I grew up with yo-yos and hula hoops and “Silly Putty.” My children grew up with pet rocks, “Cabbage Patch Kids,” Rubik’s Cube, Tamagotchis, and “Hello Kitty.” Today’s youth have grown up with “Guitar Hero.” But like all fads, they are popular for a while and then they disappear, only to finds their way into trivia questions and garage sales. Occasionally, sentimentality and reminiscence brings these back for a brief renaissance. But more times than not, once the initial interest in these things is expended they are consigned to the trash heap of history.
In mid-February, Activision Blizzard Inc. announced that it will no longer be producing “Guitar Hero,” a software phenomenon that sold 25 million copies and spawned innumerable contests and copy-cats since its launch in 2005. I have never fancied myself a rock-star or even a passable musician. Thus I have never played the video game. But some people, I understand, had become almost addicted to it. If it enjoyed that kind of fan base, it is hard to imagine why it is now going to be pulled off the market. Game analysts believe it is because of the fact that it had reached a dead-end. It was essentially the same game year after year. Sequels could carry the fan base only so far.
This piece of news is like a good fable: it comes with a message. In fact, it comes with at least two messages. First, it reminds us that as attractive as fads may be, they remain merely fads. What does endure are those things of permanent value and eternal significance. The challenge is to appreciate the difference between the ephemeral and the eternal. What may be popular for a time will eventually lose its novelty. What is of higher value may not be as popular but will persist.
A teacher of mine once remarked that if synagogues wanted to attract a larger audience for their Shabbat prayer services, they could hire (at that time) Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to lead the service. The synagogue would be packed with thousands of people, space allowing. The next week, when Bernstein and company returned, there would be half that number. The following, half that. But two months later, the same fifty or so people that were attending before the first guest appearance by Leonard Bernstein would be in shul. What kept them coming was their religious commitment: that, and their appreciation of the beauty of the service. They were in touch with the eternal elements and unmoved by the novelty.
Synagogues that play to the novelty factor will inevitably be compelled to offer some new fad week after week in the hopes of attracting a different audience than the week before, an audience whose interest is narrow and limited. Synagogues that play to what is eternally meaningful rather than transitorily so may have fewer numbers but they will have staying power.
The second message comes in the form of a warning. G. K. Chesterton once observed that if you want to keep the fence post white, you must keep painting it. In other words, even those things that are of eternal value must be refreshed from time to time. Venerable traditions need to be preserved and observed but if they are to carry the same influence and the same authority in a generation whose attention spans seem to be limited to the length of a Tweet, they must be packaged and taught in new ways. While the time of “Guitar Hero” has passed, the time for Torah heroes has not.