A Good Servant (Though a Bad Master)

I’ve read a number of articles recently lauding Shabbat as model for taking a one-day a week smartphone/social media vacation.

Interestingly, although some of them were written by observant Jews, many were not. Rather, the need to take a break from the 24/7 cycle of smartphones, Google, Whatsapp, email, texting, tweeting, Instagram, and a host of other apps, websites, and technologies that I’ll probably learn about only after they become passé for the millennial generation, seems to be one that also speaks to the heart of many who otherwise do not observe Shabbat.

And that’s easily understandable. Who has not experienced, with some dismay, a dinner table filled with people engrossed in their screens rather than with their companions? Or spouses texting each other from opposite ends of the couch? (Not me. I text my wife only when we’re on different floors, but that’s to save aching knees and prevent hoarse vocal chords.) Or sitting down to YouTube to watch just one five-minute video and finally getting up, reluctantly, two hours later? Or seeing someone text inappropriately? (During a funeral? Really??)

So it’s not surprising that the idea of a weekly vacation has broad appeal.

And yet it’s not quite so simple. While reading email during dinner with others surely is rude, the Kaplan family Whatsapp group enables our immediate family to easily and quickly exchange stories, ask questions, provide vacation information, and circulate pictures (especially, notes the proud grandpa, of adorable grandchildren) to the far-flung family members who no longer are able to share family meals. And while texting or cell-phoning can be, um, overdone, they’re amazingly helpful when you’re running late or (and this is for husbands mainly) you have to contact your spouse from the supermarket to clarify a request or ask what to substitute for an unavailable item. (I’m convinced that’s one of the main reasons why the smartphone was invented.)

And how our parents must have ached when forced to miss a grandchild’s siddur or chumash party! We can participate so easily through Skype or Face Time.

We’ve also benefited from a Jewish perspective, and not simply by having Shabbat candlelighting times at our fingertips, no matter where we are, courtesy of Rusty Brick’s Shabbat Shalom app. What’s truly and deeply beneficial is that with a simple click or two we can have the entire Torah — kol HaTorah kulo — available whenever we want or need it for study or inspiration.

Want to listen to a shiur? YU Torah has thousands of all types given by many teachers, all available for download and listening, even at double speed if you like. (What’s better than spending an hour listening to a one-hour shiur by R. J.J. Schacter? Spending an hour listening to two of his one-hour shiurim! And yes, handouts are available.) And on and on.

Most significant to me, though, is that this new technology has brought a greater personal sense of connectedness.

I feel closer to the people and the land and State of Israel. I’m now able to read articles from Israeli publications in real time, and have online discussions with Israelis about what is happening there. For example, I was able to follow the Beit Shemesh mayoralty election as closely as I follow NYC’s. I’ve even emailed Israeli friends and relatives to ask about some event in their backyard and discovered that they’re hearing about it for the first time — from me. I thus know so much more than I used to about the ins and outs of Israel’s news, successes, personalities, and controversies, and that makes my existing ties to the Jewish homeland even stronger and deeper.

I feel more tied into what is happening in the Jewish world around me. When Tenafly had its eruv controversy years ago, I eagerly searched for articles about it in the New York Times and the Jewish Week. With the explosion of the recent Mahwah eruv controversy, however, I not only read such articles there, in the Jewish Standard, and on Facebook, but I also have immediate access to all the legal filings (that’s the lawyer nerd in me coming out) and streaming videos of council meetings as they happen. And I not only hear about interesting articles that I never would have known about otherwise, but I can often read them — they’re just a simple click away. (Oh how my tallit bag gets heavier every Shabbat.)

I feel more a part of my neighborhood, both literal and metaphoric. I’m now able to interact regularly with more people, many of whom I knew before but plenty I did not, to discuss issues that we care deeply about. Some are real friends, some are virtual ones, and, as I’ve previously written, some start as virtual and then become real. Some sit near me in shul, others are in Israel, and yet others are people I knew in elementary school and have recently reconnected with online. And as this group of friends keeps expanding, so do my horizons.

With this sense of connectedness also comes a sense of responsibility. The well-known talmudic axiom (Shavu’ot 39a), “All Jews are responsible for each other” appears in two forms in the original: Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh and zeh ba-zeh. In an article in Tradition magazine in 2009, the late Professor Reuben M. Rudman points out that the word areivim can have two meanings: “guarantee” or “mix together.” The first appearance of that aphorism means that each member of the Jewish people is a separate entity who is responsible for the other members. The second means that all Jews are mixed together to form a single entity known as Klal Yisrael, and what each person does affects the destiny of the entire nation.

The types of increased connectedness I feel have instilled in me a greater sense of both meanings of areivim: I feel more responsible for Jews in places far from where I am, and I also have a more intense feeling that we are all one people, each one of us having an impact on each other.

A weekly break from technology is refreshing, yes, but not because our digital lives stand in the way of human connection. It’s because Shabbat — with its opportunity to talk and laugh with each other for hours around a lunch table or during a walk on a beautiful summer day — allows us to focus without distraction on the person in front of us, and to understand just who we impact and are responsible for.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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