To connect with world, we must first unplug and then plug in


Numbers 1:1–4:20

Hosea 2:1–22

Ours has become a culture of interruption. It started with call waiting. What a terrible idea. I am talking to someone, and then I get a beep. As if to say: I am always waiting for the important call. Email was the next step, as people began expecting messages to arrive at any moment. Texting exaggerates this problem, as people seem willing to take a text message in meetings, at dinner, even out on a date. We are constantly waiting for that call to come in, for that email to arrive, and we are missing the beauty of the world around us.

With all this marvelous technology that allows us to be so closely and immediately in contact with all four corners of the Earth, we have never felt as alone and isolated. The social trend has been ever-increasing isolation.

People more and more perceive themselves as lost and alone and are seeking meaningful community. Put another way, I spent three years living in New York City with 7 million other people. I never met or even knew the names of the people who lived above or below my apartment. We can reach more people than ever before and we feel more alone than ever before.

In the story of Creation, the Bible tells us of God creating the world over seven days. On the first day God creates light, on the second day God begins separating out water, heavens and Earth, and by the sixth day God creates humanity. On the seventh day God rested. So what did God create on the seventh day? God created rest. God created the space between things that we desperately need.

The importance of that space between is emphasized again and again in the Torah. Shabbat is all about taking the time to rest from creative action to experience holy time. On Shabbat, we are commanded by God to do no “malakha.” Malakha is often mistranslated as work. This often leads to misunderstanding. How can I offer a class on Shabbat if that is my work? However, malakha means creative work — work that causes something to change its form.

For this reason, lighting a fire is the first forbidden action, because it is the closest we come to creating something from nothing. Cooking is a big problem on Shabbat, because cooking is all about talking items that are hard and bitter and making them into something soft and edible.

Handling money is similarly an issue, because it is the basis of the other six days of our week. Money is the means by which we create value in our society and ties us up in activities of creation. It takes us away from feeling the pauses between the notes.

Similarly, we are now approaching the end of the counting of the Omer. From Passover until Shavuot we count each day as it begins. We notice the particular value of each moment, rather than rushing to our next appointment. We take notice of the day at its beginning as a challenge to remind ourselves that this day gives us an opportunity to bring blessings into our lives and the lives of those around us.

Six days you shall work, the Bible says. All of our instant means of communication have given us an ability to transfer information and therefore amass wealth in a manner previously undreamed. We should rejoice and make use of that technology.

At the same time, we need to remember: God rested on the seventh day. Keeping the Shabbat means maintaining a balance between the part of ourselves that is all about getting and the part of ourselves that is all about being.

There is a growing move to refrain from cellphones and the Internet over Shabbat. Unplugging is a means of fighting the culture of interruption and replacing it with a sacred society dedicated to caring and presence. We need that holy time if we are ever to connect with our families, if we are ever to build communities, and if we are ever to find God.

Or, as Forbes magazine, dedicated to that part of ourselves that acquires wealth, notes every month: “With all thy getting, get understanding.”

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].