Selfies: The Word of the Year

obama selfie
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

An apt description of our generation.

It’s official. The Oxford English dictionary just announced “selfie” as their International Word of the Year 2013.

The annual honor goes to a new word or expression that attracted the greatest interest during the year. Judy Pearsall, Editorial Director for Oxford Dictionaries, explained the decision: “Using the Oxford Dictionaries language research programme, which collects around 150 million words of current English in use each month, we can see a phenomenal upward trend in the use of selfie in 2013. Frequency of the word in the English language has increased by 17,000% during the past 12 months.”

And it’s not just that people are using the word a lot. What it describes has become a universal obsession.

In case you don’t know, selfies are self-portraits taken on smartphones and uploaded to social media. More than 53 million of these pictures have been tagged #selfie on the photo-sharing site Instagram, 93% of teenagers take pride in regularly using them, and they make up an ever greater portion of Internet content. Mobile phones now come with cameras specially designed for the arm’s length selfie shot. And their message is always the same: me, me, me.

Facebook and Twitter have been elevated to a new level of narcissism. We are no longer content to share ideas; we only want to share our image. Like the egomaniac who stands still while changing a light bulb because he believes that the whole world revolves around him, the worshipers of selfies give new meaning to the word “I”dolatry – ignoring everything in their surroundings except for themselves.

The past few months gave us incredible illustrations.

While scores of onlookers watched in horror as a suicidal man prepared to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, a bystander turned her back to the scene, angled her phone toward the bridge and snapped a shot which would prominently feature her profile even as it included the less significant sight in the background. To complete the picture, the scarf- clad blonde cracked a thin smile just to make sure she looked her best.

Visitors to the Auschwitz death camp routinely make mock- horror faces while photographing themselves touring the site meant to recall the unparalleled crime of the 20 century, giving greater priority to their presence than to the stark reminders of the evils perpetrated there.

The “Selfie Hall of Fame” for the past year has been on display on a website that included a Florida high school student who took a selfie that included his teacher going into labor in the background and selfies at funerals featuring young people frighteningly unaware of the inappropriateness of their self-centeredness. “Love my hair today. Hate why am dressed up.#Funeral” texted one teenager with herself in the foreground and the corpse of her deceased grandmother visible in the background in an open casket.

The clear winner for most outrageous selfie – because of the prominence of its participants – is the one that went viral around the world, featuring a triumvirate of political superstars attending the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela. At what was meant to have been a solemn service recognizing the achievements of the person who brought apartheid to an end, we witnessed the president of the United States, Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt happily giggling their way through a selfie session.

In the aftermath, the founder of the website “Selfies at Funerals” announced he was bringing the site to a close: “Obama has taken a funeral selfie, so our work here is done.” When reality overtakes parody, there is no longer room for satire.

Judaism long ago recognized that the greatest threat to the worship of God is the idolization of the ego. The 10 Commandments begin with the verse “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” The first word is “I” – and it refers to the Almighty. It asks us to replace the personal obsession we have with our own selves for an awareness of a higher power who controls the world. In a very profound sense, the Torah does indeed teach “an I for an I ” – to substitute the supremacy of the Creator for the feeling of our own preeminence.

My father, of blessed memory, taught me a profound insight into the prayer with which observant Jews begin every day. In Hebrew, we recite modeh ani. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the return of our souls after sleep, a blessing of gratitude for the first of God’s gifts to us throughout our waking day. In English the opening phrase is translated “I give thanks.” When I was old enough to understand the Hebrew words, I asked my father why the Hebrew seems to be written in a grammatically incorrect way. The word modeh means to thank; it is the word ani that means I. Should we not, I questioned, read it “ani modeh,” the way we say it in English, “I give thanks”?

No, my father responded. That would make the first word out of our mouths every single day the word “ani” – I. That’s impossible for a Jew – to think first and foremost of himself. Let the first word to come from our lips be modeh, demonstrating gratitude is more important than ego. All that we have comes from God. This is what you must remember your entire life. Turn your camera around and worship Him, not yourself.

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