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Between Holy and Ordinary (or “Why I Turn Off My Work Email on Shabbat”)

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Once we were slaves. Now we are free.

Shabbat is Zecher Liy’tziyat Mitzrayim – a reminder of our Exodus from slavery. On Shabbat, we are meant to embrace freedom, to throw off the shackles of the things that enslave us.

As a Reform Jew, I take seriously the mitzvah of Shamor et Yom Hashabbat – safeguarding Shabbat by refraining from work. Traditional Jews refrain from all manner of “work” on the seventh day: driving cars, flipping light switches, cutting paper, sewing buttons. But these are not the activities that enslave me. These are not the activities that eat away at my time, or from which I need to be liberated.

No, what enslaves me is something different. Something less solid, but more ubiquitous. It is the constant connectedness to the outside world, to my professional life, to the everyday needs and tasks that assault me through the device that I carry in my pocket.

In the 21st century, we are surrounded by information in ways that previous generations could not have fathomed. It’s exciting: technology keeps changing; screens keep getting bigger; download speeds keep getting faster. But the danger of the information age is in the blurring of boundaries. Where previous generations would “leave work at work,” we carry our work with us. Where our parents and grandparents differentiated between office time and leisure time, we struggle to draw that distinction. Our professional obligations have the power to permeate every place and every moment… just like the Egyptian taskmasters of old.

I’d like to say that on Shabbat, I turn off my cellphone. I’d like to say that one day a week, I disconnect from the outside world. But I don’t: I text with friends; I occasionally check Facebook; I am available for congregational emergencies. As a genuine technology addict, I cannot bear the thought of being without it for 25 hours. (And actually, connecting with friends is an important part of Shabbat.) But I CAN bear the thought of being without my work email, of tuning out the ordinary needs and tasks that rule my life on a daily basis.

And so that is what I have begun to do. Every Friday, as the sun begins to set, I open the email settings of my iPhone and simply flip the switch from “on” to “off.” It is the most liberating, most empowering, and perhaps holiest moment of my entire week. It is my way of fulfilling the task of Shabbat, l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol – to distinguish between holy and ordinary.

It is a start.

Building an Inclusive Jewish Community

May 14, 2014 1 comment

Both as a rabbi and as a parent, it is important to me that Judaism be inclusive of people with special needs. Today, more and more, young people who have Autism, Aspergers, Down’s Syndrome, and other similar challenges are being encouraged to participate to their full potential in Jewish life!

Purely by coincidence, I’ve had the privilege twice in the last 2 months to speak on this topic – first at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then as part of a local Toronto panel organized by DANI. Both times, the topic was on the traditional Jewish law surrounding inclusion and on how to build the most inclusive Jewish community possible today.

For those who may be interested, here are the videos from those two events:

Thanks for watching!

 

The Life That We Would Like to be Living: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5773

September 19, 2012 1 comment

The Architect Frank Lloyd Wright tells about a memory. He was nine years old, and he was walking across a snowy field with his no-nonsense uncle. The boy wandered this way and that, collecting reeds and taking in the scenery, while his uncle walked straight across the field. Upon reaching the top of the hill, to two looked back. Uncle John pointed to his straight line of footprints, and then to Frank’s meandering path and he said sternly, “There’s a lesson in that, you know.”

Frank Lloyd Wright later said that that moment had shaped his philosophy. While Uncle John had intended to teach about the virtues of avoiding distraction, “I determined right then not to miss [out on] life, as [he] had.”

Life is too precious to miss.
Life is too precious to be spent looking down rather than around, to be spent working rather than playing.

But it seems today our world is constantly throwing at us new ways to miss out on life. New devices that teach us to look down rather than out. New excuses to bury ourselves in our work and our daily tasks and forget about what really matters.

On the High Holy Days, we take time to reflect on our lives and our choices. We ask ourselves: Do my daily actions reflect my values? Am I living the life I would like to be living?

Today, it seems that the boundaries between our work lives and our real lives are being constantly eroded. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the day, because balance is the thing that we are all missing. It used to be that our parents and grandparents would get in the car in the morning and drive to the office. Today, we carry our offices with us. Today, we can edit digital documents at the dinner table, answer emails from our beds, and text our colleagues from red lights (though it’s illegal, thankfully). With our smartphones in our pockets and our Bluetooth devices on our ears, we are accessible 24/7/365. We spend more time looking down than out; we spend more time working than living.

According to a government survey,  “one in four Canadians works 50 hours per week or more.” Ten years ago it was one in ten.[1] And those of us with smartphones – forget about it! – they put in an extra 365 hours a year.[2] That’s 15 days a year that we spend answering emails on our tiny little screens when we’re supposed to be paying attention to our families and ourselves.

In the 21st century, our technological advances and our lifestyle changes have blurred the line between our work lives and our real lives. And it’s our real lives that are suffering.

This may seem like a uniquely modern problem, but our texts tell us that even our earliest ancestors struggled to balance their obligations with their private lives – some with more success than others. In fact, the Torah gives one example of a Jewish figure who became so completely all consumed by his work that his family fell apart. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name is Moses.

We know Moses as the great prophet and leader of our people. But it’s easy to forget that he was also a human being with a family. And we forget with good reason, because according to Torah, for much of his life, Moses’ attention was focused anywhere but on his family. Here is a man who was so important, who had so many responsibilities, that they consumed his entire being.

According to Exodus 18, Jethro had to teach Moses how to delegate so that he wouldn’t try to do everybody’s jobs for them. According to the previous chapter, Moses sent his family away for extended periods of time. According to Exodus 4, he forgot to circumcise his own sons. The Torah doesn’t even mention the birth of his second son Eliezer; it’s not clear that he was even there.

In fact, the text calls Moses’ family not by their names but as “Ishtecha Ushnei Vaneiha – your wife and her two sons.” Her two sons, taught Rabi Hiyya, because she, and not Moses, had raised them.

In that sense, Moses is a tragic figure: one who achieves extraordinary things, but does so at the expense of his private life. Moses is undoubtedly the greatest teacher, prophet, rabbi, judge, and leader in the history of our people. But as a husband and father… he was kind of lousy!  In fact, the Torah is full of prominent people who mismanaged their personal lives because they were too busy doing great things. There’s Abraham, whose dedication to his mission manages to estrange both his wife and his son. There’s Joseph, who gives up his Jewish identity in Pharaoh’s court. There’s Isaac, who sows seeds of discord between his children that last for generations.

And although these stories are extreme, we may be able to see glimpses of ourselves – of our bad habits, of the choices that we wish we were making differently. And if we look closely, perhaps we can find solutions as well.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes about a friend of his, an Episcopal minister, who – like many of us – had a desk full of papers. Once a month, the minister would take every piece of paper, and throw it away! So Rabbi Kushner once asked his friend, “What if there’s something important on your desk?” The minister explained, “If it’s important, it’ll come back.”[3]

The problem with our lifestyle today is not that we have too much to do. The problem is that that it’s hard to remember what matters most, when you are constantly inundated by all the details.

Before going any further, it needs to be said: From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing wrong with working hard.  Hard work and a fulfilling career are great virtues. Why else would the Torah tell us that David was a shepherd and Adam was a gardener? And many any of the earliest Rabbis were known by names like “Rabbi Yochanan the Sandle-maker” and “Rabbi Hillel the wood-cutter.” (By the way, I’ve always wanted to be known as “Rabbi Micah the Rock-Star,” but it hasn’t taken off yet.)

So our earliest rabbinic role models also defined themselves around their careers. But the reason they were great rabbis is that they found time for personal study, for teaching, and self-betterment. That’s not easy to do.

Rabbi Meyer Twersky wrote:

The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works hard to keep us too busy. That way we have no energy left to think, to reflect, to better ourselves.

Fortunately for us, there is an institution in Judaism that was created precisely for the purposes of thinking, reflecting, and bettering ourselves… and it occurs every single week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.

It is said that very Friday night 2 angels follow us to our doors. If they find a home prepared for Shabbat, a meal ready to be enjoyed, a family spending time together, then they bless us, saying, “May it always be so.”

Shabbat is Judaism’s answer to the challenge of finding balance in life. Once a week, we Jews are commanded to withdraw from the working world – to go 25 hours traditionally without cooking, mending, lighting fires, working at our professions, or in any way trying to control or own the world around us.  It is through Shabbat that Judaism attempts to give us freedom from our enslavement to our everday obligations. In fact, you might say that the Jews invented the weekend.

But there’s more than that.  Shabbat is, at its core, a matter of human dignity. It is a concrete manifestation of the idea that every person deserves to rest. It’s a reflection of the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, since God also rested on the seventh day. Most importantly, it is the way that we as Jews are meant to care for ourselves, so that we can better care for the world around us.

The story is told of a woman who would walk back and forth each day between her home and the well of water outside the town. She always carried two buckets – and one them had a hole in it. And while many people believed it was just broken, it most definitely was not. Each bucket had its own job, the woman would explain: with one bucket she cared for own needs – she carried water to her home. And with the other bucket, the one with the tiny hole in the bottom, she shared her water… with the earth, the animals, with the plants that needed it. And if either of the buckets had ever been lost, the whole task would have been rendered useless.

We cannot care for our world unless we care for ourselves. We cannot be at our best in our jobs and our schools and our communities unless we have taken the time to rejuvenate our bodies and our souls. Shabbat is a gift to help us find rest and strength and balance in our lives.

“Big surprise!” you’re thinking. “The Rabbi is giving a sermon on Shabbat.” But before your eyes start to glaze over, let me just say that I’m not giving the sermon you think I’m giving. This is not part of the sermon where I’m going to tell you to come to shul more often, or to read more Torah, or to start saying more blessings.

No, this is a different sermon. Because I believe that a new century calls for a new approach. That instead of the same old same old, it is time to find fresh ways to celebrate Shabbat – ways that make sense in our world. That is the Jewish way.

There’s an old joke that tells about Moses standing on top of Mt. Sinai, and God enumerating the commandments:

 God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any dairy with milk?

God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses: “So, we should have separate dishes for milk and meat meals, and then another two sets for Passover?”
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “Got it — we should have two separate dishwashers. And we should wait eight hours after eating brisket before having any cheesecake.”

God: Fine, have it your way.

As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish practice has changed through the ages. And that means that it must continue to change, continue to evolve, in order to meet our needs. All joking aside, our movement has put a lot of thought into redefining some of the important institutions of Jewish life. Our belief in egalitarianism led us to redefine what it means to be a rabbi. The environmental crisis led us to redefine what it means to keep kosher. And in the information age – in a time of unprecedented access to technology and unprecedented demands on our time – we will need to redefine and reclaim Shabbat as our own. We need it too much to let it go.

A few years ago the Union for Reform Judaism released a set of Shabbat cards with ideas for ways to make Shabbat meaningful. Not the traditional ways, but new ways. I’ll read a few:

  • On Shabbat, I have something special for lunch. Our favourite is falafel with salsa.
  • Whenever possible, we spend Shabbat outdoors: hiking, gardening, or skateboarding.
  • Unlike the rest of the week, our children aren’t allowed to wake us up on Shabbat morning.
  • I do not run errands on Shabbat.
  • I don’t open mail on Shabbat.
  • I turn off my Blackberry on Shabbat.

All of these are things that ordinary Reform Jews around North America are doing because they recognize just how powerful that Day of Rest can be. And what makes these ideas so powerful is that they address real needs in our lives. The Talmud doesn’t know about smartphones, but they are certainly the greatest intrusion on our time. The sages would have told us that gardening wasn’t approproate on Shabbat, but in a world where we are so disconnected from the earth, what better way to get back to nature.  As Reform Jews, it is our right and our mandate to find modern and meaningful ways to live our Jewish values.

If Judaism says to eat your favourite food on Shabbat, and you like sushi better than chicken soup, then have sushi for Shabbat dinner. (And then invite me!) If Judaism tells us to appreciate nature, then for God’s sake go tobogganing on Shabbat afternoon. Our Shabbat may look completely different than our great-grandparents’ Shabbat. It may even look completely different from our own preconceptions, But it will be just as authentic, just as real, just as meaningful, because it addresses the real lives we are living.

I’m proud to announce that this year, Temple Kol Ami will be launching an initiative called “Reclaiming Shabbat.” It is a challenge to ourselves to find meaning in Judaism’s oldest and most important holy day. I’m challenging each member of our congregation to celebrate 2 Shabbats a month – on in sul and one at home, and to find creative ways to do so, beyond coming to services and Religious School.

So starting this morning, I want you to start brainstorming, about how you can Shomer Shabbat – how you can observe Shabbat in a way that will work for you and your family, and we’ll share those ideas with each other – through the Voice, through the Kol Ami blog, and on the bulletin board outside this door. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to a favourite restaurant. Maybe it means DVRing your favourite TV show and saving it for Saturday afternoon, or writing haiku on Friday afternoon about the events of the week, or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking a meandering walk through a snowy field – not to get from one place to the next, but simply to enjoy being where you are.

Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat, he said, is the institution that has kept us Jewish. It has set us apart, it has sustained us, it has made us holy. It’s time we return the favour.

Let us resolve in the coming year, not to miss out on our lives – not to spend our precious minutes looking at screens and focusing on things that, in the end, do not matter. Let us resolve to spend one day a week, or one hour of one day, building relationships, rejuvenating ourselves, living the life that we would like to be living.

Amen.

Techno-Judaism

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, I taught a Confirmation class in North Carolina…. while sitting in Canada.

I used to be a rabbi in Charlotte. Now I’m a rabbi outside Toronto. So when the Confirmation teachers in Charlotte asked me to Skype with their class, I was excited to see some former students. But it wasn’t just a chance to connect. This was a class on the role of technology in Jewish life… taught using technology! Can you be part of a minyan through the internet? Can you form a true community when you’re not in the same room? These are the questions we discussed – from more than 700 miles away.

The truth is, the internet is an amazing resource. It gives us access to more information than every before in history. It lets us connect with people we’ve never met, and stay in touch with people we haven’t seen in years. It can even allow the sick and infirm to be part of a community when they can’t leave their homes or hospital beds. But there is also a danger: If we ever allow virtual connections to supersede actual connections, if we let our cyber-communities take precedence over real communities, then there will be a real loss. We need human connection. Technology can be an extraordinary tool for creating it, as long as it isn’t our only tool.

In every generation, Judaism must struggle with the role of the latest technologies. Once it was the printing press. Today, it is Skype and the internet. Tomorrow…. who knows! As I sit here writing, my kids are in the other room watching Star Trek, a show about intergalactic space travel. I don’t know about any of you, but I grew up dreaming about the days when those kinds of technologies would be a reality. And while transgalactic travel isn’t quite here yet, and we’re still waiting for hoverboards (like in Back to the Future), the things that we can do are pretty amazing. We can communicate instantly across vast distances; we can travel across continents in only a few hours; we can share ideas, videos, music, and pictures with the entire world; we can research anything instantly. And we can teach classes in North Carolina from the suburbs of Toronto.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

The solution of man’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it.

Our technologies can help us break down barriers and build deeper and stronger connections. The possibilities are endless, as long as we use them wisely.

And to the Confirmation class in Charlotte – it was great to see you!

Categories: Judaism Tags:

We Can’t Change the Past (A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5772)

October 9, 2011 Leave a comment

A great scholar once taught that:

The future hasn’t been written yet. The future is whatever you make it.

Those are wise words, especially for Yom Kippur, as we sit and ponder the coming year, ponder the future.

But I’ll bet you’ll never guess who it was that said those wise words. It wasn’t a rabbi, or a Prime Minister or a philosopher. It was Doctor Emmett Brown, the time-traveling mad scientist from Back to the Future. If there’s anyone who knows about the past and the future, it’s Doc Brown. After all, he and Marty McFly spent three whole movies surfing round the space-time continuum, raising such important philosophical questions as: “What if you made a time machine out of a sports car?” and “When will hoverboards be invented?”

But in all seriousness, the movie actually does ask some important questions, and they are some of the same questions that we ask on the High Holy Days: about how our history shapes who we are today, about who we would be if we had the ability to change the past in order to shape the future.

Because we’re human, we all have regrets – about things we did or said or people that we hurt. And because we’re human, we all wish we could go back and change some things. In fact, you may not have realized it, but we opened our service tonight by trying to do just that.

“Kol Nidrei,” we said. “May all of our vows, all of the oaths and promises we’ve made in the past year, be considered null and void, if we were unable to fulfill them. In other words, if we couldn’t manage to accomplish what we promised to accomplish, to be who we promised to be, then let it be as though we never promised it to begin with. Let it be as though we’ve changed the past

Sounds nice, doesn’t it. An easy solution to the fact that we can’t always keep our end of the bargain – just retroactively cancel the bargain.

But it’s not so simple. You see, Kol Nidrei is not just retroactive; it’s also proactive. At the same time we ask to be forgiven for last year’s failures, we also beg God in advance to forgive us for what we will not accomplish this year. Turns out it’s not about changing the past at all; it’s about the expression of who we wish we were during this time of year. It’s about the longing to be better people than we are.

In the Mahzor Lev Shalem, the High Holiday prayerbook of the Conservative movement (p. 205) , it says: “Kol Nidrei expresses our fear that even our best intentions for the new year will not be fulfilled. [And it] expresses how much we regret what was not accomplished in the past year.

Because we are human, we are imperfect. Because we are human, we will have failures. And because we are human, we can’t change the past.

And while that may be a source of frustration to us in our everyday lives, the truth is, most of us wouldn’t want to. Our past – even our failures – are too important, because they help shape who we are today.

It is said that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the great Chassidic master, was once accosted by a highway robber who was famous for his brutality and his ruthlessness. The Rabbi took one look at him and said, “I know who you are! I have to admit I’ve always been a little envious of you.”

“Envious of me?” Replied the criminal.  “Why would a great scholar possibly envy a lowly robber.”

“Because,” said the Rebbe, “our sages teach that God loves the sinner so much that his if he repents, his sins can be counted as merit. And you are famous for your wicked deeds. Why, if you were to repent, no one could match you for your merit!”

The mistakes and sins and experiences of our past remain part of who we are, and they can help us be better people in the present.

We’ve all known great, patient teachers who were once themselves problem students. Sometime the kindest doctors are those who have tasted illness. The most successful entrepreneurs have often learned from their own failed businesses.

This past week, the world marked the death of a cultural and business icon. Steve Jobs, who founded Apple, who gave us the personal computer, the ipod, the iphone. Love him or hate him, he will be remembered for forever changing the way we consume information and connect with each other. But, Allison Lin at MSNBC that:

“He’ll also be remembered fondly as the poster child for how making mistakes — and even failing — can sometimes end up being the best thing that ever happen to you.”[1]

If you go back and look at Jobs’s story, you find that he was a college dropout. He founded, was fired from, and eventually retook the helm of Apple Corporation. But before he became a success, he had managed to drive his own company into the ground, and to found another ill-fated computer company called NeXT. Only on his third go-around – when he returned to Apple with those experiences under his belt – was he ever viewed as anything resembling a success.

Most of us are not technology magnates or billionaires, but we can learn from our failures – whether failures of business or in school or even in our relationships. And we can become better people by applying those lessons to our lives today.

It’s been said that “Error [is] the raw material out of which future successes are forged. Failure is not a crime. Failure to learn from failure is.”[2]
We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past when we learn from it to shape the present.

It’s not easy to forgive ourselves our failures. And it’s even more difficult to forgive others.

In the Talmud, there is a story about about the great Rabbi Meir, one of the finest and most learned sages of early Talmudic times. It says that there were some criminals in his neighbourhood who caused him a great deal of trouble. So he prayed to God for them to die.

The Rabbi’s wife, Beruriah, who was known as a scholar in her own right, rebuked him, saying: “Why would you think such a prayer is allowed? Do you not know that when the Psalms say “Yitmu chot’im min ha-aretz – Let sinners disappear from the earth” that it could also be read to say “Yitmu chata’im – Let sin disappear from the earth?” Rather than praying for their death, you should pray that they repent and there will be no more wicked people.”

Rabbi Meir understood that his wife was right. He prayed for the criminals to return from their ways, and when they did, he forgave them.[3]

Forgiving means trusting that we and others have the ability to change. It means believing that our past mistakes do not have to define us. And forgiving can be very, very hard to do.

Tomorrow morning, as part of our service, we will recite a formula through which we officially exonerate those who have done wrong by us. We will say:

“I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.”[4]

But it’s one thing to say the words, and quite another to actually believe them. When we are wronged, it’s not in our nature to forgive. And let’s be honest: we’ve all been wronged.

Every one of us has been hurt by others. Sometimes purposefully, sometimes by accident, sometimes simply by misunderstanding. It happens in our workplaces, in our marriages and families. Even within our own synagogue community there are people who have disagreed or argued – over what was best for the congregation, or what was the right or wrong path to take – and who have said or done things they later regretted.

And it’s so easy to remain mired in our grudges. It’s so easy to hold onto our anger. But failing to move forward from the past means being condemned to live there. What is best for our relationships – for our marriages and our families and our communities and ourselves – is to forgive, when we can.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past when we strive to forgive those who are as flawed as we are.

But what’s also true is that no matter how hard we try, there are some crimes that cannot be forgiven. And so, when we can’t look backward, all we can do is look forward.

Ernst Werner Techow was an anti-semitic terrorist who, in 1922, assassinated Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walter Rathenau. While he was in prison, Techow received a letter from his victim’s mother. She wrote: “I will forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge [you] make a full and frank confession…. And before a heavenly judge repent.”

Techow was deeply touched by that letter. And years later, after being released from prison for good behavior, he smuggled himself into France during the Second World War where he helped over seven hundred Jews escape the Nazi regime.

He admitted later that the letter from Rathenau’s mother had prompted his actions. He said. “I only wished that I would get an opportunity to right the wrong I’d done.”

Even after saving 700 innocent souls, Techow did not believe that he had made up for his crime. And in truth, how many of us could see fit to forgive, to erase the past, in a case like this one. But Techow knew that even though our past actions are already written, our future actions are not. And whether he erased his crime we could debate until the end of the world, but he certainly made a difference in the lives of 700 people.

Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda taught that “Our days are like scrolls. We should write on them what we want to be remembered.”

And our tradition tells us at this time of year that it is never too late to change what we will be remembered for.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past by creating a better future.

Kol Nidrei v’esarei v’charamei. All our vows and oaths and promises rise before us on the Yom Kippur evening. Because we are human, we make mistakes. Because we are human, we often fail. But we should remember that our failings can continue to be a constructive part of who we are.

And though we can’t travel in time to change the past, to erase our past wrongs or nullify our failed oaths, the truth is that’s not why we’re here.  On this night of Kol Nidrei, we are here to begin to come to terms with the imperfect beings that we have been, to ask God’s permission and to ask our fellow human beings’ permission to move forward.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past through the choices we make, through the way we live our lives each and every day.

During these High Holy Days, may we strive to learn from our failures, to forgive others their failures, and to work together for a better future.

Amen.

See Me on TV!

December 5, 2010 2 comments

I was on Fox News Rising here in Charlotte last week, explaining the story of Chanukah.

http://www.foxcharlotte.com/rising/Celebrating-the-Holiday-The-Meaning-of-Chanukah-111259709.html

Chag Urim Sameach – Happy Festival of Lights!

Categories: Holiday Tags: ,

Information Overload: Is Shabbat the Solution?

July 11, 2010 1 comment

These days, we spend our lives connected to information,  and connected electronically to the world. At any moment of the day, you can find out the answer to almost any question; and at any moment of the day, others can reach you – through email, phone, online social networking, etc.

This kind of access – and this kind of accessibility – raise important religious questions.What are the boundaries between our home lives and our work lives? What kind of time are we devoting to self-growth or to family or to our inner lives if we are always connected to the outside world? If we spend our lives building and conquering (so to speak) the world, then when do we stop to appreciate and be thankful?

That’s why I was so intrigued by Kai Ryssdol’s interview on Marketplace with William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry.” (The interview is here. You can read it or listen to it online.) I will start by admitting that I have not read William Powers’ book, though I think I would now like to. I was most intrigued by Powers’ reference to his family’s “Internet Sabbath.”

In my family, we do something we call the “Internet Sabbath,” which has no religous meaning, it’s completely secular. But on Friday night, we unplug the household modem which serves my computer, my wife’s and our 12-year-old son’s, and it’s unplugged every weekend until Monday morning.

Au contraire, Mr. Powers! You may not think that your Internet Sabbath has religious meaning, but you have stumbled upon the very essence of Shabbat. From Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath:

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. (p. 13)

The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it. (p. 28)

Shabbat is a time to stop trying to master the world and instead to live in the world. Ultimately, that is why we’re not allowed (according to tradition) to light fires or build buildings or cook food on Shabbat: because it is the one day of the week when we do not seek to control the world around us. The benefit of an “Internet Sabbath” is not only that it removes the distractions that might take us away what’s really important, but also that it may help us tame our impulse to be constantly accomplishing and acquiring.

Not that there’s anything wrong with acquiring and accomplishing; it’s just that’s there’s also something to be said for appreciating, and observing, and breathing… and resting.

Categories: Judaism Tags: , ,
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