Images of horror, most pointedly the public beheadings of two American journalists in a matter of weeks, have ensured that the days leading up to the Season of Awe will continue to be stained with cruelty and violence. What hope can there be for a month already so tragic trailing a summer marred by war, rising Anti-Semitism globally and fatal injustice in the streets of St. Louis. And yet, this month on the Jewish calendar is Elul, not only the last month of the waning year but a special occasion in its own regard. Elul is the month in which G*d is everywhere. G*d is everywhere? What can that mean? On one hand its obvious, a kind of theological tautology because being everywhere is kind of in G*d’s job description. On the other its preposterous—if G*d was everywhere would the world be so messed up? Could G*d really be there when a young man gets shot down, when a war of necessity demands such a great human cost, when hatred broils in the streets. Could G*d really be there when the knife is wielded by the murderers of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?
But the idea that G*d is everywhere during Elul is understood in our tradition as neither self-evident nor grotesque. Instead we regard Elul as a time of special focus on G*d’s nearness, a period even more suited to connect meaningfully with G*d then the High Holy Days themselves. According to beautiful teaching, while G*d can be thought of like a King who sits upon an exalted throne on Rosh Hashana, during Elul the Sovereign can be found walking through the fields. And we, following the call of the Prophet Isaiah, are to make the most of this opportunity to “Seek G*d as G*d is found, call when G*d is near” Isaiah’s words may seem strange. Shouldn’t the time to send out a search party for G*d be when G*d is far away or hidden?
But Isaiah’s words are the secret to Elul: G*d’s presence is not the answer to a prayer, but the impetus to search. Our heightened awareness of the closeness of G*d is not an invitation to leave the practical and material world behind, but an inspiration to do better, to dig deeper, to take seriously the challenge of making the world a place marked by compassion, justice, and peace. Not to forget or ignore the places far away, but also to bring our attention to our relationships with those close by and the reality of our own lives. Where G*d is also found, right at this moment. Because G*d is everywhere. Really.
Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.
Modern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.
Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?
The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life? Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?
We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.
The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.
Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.
For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.
The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?
Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.
“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
Does the synagogue you attend speak your language? If you are not a synagogue goer, might you go if the folks there spoke your language? By language, I don’t mean Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, etc.
One of the central purposes of religion is to make sense of the world around us. “Religion,” from the Latin word “religare” means to restrain, to tie, to bind. Related to the word “ligament,” religion “binds” our ideas and experiences together into a cohesive worldview. Religious language is valuable only to the extent that your personal, most existential questions are dealt with, and in a manner that speaks to you.
Remember this scene of young Alvy Singer from Woody Allan’s Oscar winning Annie Hall?: Alvy Singer’s mother has taken nine year old Alvy to the Doctor.
Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if its expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom scolds: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that while science has made great strides in increasing human knowledge on matters of the human scale, certainty about what we know decreases when we consider issues much larger or smaller than we have been evolutionarily conditioned to reckon with. He writes:
“… We are limited to an intuitive sense that pertains to our range of size and our durations of time. For size ranges vastly larger than our own (planets, galaxies, space-time) or vastly smaller (molecules, atoms, atomic particles, and quanta), human intuition and logic is not reliable…[T]he only effective system of human relation and expression (constrained by our scientific knowledge) is the Four M’s: Math, Metaphor, Music, and Myth. Each provides a syntax and narrative to link our consciousness and existence to those realms of reality vastly larger or smaller than our own size range, or vastly shorter or longer than the time frames we are evolved to recognize and intuit.” – Ba-Derekh: On the Way – A presentation of Process Theology
Math, Metaphor, Music, Myth – Each of these four M’s is a language that can be used to discuss that which is much grander or much more minute then the everyday experience of humankind. Each language (each of the 4 M’s) can operate “religiously” by connecting what we cannot fully fathom to an expression that is more familiar and meaningful to us. And while each language helps us understand our place in the universe, we must acknowledge a lingering lack of certainty of the truths, or partial-truths, that each language helps us uncover.
I think it might be the case that each of us is hard-wired to have preconceived preferences among these four languages of meaning. I have students who prefer the language of math and logic. But, with imaginary numbers (such as infinity) and thanks to pioneering mathematicians such as Godel, even certain aspects of math, once considered the epitome of logical language, can be understood as limited, or merely theoretical. I have family members whose spiritual lives are fed by music. For me, I am focused on the lyrics, captivated by metaphor and myth (“all we are is dust in the wind”), rather than the notes or tones. For them, the harmonies and unexpected chord progressions thrill them to the point of goose bumps.
Religion as a Verb
What language do you religion in? Each of the four M’s has power to uncover partial truths. Each of us may prefer Math, Metaphor, Music, or Myth over the other three, but are we missing something vital when we ignore the other languages?
The Mishnah teaches, “Who is truly wise? The one who learns from everybody.” There is wisdom here, but a question lingers. If your synagogue (or the one you don’t go to) does not speak your meaning-making language, should you go elsewhere? Or, should you push yourself to find a bit a meaning in a foreign language?
There is an old rabbinic tale of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbinic leaders of their generation. A would-be convert comes to Shammai and offers to “convert to Judaism if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai kicks him out of the room. The same person approaches Hillel with the same offer. Hillel’s answer is, “What is hateful to you do not do to others. All else is commentary. Go and learn.”
This paradigmatic story is used to illustrate the greatness of Hillel. In his generation Roman persecution reached new heights. Hillel included anyone who wanted to be a part of the community to better sustain it. Shammai is seen as a curmudgeon; excluding and thereby limiting community.
The irony of our reaction is that Shammai was right and Hillel was wrong. What kind of chutzpah does it take for a person to offer conversion under those circumstances? The only rabbis I know of today who would take that offer charge thousands of dollars for a penny-ante conversion which isn’t worth the toner the certificate used in printing. Of what use would this person be?
In point of fact we want to be like Hillel – but we act like Shammai. We want to be inclusive but the majority of the Jewish community is more comfortable with Shammai. Change is challenging. New people coming into our community tend to come to services earlier and sit in our seats. They are not interested in the old feuds that sometimes dominate congregational interactions. They have new ideas and methods. Clergy and congregational leadership, used to their own intrinsic dynamic can be easily put off by this fresh air and mark their territory in uncomfortable ways.
The story is also a cautionary tale for those who practice inclusion. It’s not by accident that the convert offers a deal that is at heart disrespectful. He is mocking the tradition by suggesting it can be encapsulated in just a few seconds. If that’s all there is, why be Jewish? In similar circumstance would we be inclusive to someone equally mocking, equally obnoxious? Would we include a sincere Messianic Jew? Would we count a felon in a minyan? Would you allow a known wife beater to have an honor?
Shammai was Hillel’s contemporary. He too faced Roman persecution. His response was to restrict entrance into the community so that its values and practices remained constant. Can we say he was wrong?
I believe that the key to the story is Hillel’s message. “What is hateful to you, don’t do.” Inclusion and exclusion are byproducts of “ahavat Yisrael,” love of Israel. If you truly act out of love and compassion, you will know when to include and what lines must be drawn to keep the constantly ever-changing nature of the community. The highest purpose to which a rabbi can aspire is to be the guide in this endeavor.
In the beginning, when our son was small, we didn’t buy him hand-held Nintendo games, or the TV game consoles, either. But well-meaning family members decided to correct what they thought was a moral wrong that we were committing, and bestowed these gifts upon him. We entered the world of small rectangular screens and what, to me, was the greatest time- and mind-wasting tool ever created. Soon, laptops and smart phones entered into our lives. Yours too, I see! No matter how you feel about games and technology, or even the computer at which you are sitting at this moment, hands-on, personal experience in our society has declined, and interpersonal communication has deteriorated precipitously. It is easy to look at younger folk and bemoan the amount of time they spend with electronics, and tell them that they need to reprioritize—just before we sit down with our laptops … and then another rectangular screen to while away the hours before bed.
Distraction is, for many, a main operating mode, and I wonder if such diversion is causing grave damage. No, I don’t wonder that. I think it’s true. With internet and TV news and programs available at every moment, we face reports of savage killings, sports, the latest on idyllic islands for ex-pat retirees, fashionista hi-jinx and adorable dog videos. And it comes on like an onslaught of broken eggs tumbled into a bowl—all but indistinct and soon to be scrambled in our brains by our lack of close attention to any one of them.
It shapes our perceptions and priorities and deeply affects our souls. It shapes our perceptions because we see what we want to see, and we ignore what we choose to ignore. We can be challenged, or choose to have our own thoughts and feelings reinforced with a mouse click or a channel flip. It shapes our priorities because we are exposed to exactly what marketers want us to see as they form us into perfect consumers who believe that what we see on TV—from family lives to breakfast foods to the diet du jour—are somehow more meaningful or valuable than what we have in our own lives. And it effects our souls because it is addictive—and numbing. We can easily follow along like the children of Hamlin, drawn away from hearth and home. But will we find peace when we look back on lost days and years that we did not fully experience, fully feel, or pause to reflect on who we are, and where we are going? Years in which we were not mindful of our blessings, our relationships, our choices and their consequences, or fully appreciating that we, created in the image of God, need to take better care of our souls.
There is nothing wrong with staying in touch with friends, learning, or relaxing, per se. But we face a few realities: Being busy or active is not the same thing as living fully. Our hours in this life pass all too swiftly. This season of reflection is a good time to ask ourselves: What and who we are willing to empower to shape the contours of our souls and the path of our lives? Do we believe that time spent in thinking, conversing, growing, learning and simply being are luxuries… or priorities? What it would be like to give ourselves the blessings of time, peace and reflection to help us grow, strengthen our love and families, and bringing justice and healing into the world? And very importantly – how do we wrest our lives from the rabbit hole? As I tell our son, now grown: There is no such thing as spare time. There is only time.
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Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.
Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”
I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.
What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.
But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.
The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)
And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.
I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.
There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.
These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.
The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?
I was a college student doing about 78 mph on my way from Pittsburgh to New York City to visit my boyfriend. Suddenly flashing lights appeared behind me, my stomach flipped over, and I was busted. The officer sauntered up to my window. He asked questions that I felt were intrusive, like where was I going, where was I coming from, who was I going to see. He made a comment about my “pretty face” being smashed if I crashed at that speed. I wanted him to just give me a ticket and go away. Finally he did.
This isn’t a dramatic story. Most of my interactions with police have been related to speeding. They have been uneventful. I doubt that police officers, when they see this white professional woman’s face, feel at all threatened. Even so, in the story above, I felt shamed and angry. I can only imagine how it feels to be stopped and frisked repeatedly, or pulled over for no reason other than my race. I expect that many officers engaged in those activities are showing at least as much condescension as was shown to me.
I can also only imagine what it is to be a police officer. Last week in the Washington Post, Sunil Dutta wrote about what it’s like for him and his colleagues. His emphasis was on the behavior of the person stopped, not on the behavior of the officer stopping them, though he mentions that officers should treat people with courtesy and respect. Research shows that students meet the expectations of their teachers. By the same token, the way people are treated affects their behavior and their self-image. Police officers have a lot of power over the people they stop. Treating people like criminals, humiliating them, or assuming they’re up to no good, all have an impact on the relationship between police and residents of a community that is detrimental.
Judaism places high value on the dignity of each person. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that humanity was made in the image of God—b’tzelem Elohim. This teaching urges us to recognize every person’s equal value and treat each other with dignity.
Our great rabbi Maimonides wrote that “The Sages say, ‘One who shames (lit., ‘makes white’) the face of his fellow… has no share in the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avot 3:15). Therefore, one must be careful in this matter—that he not embarrass his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name which shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.”
We are so far from these goals in many of the interactions between police and civilians in Ferguson, MO, though we saw the difference that mutual respect can make when the state highway patrol took over police operations there. Recognizing how difficult it is, we must move in the direction of honoring the dignity of every person and interacting with them accordingly. This is particularly incumbent on police, who have the power in their encounters with others.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated the marriage of two dear friends. Along with the biological and chosen families of the bride and groom, I spent the weekend at a rustic campsite in the Oregon woods. To set the tone for this magical weekend, the couple requested that we not bring our phones into public spaces. Seeing this invitation, I decided to use the weekend as an opportunity to turn off my iPhone for the three days I was in the woods.
Over the course of the weekend, I partook in the mitzvah of misameach chatan v’kallah, the joy of celebrating these dear friends’ commitment to each other. Though mitzvah is popularly translated as “good deed” or “commandment,” it also means connection (from the Aramaic word, tzavta). When you do a mitzvah, you connect: to other people, to the world around you, or to something greater than yourself. During the wedding weekend, by inviting us to disconnect from our phones, the couple invited us to connect with their friends and family, the magnificent river near the campsite, and the Mystery that brought these two individuals together.
A growing majority of us sees our smartphones, tablets or computers promising us greater connection. The word “connecting” literally shows up on our screens when phones are finding the nearest available wireless signal! But if these devices are offering us more connection, why do we feel so profoundly disconnected from the real world around us when we are looking at our Facebook feed? Or, conversely, when we are out to dinner with a friend, why is it so hard to ignore the impulse to see if we’ve received any new e-mails or texts?
The rabbis of the Talmud establish the rule: osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, which literally means “the one engaged in a mitzvah (connection) is exempt from another mitzvah (connection)”. This guideline calls into question the possibility of “more” connection. As many recent studies have shown, while technology may make it increasingly easy for us to multitask, we are still human beings, and (with rare exceptions) can only actually connect to one…thing…at…a…time.
My partner and I know that spending time together is a mitzvah—an opportunity for sacred connection. Over the last year, we’ve established the practice that when we go out together (and know we don’t have to be anywhere else), we leave our phones at home. In engaging in the mitzvah of going out together, we know we are exempt from checking our e-mail, or looking at our Facebook feeds. But for the rest of the summer, I was in Vermont, and he was in New York City. During this time, we used our computers (or iPhones, or iPads!) to Skype with each other. And when we Skyped, we weren’t doing anything else, like checking e-mail, or talking with our roommates. This is how we remembered that we were connecting to each other.
Before we mindlessly fall into the endless world in our pockets, we need to pause and make a conscious choice about what, and whom we are connecting with.