen is that we will crave food. What is the point of that?

While that might be true, eating on Yom Kippur would mean missing the whole point of the day. On Yom Kippur, we desist from indulging in our pressing need for physical stimulation, to drive home the message that if one wants to get serious — by which I mean really serious — one must strip away all the fluff and the externals, firstly, to demonstrate to yourself how needy and dependent one actually is, and secondly, so one can focus on what life is about, and how one can create meaning out of existence in a setting where stimulation is proscribed. If the aim for Yom Kippur is to get to grips with the real you without any distractions, then the 25-hour break from a cacophony of meaningless stimulants — news, phones, TV shows, food, drink and the list goes on — seems like a very good idea. It will give anyone who does it properly the time and mental space to focus on what really matters.

So why not have Yom Kippur once a month? Because that just wouldn’t work. We are, after all, human beings, drawn to stimulants of every kind. The truth is, there is nothing wrong with that. It is the way God created us. We need stimulation to help us function more positively.

But an annually scheduled daylong break from those stimulants will certainly help us reconsider and re-evaluate which stimulants we should seek out during the rest of the year. We might choose to be stimulated by a meaningful relationship with God, and by productive and healthy relationships with our families and friends. Or we could just choose to be stimulated by reports of the death of a cartoon rabbi.

Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior rabbi at Young Israel of Northern Beverly Hills Synagogue.