Blog Post : 7/24

7/24 | erica.frankel | Sep 16, 2013

by Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, Reform Rabbinic Fellow and Scholar-in-Residence

A government agency researches the white-crowned sparrow, a species of bird that foregoes sleep for the entirety of its long, winter migration. They’ve already developed pills to stimulate wakefulness, but they’re trying now to unlock something even more powerful. They’re trying to learn the secret to eliminating the human body’s need for sleep. They’re trying to create the ultimate soldier: one who needs no sleep for weeks at a time… and yet, a soldier whose efficiency—even without rest—would be unmatched.

This isn’t the premise of a totally exciting sci-fi movie. It’s real.

According to Jonathan Crary, author of the recent book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep, the U.S. government has been researching the white-crowned sparrow as part of a broader exploration of tactics to develop soldiers with physical capabilities that might make them more like robots than human beings: efficient, standardized—less risky, more predictable, and deployable for longer stints. Soldiers who don’t need sleep. Soldiers who can work 24/7.
But aren’t we all, Crary asks, essentially “in business” 24/7? Don’t we now live in a world that is always “on”—a vast, global version of “the city that never sleeps”? Haven’t we stopped talking about “on” and “off” and invented a new designation: “sleep mode”—which, when you think about it, doesn’t really mean rest at all—but rather, a vigilant state of readiness, slowed-down but not turned-off, ready at any moment to switch right back online… active!

Crary’s book is a super-depressing analysis of the economic reality in which we now live—a reality in which people increasingly “wake themselves up once or more a night to check their messages or data.” The New York Times has featured stories on internet addiction in Korea that has reached such a fever pitch that some young people were skipping school and foregoing sleep to play online games for days at a time. And there have been feature stories on camps where adults can go to detox from their devices. We live in a world where sleep-texting interferes with children’s ability to function in school and in which people are probably tweeting this sermon right now… We barely interact with each other anymore: we interface. We text people who are sitting across from us in the classroom. We Skype the people we love most.

And some of these things are wonderful! My son, for example, gets to see his Nana almost every day using FaceTime, even though she lives in another State. And, don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if this sermon were trending right now.

But we also pay a price when we’re always on, always connected. 24/7.

And today, Yom Kippur—the day our tradition calls Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths—today is the perfect day to reflect on what it is we’re giving up when we give up our rest.

“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote these words in his classic work The Sabbath. And they couldn’t be more relevant than right now.

Imagine: a realm of time in a world that continues in an endless 24/7 loop, where consumerism never ceases because online shops are always open, where communication never ends because our cell phones are under our pillows. Even the concept of setting aside a day that is different from other days—never mind all that stuff about “being versus having” or “giving versus owning”—just the notion that we might distinguish one kind of time from another—this has become a major challenge.

Crary’s book focuses on sleep as an example of a human activity that interferes with the constant, spinning wheel of capitalism. Sleep is a biological necessity that interferes with things like “production time, circulation, and consumption.” When we’re really asleep, we can’t work. We can’t produce. We can’t buy. In a 24/7 economy, sleep represents “profound uselessness.”

Well, uselessness might be one way to get near talking about the notion of Shabbat: not “uselessness” as in “frivolity,” but, as Heschel writes, a day that is “for the sake of life”—not a day for the sake of labor or for the sake of business or for the sake of consumption. A day that is in and of itself. A day set apart.

A day on which you don’t have to worry about whether you’re spending every single minute building your resume. Or improving your grades. Or getting internship credit.

What would it mean for you to remember and to keep the Sabbath?

I’m not talking about all of us becoming shomer Shabbos.

We know the reality. We’re Reform Jews. Reconstructionist Jews. “Just Jewish.” We’re secular Jews or cultural Jews. On Friday nights at the Bronfman Center, we keep our cell phones handy to exchange numbers with new friends, and we text each other afterwards to find out where the best parties are happening. We don’t keep the Sabbath in the same way that our Orthodox friends do. We turn on the lights. We call our parents. We binge-watch “Orange Is the New Black.”

And that’s okay.

But we still have both the opportunity and the responsibility to remember and to keep Shabbat. Here, at NYU. Because it’s Jewish tradition. And because it’s just too beautiful to give up.

V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat… “The people Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between [God] and the people of Israel. For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth,u’va yom ha’sh’vi’i shavat va’yinafash, and on the seventh day [God] ceased and was rested” (Exodus 31:17).

Shavat va’yinafash. Stop. And rest. And not only “rest”—but be renewed to your very core: va’yinafash, from the root nefesh—being, soul.

This va’yinafash is not a passive refreshment, not a day at the spa. It’s a renewal that connects us to what it means to be human. Shabbat links us to something eternal: it is what Heschel calls a “turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” An “atmosphere.” A “climate.”

When our Sages the Rabbis tried to translate the Biblical commandments to remember and to keep the Sabbath into concrete tasks, they discovered something crucial: Shabbat isn’t simply about stopping. It’s not just shavat but shavat va’yinafash. We stop and we renew ourselves. We renew our commitment to the best of what it means to be human.

Shabbat isn’t just about refraining from doing certain things, but about creating and fostering and nurturing an atmosphere, a climate, an attitude, an orientation. And not just for our own sake, but for the sake of Jewish tradition, for the sake of our collective humanity, for the sake of something much, much bigger than our individual need to stop, to sleep, to rest.

There have been plenty of pop-culture examples of people taking on the notion of Shabbat and applying it to our technological world. Unplugging, like we did last night. Political commentator, comedy writer and former editor of The Onion Baratunde Thurston, for example, blogged about his own experience of unplugging. He relates how he changed all his outgoing messages to this one, all in capital letters: “I HAVE LEFT THE INTERNET. I’M ON VACATION. THAT MEANS NO SOCIAL MEDIA UPDATES, RESPONSES, CHECK-INS, LIKES, TAPS, POKES, NOOGIES, TICKLES, OR HEAD LOCKS. I’M GOING TO PRACTICE LOOKING PEOPLE IN THE EYE AND NOT CHECKING MY EMAIL OR” dot-dot-dot. Baratunde learned some valuable lessons during his twenty-five-day hiatus from all things digital. In his own words: “ I shared too much.” “I was addicted to myself.” And during that detox, “The greatest gift I gave myself was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness. […] Unoccupied moments are beautiful, so I have taken to scheduling them.”

Well, we have a built-in invitation to schedule those moments unoccupied by anything other than a taste of eternity. Each and every week, from sundown on Friday to the appearance of three stars on Saturday night, we are invited to remember and to keep Shabbat. We don’t need an internet detox, a trendy iPhone-free camp, or an expensive hotel that blocks our Internet access (they totally exist, by the way!).

All we need is a Jewish community. And a willingness to take part in creating and nurturing that atmosphere, that climate, that mystery—that is Shabbat.

The Rabbis delineate thirty-nine categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat. They involve things like digging and plowing and reaping.

As a Reform Jew, I don’t think we need to follow the strict letter of Jewish law to fulfill our responsibility to remember and to keep Shabbat. You won’t see me ticking off these rabbinically-forbidden activities on a metal list each time I see students take the elevator on a Friday night or use their phones to record the email address of a new friend they met at Shabbat dinner at the Bronfman Center. But I do want to highlight some of these forbidden labors—ones that might in particular teach us about what it means to really have a Shabbat in a 24/7 world.

One of them is completing: God finished the world in six days, and on Shabbat refrained from work. I’m pretty sure none of us has ever finished an entire universe in six days. Sometimes we come to the end of the week and we’re almost done with what we wanted to accomplish. And so we think, what’s wrong with carrying this over into the weekend? But there’s a real danger here: in a 24/7 world, a world in which our Facebook profiles aren’t exactly a part of our leisure time but instead form part of a complex web called our “Internet presence”—a profile that anyone from our professors to prospective employers to—God forbid!—our parents can check to see how we measure up…in this world that is always “on,” how do we even know when we’ve completed a task?! Our Sages the Rabbis challenged us to make Shabbat a day independent of completing anything useful—anything that might serve as an instrument to a broader goal, anything that might serve as a means to an end.

So, let’s challenge ourselves to spend our Shabbatot this year free of the worry that we’re not getting enough done. Free of the pressure that everything needs to be completed.

And of course, we’re not just obsessed with making sure our every moment is spent in an activity that is useful to our future careers and a boost to our online reputations. We’re obsessed with commenting about the things we do. And this brings me to another of the traditional forbidden labors on Shabbat: Writing.

Like most all of the thirty-nine forbidden labors, writing can represent the human transformation of “nature” into “culture.” But there’s something else here, too—something important. As the Orthodox Union notes, writing is connected to “the keeping of records.” It’s about keeping track, taking inventory, counting counting counting. It brings to mind a scene from Baratunde Thurston’s account of his twenty-five-day unplug: “I stopped next at a friend’s holiday party, where I engaged in conversation without once taking out my phone to see what Twitter had to say about my conversation.” Or those beautiful lines from an Indigo Girls’ song: “Don’t you write it down; remember this in your head. Don’t take a picture; remember this in your heart. Don’t leave a message; talk to me face to face.”

Let’s challenge ourselves to spend our Shabbatot this year face to face. Fully present. Experiencing our experiences rather than being exposed to them. Living rather than keeping records. Engaging in the life of our community rather than serving as our community’s self-appointed online commentators.

And then there’s the biggie: CARRYING.

On Shabbat, the Rabbis enjoin us to refrain from carrying in the public domain. This isn’t about spending Shabbat without “lifting a finger” or holding anything. In fact, as my teacher Rabbi Aaron Panken likes to say, “You can carry an anvil around on Shabbat, so long as you never leave your own house.” Rather, we are forbidden from transferring an object from the private realm into the public sphere.

In the age of Facebook?! How could we possibly? We don’t even know what “private” and “public” mean anymore!

So let’s challenge ourselves to spend our Shabbatot this year engaged in the intimacy of the private realm, this community’s interior space. Let’s make Shabbat about the hearth and not the marketplace.

Each week, the Bronfman Center invites you—challenges you—to stop and be refreshed. Each week, we challenge one another to be counter-cultural. To unplug from the relentless 24/7 machinations of exchange and usefulness and productivity and consumption.

The Rabbis of the Talmud called it me’eyn olam haba—a distillation of the world-to-come, a taste of eternity (See Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 57b). Not the never-ending wheels of the Internet or global capitialism. Not the endless march of moments indistinguishable from one another because they are all interchangeably about making and taking count and keeping records.

Shabbat. A taste of eternity because it is time unlike any other time.

In some ways, I think college is the perfect time to take a taste of that eternity.

Because college, too, is a time unlike any other time. The friendships you form here, the lessons you learn—these will carry with you into the future. I remember sitting at my Shabbat table with my best friend from college. We graduated more than ten years ago—fifteen, almost!—and yet, we commented, those four years feel proportionately, qualitatively longer than the time we’ve spent since. College was a taste, in a sense—a distillation, an intensification—of the values we would live into our adult lives. These are the friends around my Shabbat table to this day. They were the ones holding the poles of our chuppah. Theirs were the hands holding our son as we welcomed him into the Jewish people.

This time is like no other. Shabbat is a day like no other.

A taste of eternity. A break from the monotony and the pressure of constant production-and-consumption. A challenge to be fully present.

A challenge I hope each of us will take up, together, this year.
Shabbat Shalom

In addition to the works explicitly cited in this sermon, I consulted the following: Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (Random House, 2011); Martin Fackler, “In Korea, a Boot Camp Cure for Web Obsession” New York Times, Noveber 18, 2007; Matt Haber, “A Trip to Camp to Break a Tech Addition,” New York Times, July 5, 2013; Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” New York Times, December 29, 2011; Reboot’s Sabbath Manifesto (http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/unplug); Baratunde Thurston, “#UNPLUG: BARATUNDE THURSTON LEFT THE INTERNET FOR 25 DAYS, AND YOU SHOULD, TOO” (http://www.fastcompany.com/3012521/unplug/baratunde-thurston-leaves-the-...).