The Blessing of Unplugging

I am a bit of a gadget freak. For my most recent birthday my family got me the iPad she knew I had been craving. One of the things I like most about the iPad is that when you open it, it’s on. You don’t have to wait impatiently while it powers up. Modern technology has caused us to develop a level of impatience never before known. Everything has to be quick, quick, quick. Instant gratification isn’t fast enough.

A business lawyer described his stress this way: Once, a contract, a letter, a proposal came in the mail. You thought about it, drafted your response, and sent it off. Total turn-around: about a week. Then came express mail. The proposal comes FedEx by 10:30 AM, and the response is expected the next day. Then came fax: The response is expected by day’s end. Then came E-mail. Now the response is expected instantaneously.

With all our devices working so quickly, why is it that we seem to have less time than ever? Why are we always pressed for time?

In truth, time pressure has become a sickness in our society. But the good news is that there is an antidote. Its name is Shabbat. Yom Kippur in the Torah is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. This year, when Yom Kippur is actually observed on Shabbat, how much the more so is it a time to think about what Shabbat could add to our lives?

This past March 4th and 5th was declared to be the National Day of Unplugging. Of course, the fact that it began on a Friday night and ended Saturday night was a give away that the underlying model was the concept of Shabbat. That’s fine with me; I am willing to share. The webpage for this effort contains the Sabbath Manifesto: the Ten Principles. The first is “Avoid Technology.” Ironically, the same web page advertised the availability of an iPhone app that allowed you to share the manifesto with others through your social media.

A blogger on the site had an insightful comment: “There’s clearly a social problem when we’re interacting more with digital interfaces than our fellow human beings. Rich, engaging conversations are harder to come by than they were a few years ago. As we voyage deeper into the digital world, our attention spans are silently evaporating.”

Unplugging on a weekly basis won’t provide a magical solution to these issues, but it’s an important start.

The National Day of Unplugging website has a video clip in which we hear several leaders in the digital world talk about their relationship to technology. Greg Clayman, the Executive Vice President of MTV Networks tells us that he very often carries three phones, and that when he doesn’t have one of his digital devices on him, he feels tremendous anxiety. Dan Rollman, the president and co-founder of Universal Record Database, admits that he has an addiction to technology, and as a result of this addiction he finds it harder read books or to stay focused on conversations. He then goes on to say that to deal with this problem, he has made Friday nights an escape from technology. Joshua Foer, a science journalist, goes further. He says that for him, beginning Friday night and continuing until sundown on Saturday, he goes totally off the grid: he doesn’t check email, he puts away his Blackberry, he shuts off the TV, he doesn’t answer the telephone. He explains that this is not something he grew up with and that at first it was very difficult. Jill Soloway says that for her, unplugging every Friday night was at first excruciating. A voice in her head kept saying: “go check your email, see if you have any new email.” Josh Foer says that now that he has become accustomed to unplugging one day each week, it is hard to imagine what his life would be like without this practice. He concludes saying that while this is such an ancient idea, it is hard to imagine that there could ever have been a time when it was more relevant than it is today.

Of course, I fully agree. Shabbat, our ancient Jewish national day of unplugging, is more relevant and desperately needed than ever.

I checked back in my files, and I see that the last time I devoted a Yom Kippur sermon to this topic was 14 years ago. In the intervening years, we have sunk further and further into the abyss of time pressure. Shabbat has never been more needed than it is now. Judaism can make the bold claim that Shabbat is the antidote to the pace and the pressures of our frenetic lives.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote an entire book simply entitled The Sabbath. Originally published 60 years ago, it is still a best seller on Amazon. Heschel sees the abstention from work on the Sabbath as a way of achieving freedom in a world becoming more and more enslaved to dehumanizing technology. He writes: “We have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the act of surpassing civilization. The solution to mankind’s most vexing problem will be found not in renouncing technical civilization but in attaining some degree of independence from it. On the Sabbath we live independent of technical civilization.”

I once heard that a pilot announced to the passengers: “We are making excellent time, but unfortunately, I don’t know where we are going.” Sadly, our lives can be that way. The Shabbat is the Jewish remedy to slow down our lives. It gives us the room we need to put our lives back into perspective. After six days of work that were given us “to do,” we were given one more day “to be.” Six days a week we are defined by what we do, on Shabbat we are defined by who we are.

Listen to the beautiful prose of Rabbi Pinchus Peli from his book Shabbat Shalom.
“For the real purpose of life is not to conquer nature, but to conquer the self, not to fashion a city out of a forest, but to fashion a soul out of a human being, not to build bridges, but to build human kindness. Not to learn to fly like a bird or swim like a fish, but to walk like a human being. It is the Sabbath that comes to remind us of all this.”
And Shabbat can be even more. It can be a time of spiritual renewal, a time to connect not only with our inner selves, our loved ones and our community, but it can be a time to connect with our God.

On Shabbat morning just before Kiddush we sing “V’Shamru b’nai Yisrael et haShabbat,” The Jews are to keep the Shabbat” “Laasot et ha Shabbat l’dorotam brit olam” “To make of the Shabbat throughout their generations an eternal covenant,” “Baynee u’vain b’nai Yisrael ot he l’olam,” “It is a sign between Me – God, – and Israel for all time.” Judaism teaches that it is the Sabbath where the Jewish people have their closest and most intimate contact with God.

Again Rabbi Pinchus Peli writes: The Sabbath is a crucible in time where humanity in its limited creatureliness and God in His enormous creatorliness meet each other half way to celebrate holiness in time.

It is a wonderful notion that there is a special day each week that is specifically set aside for the divine encounter. How magnificent it is to have the Shabbat so God can make his holy presence felt in our lives.

For most Jews today, in our very secular society, the concept of Shabbat is very alien. Perhaps if the Christians observed some semblance of a Sabbath it would be less foreign, because if our society is religious in any sense, it is Christian. But most Christian clergymen I know tell me that the concept of Sabbath rest is unknown in their communities. So how do we begin? What can you do to access this gift of rest? I believe the creators of the National Day of Unplugging had it right. That is a great starting point. Disconnect. Shut off the cell phone, silence the ringer on your landline, power down the computer, put your Blackberry in drawer where you can’t reach it. I know that what I am asking appears incredible. No doubt, at first it will be jarring and uncomfortable. But I am convinced that with time, you will realize what a blessing it is to be unreachable.

I read a story about three astronauts sent into space. They were asked how it felt to be up there circling the earth. The first said, “It was remarkable. I put out my thumb and it covered the entire planet Earth. For the first time, I experienced the finitude of our world.” The second astronaut interjected, “What struck me were the sunrise and sunsets. They were magnificent. It made you appreciate the passing of time.” The third man seemed rather frazzled and remained silent. The reporter prodded, “What was going through your mind as you circled the globe?” With a sigh the man responded, “I just kept thinking, ‘I wish I brought my camera. I wish I brought my camera.” Disconnecting from technology on Shabbat is geared to help us savor the moment, but not mechanically. It is time to be in the picture, not to take the picture.

The observance of Shabbat carries a powerful and liberating idea. It teaches us that no matter how important our occupation may be, there is another dimension of life: not idleness but freedom, freedom to rest, freedom for family, freedom for inwardness, freedom for a deeper and more meaningful identification with the traditions of our people. Senator Lieberman makes this point in his recently published book, The Gift of Rest, which he subtitled: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. At the end of each chapter he has a brief section called “Simple Beginnings” in which he enumerates ways in which anyone – including Christians according to him – can begin to access the blessing of Shabbat. I have an idea for a simple beginning, and I want to share it with you.

On three occasions, in December, January and February, I invite you to invest one Thursday night and Friday night a month in a journey of spiritual growth. On those three Thursday nights I will do a one-hour class delving into the beauty and meaning of the Friday night rituals. We will also learn some melodies that can add a special spirit to the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers. Then, we will roll up our sleeves and do some work to prepare our Shabbat dinner for the following night. A calligraphy says, “He who prepares on Erev Shabbat, will eat on Shabbat.” We will take that Talmudic teaching at face value and actually do some preparation for our own Shabbat celebration. The group will again gather on the next evening, for a Shabbat evening with all the fixings: the service, the rituals and a delicious Shabbat meal. We will have our cake, and eat it too. Take a look at the current Continuing Education brochure and if you want to give it a try, sign up. On one Thursday night next month, I will offer a bonus class and answer any questions you may have. Come out on Thursday night, November 17th and learn more and to work with me in developing the particulars. Join me on this journey. My hope is that together we can find great blessing in this spiritual endeavor.

My colleague Edward Feinstein says it this way, “You don’t have to be Orthodox to keep Shabbat. You only have to be tired of being tired all the time. Tired of the fatigue — the drained exhaustion of living on a clock all week long. Tired of the emptiness. Tired of the loneliness. Tired of that feeling that there must be more to life than this.”

Here’s a gift for the New Year: One day a week — 25 hours of freedom: to slow down and breathe, to unplug and disconnect, to accomplish nothing except re-acquainting yourself with the people you love, and the parts of yourself left behind in the rush. To turn your back on the urgent and the pressing, and think about the eternal. We call it Shabbat. And it’s God’s gift to you….before it’s too late.

Gmar tov, and Shabbat shalom