Who is Winning the War For Your Attention?

Growing up, I remember teachers telling us to “pay attention.” It's a strange phrase. How does one “pay” attention? Enter 2022 where attention is a multi-billion industry. In many ways, paying with our attention is the cost of living in the modern world.

Quite literally, every moment, someone is making money off of mine and your attention. This is no secret to any of us who have been repeatedly badgered to “like and subscribe”. We know that the accounts and profiles we follow are gaining from our engagement. “Good for them,” we think. “If an advertiser wants to pay them for my clicks and views, that's no sweat off of my back. I have the choice to disable notifications, mute my devices and unsubscribe whenever I want.” But while there is no harm in subscribing and engaging, there is most certainly a cost.

More often than not, we are completely unaware of the price we pay when we give our attention away. That's the brilliance of this industry: When we give our focus away, we are giving away the very ability to notice what else we are giving up.

Please note: I am not here to rant about phones, social media and the internet. While these tools have certainly made distractibility easier, the problem is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, the question of focus and attention is central to our Parsha. To understand it, we'll need a quick recap:

Bilaam has been recruited to curse the Jewish people, and despite knowing that Hashem might not let him get away with it, the money is too good to pass up. He leaves home accompanied by the nobleman of Moav, but along the way, his donkey is acting up, veering from one side of road to the other.

Unbeknownst to Bilaam, there is an angel of Hashem blocking their path. In his rage, Bilaam begins to beat the animal until, miraculously, Hashem opens the mouth of the donkey who protests: “Why are you beating me?!”

Bilaam, yells back “Why am I beating you?! You're making making a mockery out of me in front of all of these people! If I was holding a sword, I would've killed you by now!”

The donkey, replies “Seriously?! In all the years that you've ridden me, have I ever done anything like this?”

“No”, Bilaam acknowledges, but before the conversation continues, Hashem opens Bilaam's eyes and he sees the angel in his path. The angel admonishes Bilaam, who quickly defends himself before resuming his journey and mission.

By all standards, this is a strange story and there are many questions that the narrative demands. But a number of years ago, one of my students remarked, half-joking, there is no point where Bilaam exclaims: “OMG! A Talking Donkey?!”

He shows no pause, takes no break, shows no recognition that he has witnessed a singularly miraculous event.

It's a good question, one that the Anvei Nezer addresses (שם משמואל תרע״ו).

He explains: It is entirely possible for a person to encounter the most incredible wonders of reality, and walk away from them completely unfazed and unchanged.

The human capacity to concurrently focus our own agendas and ignore all else, gives us ample room to feel cynical, disenchanted and uninspired regardless of the opportunities and events around us.

The Kotzker explains this tragic truth in the Pasuk describing Matan Torah (Shemos 20:14):

וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת... וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the voice of the Shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood a far away.

Apparently, it is possible for a person to see sounds, hear lightning, experience the call of shofar and see the mountain ablaze before us. It is even possible to tremble in awe and fear, and yet, to still stand far away.

It is possible to have a full conversation with a talking donkey and fail to notice the sheer miraculousness of the event. When our attention is zoomed in on our own narrow thoughts and screens, we are effectively giving up the possibility of noticing anything else.

What else is there to notice? Everything.

So much of our Halachik experience is designed to draw our attention to things that we might otherwise ignore. We make brachos on thunder, lightening, new fruit and dozens of other irregular experiences. But we also take note of the miracle of opening our eyes in the morning (ברוך פוקח עורים) and express our gratitude in putting on shoes (ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי).

It is essential to note, however, that we are not trying to focus on everything and certainly not everything at the same time. That would be impossible and naive to attempt.

Instead, the goal of the Torah is curate our attention, to train us on which aspects of existence to focus on so that we can lead elevated and enjoyable lives.

The narrative of my life and yours is told to us, by us. But by focussing on details in one direction or another, the stories we tell ourselves can diverge wildly.

In one version the stranger's kid having a melt down in aisle seven is “badly behaved”. Naturally, there are things we could focus on to explain that conclusion. But in another version of the same story, that great kid is having a really rough day, and there is evidence for this conclusion as well. Which version is true? I have no idea, it all really depends on which details we choose to focus on. But I know what I'd like you to think if it were my kid; so I should try to do the same for you.

That's our Avoda. To try to see the details that explain how the world is good, how everyone is doing their best, and perhaps how we could lend a hand.

This is the essential message of our Parsha. Everything that Bilaam saw as negative, Hashem forced him to see as positive, to see from the perspective of a loving friend:

לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב... ה׳ אֱלֹקיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ Hashem has not seen sin in Yaakov, or perverseness in Yisrael. Hashem his God is with him and the Teruah of the King is within him.

Rashi comments here: וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ – לשון חיבה וריעות. The word תרועה is an expression for love and fellowship. If you love someone, you choose to see the good in them. That's the part to focus on.

If time is a limited resource, then focus and attention are even more so. The charge of the Torah is to choose how we use this single most powerful resource.

Hashem should help us in this fight to reclaim our attention, to focus only the goodness of the Torah, each other and ourselves.