Dan Ornstein

Losing The iPhone, Finding Your “I”

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.

He went flying down the river in his boat

with his video camera to his eye, making

a moving picture of the moving river

upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly

toward the end of his vacation.  He showed

his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,

preserving it forever:  the river, the trees,

the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat

behind which he stood with his camera

preserving his vacation even as he was having it

so that after he had had it he would still

have it.  It would be there.  With the flick

of a switch, there it would be.  But he

would not be in it.  He would never be in it.

Like any good poem, this one by the poet, Wendell Berry, employs a concrete, local metaphor – a man who misses every moment of his vacation because he is too busy recording every detail of it – to examine a universal theme:  how we absent ourselves from our own lives when we rush through them, disengaged, contracting them out to someone or something else.  Berry uses the word, “move”, with great rhythmic and symbolic effect.  We feel like we are on that speed boat with our vacationer, peering through his video lens at all the beauty which the film captures more accurately than our own minds.  However, for all the movement, there is nothing really moving about the experience:  the man’s camera is a pathetic emotional replacement for the man himself.  Berry also repeats deceptively simple phrases like “have it”, “having it”, “be there”, “would be” and “would not be”.  This turns the poem into a mournful tune about how devices like switches and cameras, technology’s elves, are becoming our stand-ins for authentic living.

As a wired society ever more entangled and digested in the bellies of beasts like Apple and Google, we risk letting the “video camera”, in our case the iphone, dominate how we see, feel and interpret reality.  We are a world eaten by software, to paraphrase tech-venture capitalist Marc Andreesen. We are no longer consumers, but the consumed.   I got a small taste of this a few weeks ago in an Apple store, when I purchased a new iphone. As I did this, I realized how much Apple rules us with a near Big Brother-like connectivity.

Our struggle with the spiritual risks of technological advancement is not a new phenomenon.  Examining the spiritual implications of the explosive growth of technology as far back as the pre-historic 1950’s, the philosopher, Abraham Heschel remarked, in his classic, highly recommended work, The Sabbath:

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.  In regard to external gifts, to outward possessions, there is only one proper attitude, to have them and to be able to do without them.

We are not abandoning Apple or Google anytime soon, in preparation for some Neo-Luddite jump off the grid. We should not have to, considering the powerful ways in which technology has improved every aspect of human life and progress.  With typical eloquence, Rabbi Heschel explains that at its core, Shabbat is the way in which, once a week, we learn to be able to do without technology, which is an extension of our power seeking, space-controlling selves:

To set apart one day a week for freedom…a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization…a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

I love the way that Jewish Sabbath law constructs what Heschel called “architecture in time.”  The prohibitions and rituals of Shabbat observance fashion a weekly twenty five hour reality in which even I, a busy congregational rabbi running Shabbat services, sanctify time and learn how to be fully human again. The restrictions paradoxically liberate me and the Shabbat community with which I live.

Yet I am also lucky.  I have lived weekly on Shabbat time since I was born. Its intricacies are second nature to me.  Friends, family, students and congregants I know might marvel at the structure of this sacred architecture in time, but they fear that entering the building will get them caught in a maze of suffocating traps.  Their perceptions are not helped by the way in which Shabbat observance has been turned by contemporary Halakhah – Jewish law – into what Heschel called sacred physics: a kind of spiritual technology of do’s and don’ts, arcane rules in a playbook for keeping a punitive God at bay.  For someone on the outside looking in, the architecture looks more like a condemned building.

At its best and most lucid, something as intense as the traditional religious Shabbat will never be for everyone.  Still, modified versions of the Shabbat spirit are within anyone’s grasp. In Jewish tradition, Shabbat is Yom Ha-Shem, God’s day, devoted to spiritual rest. Yet to first step into God’s palace in time, a person needs to first feel that the palace is there as his or her respite from what rages outside.  Three steps into Shabbat or at least Shabbat consciousness follow.

How about the simple first step of lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night?  When my family and I create light that coincides with the approaching darkness of night each Friday, the world and the week that went by really do look and feel different.  I constantly tell my students that, though Halakhah prohibits lighting fires after sunset on Shabbat eve, I would prefer a family light candles whenever they can on Fridays, than feel shut out of the mystery of Shabbat candle lighting from the beginning. More Shabbat observance will come gradually with time, love, patience, respect, education and support.  However, one has to begin somewhere.

How about signing up for the National Day of Unplugging, sponsored by the Jewish organization, Reboot?  Imagine twenty four hours without filtering our existence through anything beginning with a small case i?  What if we lost the iphone for just a bit, even just once a year but hopefully more, in order to rediscover pieces of our “I?”

Or, with vacation season upon us, how about turning the ipads and the iphones off during those trips to the beach, long enough to focus our actual eyes on seeing the endless sea, freed from the blinders of a camera?  What we behold might be, in the Jewish tradition’s description of Shabbat, mei-ein olam ha-ba, a tiny glimpse of paradise.



About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at