A Retreat From the Screech of Dissonant Days, or: My Rabbi Says To Knock Off the Blogging

Ran into my rabbi last Sunday -- David Stern, head man at Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, very hip and very influential so I hear -- and asked him: "You mind sending me your Kol Nidre sermon? I'd like to post to Unfair Park." He grinned and said sure -- grinned, I'm sure, because it was a sermon titled "Slow Down," in which he quotes William Powers, Henry David Thoreau, William E. Dodge, Nahum Sarna, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Cassidy to make his case for backing away, slowly, from the glow of technology. Sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.

Writes Stern, the "Bobblehead nation is in full and frenetic bloom, as we all try to keep up with our connectedness: emails, texts, voicemails, tweets, alerts, links, tags, posts, blogs, downloads, uploads, and several different passwords - none of which you can ever remember when you need to." As the rabbi read from his sermon -- and the audience laughed, at Kol Nidre, no less -- the missus nudged me, the kid kicked me, and my mom cleared her throat, loudly and repeatedly. And all I could think was: I can't wait to put this on the blog. Oy.

Now, jump already.

Slow Down
Yom Kippur 5771
September 17, 2010
Rabbi David Stern

A number of years ago, Nancy, the kids and I were at a family Chanukah party in Boston. Though we were on vacation, and theoretically moving at a more leisurely pace, it was a crazy day.

The kids had some activities before, we had another party to go to next, and then we were driving across the state that night to visit more family. As we made our excuses for having to leave early by describing what the rest of the day held in store, my nephew Sam, eight years old at the time, sighed and said sweetly, "They're not a family. They're Bobbleheads."

That was in 2001, long before we knew that "text" could be a verb, that a twitter is something you tweet, that Facebook isn't a book at all, and that social networking is something you actually do alone in front of a screen. We don't need any of the recent rush of books and articles to tell us that Bobblehead nation is in full and frenetic bloom, as we all try to keep up with our connectedness: emails, texts, voicemails, tweets, alerts, links, tags, posts, blogs, downloads, uploads, and several different passwords - none of which you can ever remember when you need to.

It's the paradox of our technological age. We are witness to a dazzling array of connective innovations, and the last thing we should be is Luddites smashing the new machines. Not only do we have more information at our fingertips than we ever could have imagined, but we can skype our kids as they travel the world, instantly email pictures of a newborn from an iPhone in the hospital room, teach and learn Judaism via twitter, and reunite with long lost classmates on Facebook. We can talk to the people we love just about anywhere at any time. And I know some great marriages that started on J-Date.

Yet we know that the same technologies which create a genuine world wide web of connection can also isolate us from the people right before our eyes. In his book Hamlet's Blackberry, author William Powers calls it the "Vanishing Family Trick." After dinner, his family of three gathers snugly around the fireplace in the living room of their home on Cape Cod - a perfect portrait of family togetherness. "Then it happens: somebody excuses themselves for a bathroom visit or a glass of water and doesn't return. Five minutes later, another exits, saying, 'I have to check something.' The third person, now alone, soon follows, leaving the cat and the dog to wonder where everybody went. Where have all the humans gone? To their screens." And of course, even if one does not physically leave the room, our smart phones make it possible to travel great distances while staring into our laps as others have a conversation around us.

In keeping with the double-edged sword of this and any technology, the inventions intended to save time and make us more efficient can do just the opposite. Neuroscience teaches that for all our talk of multi-tasking, our efficiency and concentration suffer when we try to do more than one thing at once. The high tech companies that create the cutting edge technologies are the first to identify the loss of productivity from employees distracted by the blink and ping of the latest gadgets.

We sit at meetings and read emails on our phones, or we sneak a look at a text from a friend during school open house. Congregants report that their experience of the high holidays is disrupted and diminished by the people down the row playing with their screens (though some suggest an exemption for using your phones to track the path of a tornado during Rosh Hashanah). Last summer, a teenage girl in Staten Island was walking along the sidewalk and fell into an open manhole - while texting. Enchanted by the dazzling array of opportunities at our fingertips, we have utterly lost the capacity to be attentive and present in the moment. William Powers dubs us a new species: homo distractus.

Information overload is nothing new. Whether it was the introduction of written language, of printed books, or of the railroad system which contracted time and space in nineteenth century America, each epochal invention introduces new frontiers, and with them, new pressures. In 1852, a New York Times editorial reflected on the wonder and worry of a new-fangled technology known as the telegraph in words that could well apply today: "Messages follow each other in quick succession. Joy spreads on the track of sorrow ... An innumerable host of social, political and commercial details all chase each other over the slender and unconscious wires."

In reflecting on the new technology, New York businessman W.E. Dodge wrote of how hard it is to come home and relax after a hard day of work when as soon as you sit down to dinner, a telegram arrives from London directing the purchase of 20,000 barrels of flour from San Francisco. "The poor man," he wrote, "must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off his message to California. The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump." Mr. Dodge, you've got mail.

A hundred and sixty years later, we are more on the jump than ever. Our pace quickens, and the boundaries blur: between work and rest, between office and home, between what's truly important and what claims to be urgent, between the task which should be the object of our attention and the myriad distractions which pull and peck at us.

My friend Rabbi Naomi Levy tells of going to get her hair cut at the beginning of this summer. Her hair stylist spent the whole time she was cutting Naomi's hair on her Bluetooth, having a heated argument with her husband, yanking and snipping at Naomi as she went. Naomi tried to help resolve the argument, out of both rabbinic compassion and self-defense. But it was too late - by the time the conversation was over, Naomi had a shag. She looked just like David Cassidy. All summer long her husband would turn to her and sing, "I Think I Love You."

But what is at stake is more than a bad haircut. And the breakneck fray and press of our lives requires more than a smart social critique, or a resigned chuckle, or secret self-satisfaction at how busy we are. It requires religious response. In our tradition, the pace of our days and the quality of our attention are matters of deep spiritual concern, and Judaism challenges us to reflect on them at this season of honest self-examination. So tonight I'd like to share three spiritual insights from the Torah and a powerful vehicle from our tradition that might help us cope with the challenges we face.

Spiritual Insight #1: Creation in the Book of Genesis begins with chaos, but it only proceeds through distinction and separation: light from darkness, land from waters, the waters of the heavens from the waters of the sea. The reversal or effacement of those distinctions, as in the flood story, is consummately destructive.

When we lose the boundary between family time and work time, between screen time and human time, between being in touch and holding a gentle solitude, we suffer, our creativity suffers, and whatever is on either side of those boundaries suffers. As Rabbi Levy writes, "Ecclesiastes wisely teaches us, 'To everything there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to weep, a time to build and a time to tear down.' But he didn't mean all at once."

And so Genesis asks us: have we been minding the separations that make for creativity and life? We have such dazzling potential - for goodness, for love, for professional accomplishment, for service. But when we let all those colors run together, they lose their brightness. It's what the Torah calls chaos.

Spiritual Insight #2: Like our ancestors in the Exodus, we confuse slavery and freedom. Our sages teach that the most pernicious part of Egyptian bondage was that the Israelites had become used to it, their dignity and aspirations crushed into submission. And true to form, almost as soon as they cross the sea to freedom, they get a little thirsty and tired, and they start to kvetch - more specifically, they pine for Egypt, for the passive and predictable ways of the slave house over the terrifying uncertainty and responsibility of the desert.

The generation of the Exodus reminds us that our slaveries can be seductive. Do I control my possessions, or do they control me? Do I even notice what I am beholden to? Are we capable of turning off the phone or ignoring the email's siren song? Our mobile phones give us the now indispensable freedom of traveling all over the world and staying in touch. But calling a Blackberry a Crackberry is a sardonic reminder: our freedoms become our slaveries if we're not careful. Thoreau, writing in the age of the telegraph but just as much for us, observed, "Men have become the tools of their tools."

The same insight emerges from recent literature about choice. The popular American cultural assumption had always been that unbridled choice and the autonomy to choose are primary expressions of our freedom. The more choices we have, the assumption goes, the freer we are - think of an East Berlin supermarket vs. a West Berlin supermarket during the Cold War.

But recent research suggests that the welter of options we confront -- whether it's which TV to buy, or less trivially, which medical treatment to elect, leaves us feeling more overwhelmed than satisfied. The range of choice that we assumed was our source of freedom is, when experienced without limit, tyrannical. The forces that we think might liberate us can become our oppressors. It takes vigilance and discernment to tell the difference.

Spiritual Lesson #3, and the most important of all, brings us to Moses before he becomes the liberator. Moses was a shepherd, out tending his father-in-law's flock in the wilderness near Mt. Horeb. As he was walking, he saw a bush that was on fire, but noticed that the bush was not consumed. Struck, he makes a deliberate decision to stop and turn aside to see what's happening. According to the Torah, it is only then that God calls to him out of the midst of the bush, commanding him to return to Egypt and free his people, to begin the drama of redemption and hope that echoes for us to this day. Moses teaches us the core Jewish spiritual lesson for our busy lives: slow down. The only way that Moses could have seen that the bush was not being consumed would have been to stand in front of it for long enough to notice. As Nahum Sarna writes, "to see that a bush is on fire is easy; to see that it is not consumed takes time and patience."

Moses is not texting. He is not thinking about the price of wool futures, or where he has to be next, or whether his manhood is compromised by working for his father in law. He is present enough to notice something unusual, even wondrous, in his surroundings. Then, only once Moses has noticed, only once he has passed the test of slowing down and paying attention, only then does God consider him worthy of the task that will change his life and ours. Only then can Moses respond, "Hineni," here I am.

By the time Moses says hineni, a different Hebrew word, the Hebrew root which means "to see," has occurred six different times in the space of three verses. So while stress reduction is a worthy aim, stress reduction is not the Jewish reason for slowing down.

We should slow down, the Torah suggests, in order to see. To see and sense the hearts of those we love, without prejudgment or projection; to see the truth of ourselves, as we strive to do on this day. To see that what looks mundane holds a spark of the sacred. We should slow down, Moses teaches, because at the pace we're moving, we're missing a lot of wonders, and to miss wonders is a world-shrinking sin.

We should slow down in order to see the injustice and pain which surround us, and to sense, like Moses, a call to participate in bringing redemption to those who suffer.

In her book The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz describes an experiment conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973 by social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson. The researchers wanted to see what variables would influence one person to act compassionately towards another in need. The seminary students were assigned to give presentations at two different locations on campus. After the first presentation, one group was told that they should hurry over to the next location because they were late; the second group was told that they were right on time, but should go directly. The third group was told that there was a delay in the proceedings, but that they should head on over anyway. On each of their routes, the students passed a man slumped and groaning in a doorway.

The psychologists recorded student reactions, and when all the results were tabulated, only one factor served as a consistent predictor of whether the students would stop to help. It was not personality type, it was not career goals in the ministry, nor their familiarity with the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan. It was simply whether the students were in a hurry. Darley and Batson concluded, "Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases." Several of the students who hadn't stopped indicated that they had seen the man in the doorway, but hadn't realized he needed help until after they had passed him. The press of time had impaired their ability to take full note of their circumstances. "They had seen," Shulevitz writes, "without seeing."

It is not only Moses who is addressed by the voice from within the flames, but we ourselves. The quality of our spiritual lives depends, William James wrote, "on the capacity of the soul to be grasped." What wonders have I overlooked in this past year: a child's joy or a lover's forgiveness or a friend's courage or the simple play of sun and shadow on an autumn day? What has been invisible to me, whom have I failed to see - slumped in the doorway of a building, or stooped with age, or slouched in discouragement at my own kitchen table? How much has my pace blurred my vision? Have I slowed down enough to see, for my soul to be grasped by both wonder and need?

Three insights: maintain boundaries, distinguish freedom from slavery, and slow down in order to see - if you haven't guessed yet, the Jewish vehicle for them all comes to us every week as Shabbat. In fact, a Sabbath day of rest is more and more prescribed - for Jews and non-Jews alike - as good medicine for our pressured and over-connected lives.

Last spring, the Jewish non-profit Reboot, dedicated to renewing Jewish identity for the next generation of Jewish adults, sponsored a National Day of Unplugging. From sundown on Friday March 19 to sundown on Saturday March 20, people across the nation voluntarily committed to not using computers, cell phones, or other contemporary technology.

It was Reboot's launch of what they are calling the Sabbath Manifesto, a hip, non-sectarian and totally un-traditional reinvigoration of the ancient day of rest. (To give you an idea, the ten pithy items on the manifesto include "Give Back," "Find silence," and "Drink Wine.") The reboot website even offers for sale a little cell phone sleeping bag - a pouch that you can tuck your phone into when you want it out of sight and out of mind.

William Powers, not Jewish as far as I can tell, entitles the last chapter of his book The Internet Sabbath - a description of how he and his family (the same ones who brought us the Vanishing Family Trick) now unplug from the Internet from Friday night through Sunday night of every weekend. It took getting used to - no online bill paying, or instant retrieval of movie times or driving directions. And like a traditional Jewish Sabbath, a Sabbath of rest from the internet requires advance preparation - letting people know that you will be off the grid, organizing your week so you won't have to do emails on the weekend, getting online research for homework done by Friday night - the adjustments weren't easy at first, but the rewards were invaluable.

These days, you can find (on the internet, of course) plenty of ways to reassert control over your technology by creating mini-Sabbaths. Go for a walk without your cell phone. One young Temple couple told me that they have a no laptop rule in their living room. When you are on your computer, try not to have more than one screen open at once. More and more people, when they are writing, disable the internet so they can focus on the creative task at hand. Limit the number of times you check email at work, and designate certain hours of the day as screen free - the conventional wisdom is that the internet is like rich food - you should avoid it right before you go to bed and when you wake up in the morning.

But for us as Jews, the Sabbath is more than a trendy metaphor for unplugging. It is Shabbat, an ancient gift with profound potential to address our most modern challenges. I am not, for now, even talking about observing Shabbat according to Jewish law, though that has plenty of advantages. Forget all of your associations with Shabbat as a day of prohibitions, characterized by a long list of Thou Shalt Nots. Even bracket for now the beauty of observing Shabbat at Temple, though I will tell you that some amazing things are happening in prayer and study, and part of the wisdom of Shabbat is that a Shabbat community can help us observe it.

I am talking about Shabbat as a day of opportunity for the spiritual acts of slowing down and letting go, to emulate God's rest in Genesis with some respite of our own. A day to repair the fragmentation of time we commit and suffer from all week. A day to refrain from our impulse to change and improve the world as given: to pay one more bill, to set up one more appointment, to work one more hour, and then another, and then another; to experience what Michael Fishbane calls a day of "sacred stasis" - "to let the world be the world and things be things." In the light of Shabbos candles, a small retreat from what Heschel called the "screech of dissonant days."

It's not a given that a creation story have a day of rest. Shulevitz asks, "Why did God stop, anyway?" and brings the powerful answer of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna: "God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful only once we stop creating it and start remembering why it was worth creating in the first place."

Powers argues that we should try to balance the outward orientation of all of our technology with a corresponding return to inwardness, to simplify the outward life in order to expand the inner. Shabbat is a day, or just part of a day, or just half an hour, to be still enough to hear our own hearts.

It takes both will and humility to slow down on Shabbat. Will because slowing down is counter-cultural and a little subversive - it won't happen unless we make it happen. And humility because Shabbat lovingly reminds us that we are not in charge, that at least once a week we should refrain from trying to master the world, and instead gain pleasure and meaning from our attachment to something beyond ourselves - God, family, Torah, tradition.

Shabbat humility is linked to another Jewish value which runs in direct opposition to our secular consumerist culture: self-restraint. It might be the Torah's greatest wisdom: that the Israelite slaves gained their liberty not at the moment they crossed the sea, but only when they stood at Mt. Sinai - that the slaves became fully free only when they agreed to the covenant that both limited and lifted their lives.

So Shabbat is a day of family not just for family's sake. It's a reminder, in contrast with our culture's ego-driven celebration of autonomy, that our lives gain their greatest meaning not from unfettered freedom, but from the bonds of relationship and community, with all the commitments and limitations on freedom that meaningful relationships entail.

Shabbat and Sinai insist that self-restraint is a necessary element in preventing our freedoms from becoming our slaveries. It means that if you can choose to forego one element of your driven week - no phone for some period of time; no commerce for some period of time; no internet for some period of time; then you will be asserting your freedom over the things that threaten to control you all the other days.

I know, it's sort of hard to imagine all of that and Saturday soccer tournaments too. So don't try to be perfect, and don't try to be comprehensive, but try something. It may take advanced preparation - for example, if you want to stay out of the mall on Saturday, you will have to figure out how to get there some other time. But if all the psychologists and social critics are recommending Sabbath for the population in general, surely we can benefit too.

One hundred and seventy years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville visited these shores and wrote this of Americans: "They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight."

Shabbat is the day for us Bobbleheads to stop clutching, stop hurrying. A reminder of how vital it is to make our way back to the burning bush, day in and day out: to see again, our souls grasped again, our service inspired again, our way lit again - not only by our screens, but by the desert flame, by the God who creates the world anew each day. Each new day, in a new year we pray, that will be slow and sweet for us all. Shanah Tovah.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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