Selfies and Na'arcissism

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(Adapted from Sermon, Parshas Vayeishev 2013)


This week, the most prestigious dictionary in the world, the Oxford Dictionary, released its word of the year.  You see, every year they choose a word that best captures the ethos and culture of that year.   In a sad statement about contemporary society, the guardian of the English language, the Oxford Dictionary, has chosen the word for 2013 and it is “selfie.”   A selfie is a picture one takes of himself or herself with a camera or smartphone and then immediately shares with friends or posts on the internet.  I recently read an article about the trend of young people taking selfies at funerals of their loved ones.


This new phenomenon reminds me of the old saying, “Enough about me, what about you?  Tell me, what do you think about me?”  They might as well have chosen “narcissism” for the word of the year, as it seems that is exactly what selfies are, a cry for attention and an absorption with one’s self.


Va’yomru ish el achiv, hinei ba’al ha’chalomos ha’lazeh bah.  V’atah, lechu v’nahargeihu…”


The brothers had grown tired of hearing about Yosef’s dreams and his aspiration to rule over them.  They had lost their patience with him and so when they saw him coming they plotted to kill him.  Ultimately, Reuven interceded and they threw him in a pit instead.  Later, Yehudah intervened and rather than leave Yosef in the pit to die, they sold him into slavery.


The Midrash Eleh Ezkera tells us the story with which we are all familiar from Yom Kippur davening and from the Kinah we recite on Tisha B’av entitled Arzei Ha’Levanon.  The Roman Governor was studying the Bible when he came across the story of the sale of Yosef.  He was terribly disturbed by the lack of accountability and consequences for their actions.  He decided that he would put the ten greatest Rabbis of the generation on “trial” for this horrible occurrence and they would bear the consequences of their ancestors.  The Rabbis, including the great Rebbe Akiva and other transmitters of our sacred Mesorah, were found guilty and were brutally murdered.


Ten Rabbis killed for the action of the ten brothers who sold Yosef.  There is only one problem:  there weren’t ten brothers that sold Yosef; there were nine.  Binyamin was too young at the time and didn’t participate.  And Reuven had excused himself and wasn’t present when Yosef was sold.  So why did ten Rabbis suffer martyrdom when only nine perpetrated the injustice?


The Shelah Ha’Kadosh, Rav Yeshaya Horowitz, provides an incredible answer.  Do you know who the tenth brother was, responsible for the sale of Yosef and the descent of the Jewish people into Egypt, ultimately bringing us into servitude?  It was none other than Yosef himself.  Says the Shelah, Yosef contributed to this historic injustice because he instigated the rivalry with his self-absorption.  The Torah tells us that he acted as a na’ar, an immature and unsophisticated kid.  Rashi explains that Yosef was consumed by looking in the mirror, fixing his hair, beautifying his appearance, and drawing attention to his attractiveness.  The brothers were tired of his dreams and they were uninterested in his selfies.  The brother’s behavior was unconscionable and inexcusable, but it was at least partially precipitated by Yosef’s egocentricity.


If we skip to the end of the parsha, we can clearly see that Yosef has grown up and learned the lesson of caring about others.  At this point, Yosef had been sold into slavery by his brothers, separated from his beloved father, falsely accused of impropriety by the wife of Potifar, and now finds himself languishing in prison.  He has every right to focus on himself, his situation and his misery.  He is entitled to feel depressed, despondent, and wallow in his own suffering.


Instead, from the corner of his prison cell, Yosef notices two other gentlemen who look somewhat down.  He approaches them and asks “ma’duah pneichem ra’im ha’yom, why are you so sad today?” They take him up on his offer, share their troubling dreams, and we know the rest is history.  He accurately interprets them, the wine steward later remembers his prowess, and Yosef goes free.  He emerges as viceroy of Egypt, saves the country’s economy, and our people migrate to Egypt.


Not only did Yosef impact his own life, but the destiny of our entire people and arguably all of humanity changed because of a simple, small act of chesed, of taking an interest in another.  This na’ar had now grown up and instead of taking a selfie in prison and burdening others with his troubles, he recognizes their plight and seeks to help them.


Pirkei Avos teaches, "Hevei Makdim B'Shalom Kol Adom, be the first to greet and take interest in others.”  Don’t make every conversation and interaction about you.  Like Yosef, take an interest in others and seek to make a positive difference in their lives.


A sociologist, Dr. Charles Derber, did a study of face-to-face interactions and watched 1,500 conversations unfold.  He looked for trends and themes and recorded how people vied for attention.  In his book, “The Pursuit of Attention,” Dr. Derber shares his conclusions.  Despite the best intentions and without even realizing it, he noticed that most people inevitably and invariably bring conversations back to themselves, practicing what he calls, “conversational narcissism.”  “Oh, that happened to you, you will never believe what happened to me.”  “Let me to tell you what is happening in my life or with my kids.”  “Can you believe what this person said to me?”


Many of us are taking selfies with our cameras and others are taking selfies with our conversations.  The common denominator is narcissism, whose root is being a na’ar: immature, self-absorbed, and egocentric.  Oxford Dictionary’s choice of the word of 2013 simply confirms what many of us suspect, that the burst of technology and social media is encouraging greater narcissism and more of a focus on ourselves.  We update our Facebook statuses with verbal selfies – how we feel, what we are doing, what is wrong with our lives or what couldn’t be better with our lives.  Like Yosef, we flaunt our dreams and are obsessed with looking in the mirror.  But like Yosef, we, too, can mature, and learn to take an interest in others.  When we see friends, family members or co-workers, instead of sharing our status or selfie with them, let’s ask, ma’duah pneichem ra’im ha’yom?


Yosef’s freedom from prison came as a result of initiating a conversation about others, not himself.  Our freedom from the prison of our egos will come the same way.  Rather than share selfies and practice conversational narcissism, let’s show an interest in others and bring about a personal and collection redemption.