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There’s An App for That <br> Parshat Behar 5779

There are some millennial fads that are obvious to all; the proliferation of beards and handlebar mustaches, ubiquitous selfies and food pics, the rise of full sleeve tattoos, and being offended. But there hidden fads as well, the ones that happen in-doors, the ones you would only know about if you spend your time scrolling through millennial Instagram feeds. Here’s one your probably didn’t know about: houseplants.

Yes, in the generation that is obsessed with self-care and green new deals, houseplants are trending up, with some rare varieties selling for hundreds of dollars on Etsy and Ebay. You can green your apartment or parent’s basement with a few nice houseplants, make your friends green with envy when you post your perfect monstera deliciosa and Pilea peperomioides on your social, and they will give off soothing vibes to help you with the stress of being offended by everything (including this paragraph).

This new fad likely started around 2010. Google searches for almost every indoor plant variety show increases starting in 2010 and rising sharply in the last three years, to the point where there are ten times more searches today than in 2010. These graphs were displayed in a recent article in The Economist, titled “Instead of houses, young people have houseplants.” The article highlights that millennials account for a third of all plant sales in the US. In explaining this fad, it says:

“What explains the growth in greenery? Young people are more likely than their elders to live in city flats without gardens. Although houseplants grow and require care, they are neither as demanding nor as costly as pets or children. Instagram, a viral photo-sharing platform, can be credited for causing a spike in interest in cacti and other plants: #plantsofinstagram boasts 1.6m photographs—double that of a previous millennial fad, #avocadotoast.” If you’ve ever seen the bumper sticker, “My child has paws!” prepare for the bumper sticker, “My child blooms!”

Where there is demand there will be supply. Amazon has of course become a big player in the sale of plants, but other websites, dedicated solely to houseplants have become enormously popular as well. Prominent among them are: Patch, The Sill, Bloomscape, Hot Cactus, ProPlants, Terrain, and Leon & George. From any of these sites you can buy tabletop trees in cute pots for $100-200, small bushes for $30-80, and most offer Free & Fast shipping, as well as free return shipping if the plant doesn’t do what you expected it to do.

This of course leads to appification. Appification, a buzzword since 2012, is the process of creating apps for pretty much everything you might do. Need a cab? There’s an app for that! What to book flights, schedule a haircut, or order a massage? There’s an app for that. Need a bottle of wine for dinner, a new mattress, or a new suit? There’s an app for that.

When I recently bought an electric toothbrush, I debated spending an extra $20 for the next-level model which links your toothbrush to an app which reminds you to brush, tracks your brushing in real time, and gives you tips for which part of your mouth you should be spending more time on. I ultimately decided not to get it, I think I can figure out brushing my teeth without an app, I’ve been doing it since I’m four, I got this one!

So when houseplants became the new fad, apps started popping up to help you care for your plants. Plant Optimizer, PlantSnap, Happy Plant, Plant Nanny, Planta, and Florish are a few of the more popular ones. Some of them will identify any plant you take a picture of, and then offer to sell you that plant, or connect you to a store that will. Some offer tips for caring for various plants, and some even analyze your house using your phone camera and then tell you what plants you can plant in each part of your house.

Some apps make their money exclusively through advertising, but there are many freemium apps that start off free, but offer a higher level of service and customization for paying customers. Premium customers have access to journals to log watering and fertilizing times, notifications to remind you that Sally is thirsty, and human plant guides and plant care specialists who will help you customize your living wall or urban jungle.

But what really caught my eye that made me want to write about this trend was a quote from Veronica Sykes, founder of the app Florish, “I was the plant nerd talking to friends’ parents at pizza parties in high school about their gardens…” The point of Florish is to give people that same advice she would have asked of her friend’s parents at pizza parties in high school.

But therein lies the problem with appification. Sure, it makes plant cultivation easier, but in doing so, it takes out the human element. I no longer have to ask anyone for advice on how to position my house plants, there’s an app for that. I no longer have to call my sister for her tips on separating eggs smoothly, there’s an app for that (Yummly, Big Oven). I no longer have to consult with my buddy about how to housetrain my new Irish Terrier, there’s an app for that (Dogo, Pet Coach). I no longer have to call my friend who has a great eye for interior design to help me choose colors for my paint makeover, there’s an app for that (Paint My Place, ColorSmart). I no longer need people in my life, there’s an app for that.

One of my favorite blessings is the blessing we make after eating foods like meat, fish, eggs, fruits, or vegetables, the Borei Nefashos. In it we proclaim, Blessed are you Ha-shem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who creates numerous souls with their lackings, for all that You have created with which to maintain the life of every living being, blessed is He, the life of the worlds!

In this blessing, we don’t only thank G-d for creating numerous souls, but we specifically thank Him for creating their lackings, because it is only though the fact that each of us lacking that we have such a beautifully interdependent world. Only through my deficiencies are you able to meaningfully help me, and only through your deficiencies am I able to make a difference in your life. One person makes great bread but can’t fill in his dental cavities, one person can fill cavities but can’t do his taxes, and one person can do taxes but can’t make bread. And so the world turns, each person helping the other, until you have a world running on kindness and giving.

But the minute we start eliminating the people from the picture, when we start asking advice of apps instead of our friend’s parents at pizza parties, we start losing our greatest gift, the ability to help one another, the ability to share our expertise with others.

The Mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers (6:6), enumerates forty eight qualities that are necessary for one to properly acquire Torah knowledge, and while we are not talking about Torah knowledge here at all, generally these qualities are good and necessary for a well-functioning society, and appification kills a number of them:

2. Attentive listening – I don’t have to listen to anyone, my app will tell me what I need to know

8. Humility – If I got my knowledge from someone else, I feel humbled, if I got it from an app, I feel like I’m the master of this knowledge, there’s no human I owe it to

12. Closeness with colleagues – Colleagues? What are they?

13. debate and dialogue with students – ibid.

14. Deliberation – no need for that, just follow your notifications

30. Claiming no credit for himself – see #8

33. Loving G-d’s creatures – I love people when I help them and give to them, if they don’t need my help, I lose that avenue for love building

45 Asking and answering – ask who? Answer who? Someone I’ve never seen? Not the same…

46. listening and contributing to the conversation – Does a comment box count?

47. Learning in order to teach – you want me to make a competing app?

I’m not saying that we should never use an app, Uber works great, as does the Amazon store. But let’s not allow apps to become our teachers. Let’s make sure that we continue to ask our friend’s parents for advice at pizza parties. Let’s make sure we continue to talk to our children’s teachers and veteran parents instead of following the app that promises to make you a better parent (ChoreMonster, Easy Peasy).

King David, in Psalms (89:3) says about this world, “Forever will it be built with kindness.” Let’s create a world in which we still give others the opportunity to share their knowledge with us, let’s keep asking and answering, let’s give others the ability to feel proud when they can share their accumulated knowledge with us, and hopefully one day we will be able to do the same. For everything else? There’s an app for that.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for G-d.” (Vayirkra 25:1-2)

Every seven years, the Jewish people are commanded to observe a Sabbatical year (Shemittah), during which all agricultural activity in the Land of Israel comes to a halt. Many commentators ask why the Torah introduces this commandment by pointing out that G-d told it to Moses “on Mount Sinai?” All the commandments were taught at Mount Sinai. What special connection exists between the Sabbatical year and Mount Sinai?

Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, better known as the Chida, explains that Shemittah served to remind people that any wealth or success they attain in this world comes from a Divine Source. A farmer who toils on his land can easily see the fruits of his labor and think, “My strength and the might of my hand have accumulated this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Requiring the Jewish people to cease their labors for a year compels them to rely on G-d’s benevolence, which brings home the larger point that, regardless of their hard work, it is actually G-d who provides for them. Indeed, G-d promises that if the Jewish people keep this commandment, He will bless them with extraordinary crops that will keep them satiated throughout the Shemittah year and beyond.

Once a person recognizes that success and failure are in the hands of G-d, he will begin to realize that just as G-d provided for his needs for an entire year without his work, so too, G-d can provide him with his needs at all times – even if he works a bit less and spends more time devoting himself to more spiritual pursuits. Thus, when observed properly, Shemittah can be a catalyst for the farmer to increase his Torah study. This is the connection between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. Through Shemittah, one develops a deeper connection to all of the commandments that were taught at Mount Sinai.

Today in Israel, increasing numbers of farmers are observing the Shemittah laws. As this trend grows, so do the number of stories describing Shemittah-related agricultural miracles. I personally verified the following story with Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, former vice president of Agudath Israel:

A young farmer decided to keep Shemittah for the first time. He was assisted by an organization that agreed to provide him with information, guidance and subsidies, on the condition that he spend the year studying Torah in Jerusalem. While Rabbi Bloom was in the offices of that organization, the farmer called the office, ecstatic with joy. An entire valley filled with banana plantations had been devastated by a prolonged frost. Only one plantation remained in pristine condition – his! He was the only farmer in that area who kept Shemittah. (Rabbi Bloom traveled to northern Israel to personally verify what happened.)

Of course, the vast majority of the Jewish people are not farmers, but what plays out on a national scale every seven years is available to us as individuals and families every week. In any economy, making a living is a challenge; all the more so when times are tough. We feel as though we are the “masters of our own economy” and can get so caught up working to make sure that economy is doing well, that all else falls by the wayside.

That is why Shabbos has such rejuvenating power. Rather than simply a “day of rest,” Shabbos is a “mini-Shemittah” in the middle of our busy lives. It is a time when we can hand over the controls to Someone with infinite power to take care of all of our needs. Experiencing that sense of calm – and sharing it with others – is certain to bring many extraordinary blessings in its wake.

 

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Behar, begins with the laws of shmita. The mitzvah of shmita commands us to leave the land fallow every seventh year. One may not work the land at all, and anything that grows on its own in the field is left to be taken by anyone who needs it. (If you had to be poor for a year, this would be a good one to pick.) After seven shmita cycles, the 50th year was a Jubilee year, and the land lay fallow once again. In addition, many fields and homes reverted back to their original owners. Jewish servants who requested to stay with their masters past the normal limits are now sent home. Thus, when buying a field one had to always take into account how many years remained until the Jubilee because that is the amount of time he would own the field. (As Jews, we sometimes have strings attached to our deals, but at least it was known to everyone, not some fine print clause written in Azerbijanian!)Today, we have lost track of the proper counting and can no longer keep the laws of the Jubilee.

The next part of the Parsha deals with redeeming the land. The idea is as follows: G-d gave each person a portion of the Holy Land, which they bequeathed to their families. There could be no greater family treasure than the family’s share in G-d’s land! (Timeshare salesmen try to get you to feel this way about their, “week in paradise for your family every year forever!”) Therefore, if someone sold his land, it was probably out of great necessity, and the Torah gives the person a chance to buy it back if they, or a relative, can come up with the money. Depending on what type of property it was, and where it was situated, the times at which one can redeem it are different. For more details see Leviticus 25:23-34.

The last part of the Parsha deals with Jewish servants. I know that we who live in a post- Emancipation Proclamation world look unfavorably on labor provided by servants or slaves (although who do you think made your shirt?), so I will try to show you that a Jewish servant was the farthest thing from the Atlantic slave trade of the 1500-1700’s.

The sages say, “He who buys himself a servant, has acquired a master for himself.” A Jewish master was responsible for supporting his servant’s entire family, he couldn’t force him to do demeaning labor, if there was only one pillow or blanket in the house it had to be given to the servant, and when the servant would leave, the master was required to give him a hefty severance package. (All these benefits and no union dues to pay??? Sounds impossible, but with Torah it’s all possible!). A Jewish servant would sell himself if he needed funds and couldn’t find any other job, or if he simply wanted the security of servitude (a job in which his whole family was supported and he couldn’t get fired, downsized, discharged, restructured, laid off, terminated or forced to resign!)

The Parsha concludes with a reiteration of the mitzvos of keeping Shabbos and not serving idols. This was to remind any Jew who sold himself to a non-Jew, that he still had to keep his Jewish practice and couldn’t start desecrating Shabbos or serving his new master’s idols.

Quote of the Week: Necessity is not an established fact, but an interpretation. – Freidrich Nietzsche

Random Fact of the Week: Galapagos tortoises may reach a length of over 4 ft and weigh over 500 lb!

Funny Line of the Week: I would like to thank my parents- especially my mother and father. – Greg Norman in his winning speech at the 1984 World Championship

Have a Fantastic Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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