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We are all—from Anthony Weiner to Chelsea Handler to the lazy guy who’d rather watch TV than read a book—afflicted by an epidemic of frivolity. But Moses, who faced it, too, has a cure.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1992. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

It’s often the smallest moments that make the biggest impact. Mine came years ago, during the course of a chat with a friend, a young and talented aspiring writer. “I don’t necessarily want to write a book,” she said two glasses of wine into a lovely evening. “What I really want is to have written a book.”

Her words never left me. She had attended a very good university for her undergraduate studies and an even better one for her M.F.A. in creative writing. If our mutual chosen profession had a class of knights Templar entrusted with safeguarding its traditions, she was solidly of it. And yet, she seemed to care little about the craft itself. What she craved was the fun, the fame, the fortune. And, more and more over the course of the following years, it was these three specters that haunted her dreams and shaped her career. She never wrote that great novel. She stopped reading great novels; they took too much time. She traded in Crime and Punishment for Law & Order, the searing pain of intellectual pursuits for the numbing comfort of dull amusements, the difficult beauty of truths for the blinding glare of truisms. She tweets now, and writes funny blog posts, and posts a lot on Facebook.

She is plagued by a terrible epidemic, the epidemic of frivolity: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by levity, laughing hysterical naked, dragging themselves through tweets and apps at dawn, looking for a funny fix. And she is hardly alone: The congressman who flirts with girls rather than committing himself to his work suffers from it. So, too, does the philosopher who happily exchanged real thought for rakish looks. The plague is all around.

Frequently, when discussed in newspapers, this grim outbreak is blamed on the throngs of aspiring celebrities, reality television stars, and other heat-seeking aspirants. Of course our culture is unserious, goes the argument; just look at how we’ve propelled someone like Snooki—the diminutive and ochre-tinted heroine of MTV’s Jersey Shore—to the pinnacle of popularity. But Snooki isn’t the problem; like so many of her fellow fame mongers, she applied her modest talents to convert what would have otherwise been a withered future into a lucrative career and a small fortune. That requires serious work, and Snooki, God bless her, put it in. Snooki is serious. So many of us, alas, are not.

As I have devoted most of my life to books, my examples, naturally, come from the world of writing. Consider a bit of autobiography that Christopher Hitchens cited in his obituary of the recently departed Patrick Leigh Fermor. The great and popular British travel writer spent his early years being kicked out of various schools before giving up on his educational ambitions and deciding to walk the length of Europe. When World War II broke out, Fermor, no professional soldier, offered his talents to His Majesty’s forces and ended up with a distinguished service that included planning and commanding the heroic kidnapping of the German military governor of Crete, Heinrich Kreipe.

Here’s how Fermor, in his memoir, recalled the aftermath of the operation. “We were all three lying smoking in silence,” he wrote of himself, Kreipe, and another English soldier, “when the general, half to himself, slowly said: Vides et ulta stet nive candidum Soracte. It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off. … The general’s blue eyes swiveled away from the mountain top to mine and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though for a moment the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Can you imagine any of our contemporary writers abandoning a life of pleasure—when the war started, Fermor was holed up in Moldavia with his Romanian mistress, occupied by love and art—to do something as serious and demanding as fight a war? And might you imagine that writer, even if one such specimen could be found who is prone to sacrifice, being able to recall, from memory, one dusky day on the battlefield, Horace’s odes? How many of the men and women whose names are currently on the New York Times best-seller list do you suppose have read Horace? You might think the question is irrelevant; why, after all, should we expect the author, say, of a memoir about one-night stands to be acquainted with Horace’s words to his fellow poet Tibullus about the futility of grieving for a lover who’d abandoned him for a younger man?

The answer, I think, has to do with seriousness. Any author—even an author of light comedic prose—is seeking a great privilege, the attention of his or her fellow citizens. And any author operates on the basis of a terrible presumption, namely that his or her words and ideas are important enough to entomb between two sheets of cloth and preserve for posterity. The least an author could do, then, is to take the task seriously, which might mean, among other things, taking the time to become acquainted with the titans on whose shoulders the entirety of Western culture rests. That, of course, takes time away from tweeting and requires an investment of energy that could otherwise be applied to appearing on basic cable. It is, in short, a losing proposition.

This plague of unseriousness has gotten much worse in recent years, but it is by no means a modern invention. Moses himself knew it well. In this week’s parasha, he is confronted by a gaggle of rebels. Led by the Levite Korach, these wannabes challenge Moses’ leadership and make a compelling case that the aging patriarch should be replaced by a more youthful, ebullient guard. Moses appeals to God. Smiting ensues. By the time the story ends, the rebels are left without cause and without a leg to stand on, the ground having been torn asunder by the Lord, swallowing Korach and his followers.

What sparked this spell of impudence? The parasha never truly says. The speech the dissenters offer Moses is as follows: “Is it not enough,” they ask, “that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” They miss Egypt’s earthly delights, they resent Moses his judgment and courage, and, most important, they’re vainly and erroneously convinced they can do a better job. They can’t, and for being so careless and conceited they are put to death.

Of course, in modern times, Korach and his crew would likely have ended up as leaders of some populist Tea Party type of movement, gone on TV, accused Moses of being a socialist, and, perhaps, won office. But let us, if we can, reject the Korachites of our time wherever we find them, especially if we find them inside ourselves. Let us pledge, as much as we can, to be serious. Let us take the time to learn, to listen, to think, to read, to lead. Let us reject easy gratifications and mindless pursuits, however soothing. And let us remember that the right thing is usually very hard to do. Our lives may depend on it. Seriously.

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Let me suggest this addendum: Buber identified the problem with Korach’s rebellion as demanding that everyone was holy. That you didn’t have to do anything to get the extra bonus points, i.e., “I’m okay, you’re okay,” just on principle.

Also this, in defense of rebellion: it takes a hell of a lot of work to be successfully rebellious. I don’t mean snarky or knee-jerk, but truly committed to questioning the status quo of art, politics, morality, etc. Korach may or may not have had this in his favor, but we can’t reject his impulse out of hand.

“Of course, in modern times, Korach and his crew would likely have ended up as leaders of some populist Tea Party type of movement, gone on TV, accused Moses of being a socialist, and, perhaps, won office.”

Uh, no–just the reverse. Since you brought up the politics what would have happened is in mordern times Korach and his crew would likely have ended up as leaders of some alleged peoples power Socialist Party type of movement, gone on TV, accused Moses of being a Tea Party racist, and perhaps, won office.
That’s what is happening Liel. Deal with it honestly. Or else don’t let your snide politics ruin what is often an insightful look into the parsha.

Sue and Ethel,

Thank you for taking the time to write. Sue, I agree with you completely that we shouldn’t reject Korach’s rebellious instinct out of hand, and agree also that rebelling takes a lot of work. I read the parasha in that very light, namely Korach’s sin being not only rebellious but also unprepared for the terrible burden that is leadership.

And Ethel, I strongly disagree. Korach’s arguments sound a lot like the big-government-is-the-problem rhetoric that is often the steam in the Tea Party’s engine. He and his conspirators accused Moses not of racism, but of running a strong, centralized, government.

Thank you again for your thoughtful comments,


masortiman says:

never mind the politics, Im interested in the culture argument.

On the one hand, I am concerned about the impact of the new media/technology on our culture – do people not only not read books, but not read Ebooks, are we writing only in short bursts, are irony and sarcasm overvalued? But OTOH, I wonder if something like this couldnt have been written decades ago – people dont read, they just watch TV, rebels are more interested in Lenny Bruce than in Karl Marx, Updike has too many curse words, Jews want shuls that let them sit and listen to organ music (or guitar music) and are uninterested in study. This could be a critique of 1950s technology, or of 1960s culture, or of amchas approach to Judaism in the USA at any time since 1890.

I am not saying contemporary life does not have its own challenges. I dont know that seeing any particular period in the recent past as a golden age of seriousness, without at least acknowledging the complexity of the past (their may have been folks who went to war knowing horatian odes – but there many who went with heads filled with swing music, baseball, and mindless hollywood movies) will not lead us to a useful analysis of todays problems.

masortiman says:

“Can you imagine any of our contemporary writers abandoning a life of pleasure—when the war started, Fermor was holed up in Moldavia with his Romanian mistress, occupied by love and art—to do something as serious and demanding as fight a war?”

I know of a football player who did that. Writers dont go to war much in the USA these days – the end of the draft has changed the social composition of the army. And Moldavia couldnt have been a very comfortable place to spend WW2 even for a gentile – esp a British one.

Thank you, Liel Leibovitz, for writing about the necessity of sinking heavy-duty effort into studying the classics and reading/writing if you want to “write.” You got that right. But plenty of today’s extraordinary literature goes unread.
Like your friend. I got a M.F.A. from a great school — in my case, Columbia. I’ve been writing for thirty years ever since, I win awards when I get it together to send something out and pay whatever reading fee is involved, and I have several unpublished books.
My “frivolity” has been to work double full-time to support two children as a single parent. I was still so poor I had to use my kitchen as my bedroom–the kids got the bedrooms. Then I was in a four car collision that wasn’t my fault and three forms of health insurance and the legal system took care of my doctors, various lawyers, and every corporation involved very well.
Have I wasted my life on Facebook? I don’t think so. Have i managed to check out Horace? In English, yes. Have I stopped writing? Never.
Try being a woman without family or money and a desire for kids. Try saying “no” when editors offer to sleep with you in exchange for publication. I can’t believe I’m still writing, but I effin love it.

Dear Masortiman,

Thank you for your insightful comments. I spend much time thinking about these questions — I hold a Ph.D. in communications and teach about digital media and emerging technologies at NYU. And while I agree that we must certainly guard against an unmerited view of the past, I do think that our age presents unparalleled challenges. This, obviously, is too large an issue to discuss here, but the key, I believe, is a new technology that requires constant and active participation, thereby extending itself to every realm of human life in a way that no previous medium, not even television, had done. Without time to be alone, to think, to process, and without the ability to analyze — an ability so foreign to the logic of the hyperlink, in which every bit of information leads nowhere but to another bit of information — we’re headed, I believe, to a dark place. A sturdy education, the kind we used to offer via Great Books programs, is one good solution, but that, too, is not particularly common nowadays. Which, I think, is why we must stand guard.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts,


This piece was rather frivolous. There is no reason to include the plight of the U.S. Congressman except for sensation. He is a hard and serious worker. What he did on the side was not “rather than committing himself to his work.” It was in addition to it.
The rebellion and Moses’ reaction to it might be compared to what happens in today’s politics and media, but comparing Korach to the Tea Party? It’s like comparing Solomon to Forrest Gump.
Korach was a righteous man, an intelligent man, and a powerful man. Yes, he might have been richer than the Koch brothers, but his intentions were not solely for personal profit. His mistake was vanity, to be sure. But vanity wasn’t the only trait that drove him.
As for the people who followed him – they could be likened to a Palin rally, I guess. But I think a more accurate comparison would be the Israeli leftists, who blame the Hareidim and the settlers for all their problems.
As for the writing craft – there are still plenty of people who take pleasure in the process. We may not hear of them because they don’t write for fame or profit. They write to entertain or enlighten themselves first, and to entertain or enlighten others second.

James philadelphia says:

Right on the point frivolity is the epidemic that now is endemic. Serious subjects like 25 million unemployed representing 100 million people under poverty is entirely immaterial to those that comment and blog and discuss in the media. Obama is frivolous , same all of the Washington power base. Wall street bailout and main street kicked out and home foreclosures at 10million is better to consider invisible. Why why, because we do not want to face reality that hurts. It satisfies to be banal and frivolous, it makes you happy. The ugly parts of life like unemployment, like poor health, like getting old and feeble, is not the American way. Youth, entertainment, good times is what we Americans like to talk about and enjoy. It makes sense, we are here to be happy. Frivolity is the max of happiness. We want to be happy, it translates into positive energy. At the end of the day, positive energy is better for solving the ugly problems of life. Who is going to do it? All of us, if we do not do it nobody will do it for us. Now the power is in the hands of the powerful: congress, presidency, banks, corporations, the media tv newspapers. If we can not fight them, and we can not, we should and ought to join them.
Frivolity is here, problems are here. The problems have to be solved. After all USA is the most powerful country in the world, the most resourceful, and the most free.


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We are all—from Anthony Weiner to Chelsea Handler to the lazy guy who’d rather watch TV than read a book—afflicted by an epidemic of frivolity. But Moses, who faced it, too, has a cure.

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