Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5771: Can You Hear Me Now?

Dave Barry once wrote that “The Internet is the most important development in the history of human communication…since the invention of call waiting.”

The Internet is an incredible advancement in communication. Maybe the most significant one ever! And thanks to the screens that bring the Internet to us - our phones, computers, televisions, and the list goes on – thanks to all of them, we are able to do extraordinary things.

Smartphones, as just one example, enable us to talk on the go, read the news wherever and whenever we please, and listen to our entire music collections. They even provide us with mostly accurate driving directions. Surely we could all cite other ways in which the Internet enables us to work more efficiently, and enjoy a higher quality of life.

And yet…if you’ll excuse me for saying so, the Internet is also a colossal waste of time. It tempts us with games, videos, and tweet after tweet after tweet.

It would be one thing if the worst consequence of this new virtual reality was some wasted time.

But there’s a more serious challenge that we face: the Internet is distracting us. It’s distracting us from our Jewish responsibility to improve the world. It’s distracting us from the most important people in our lives. And most disconcertingly, it’s causing us to forget who we are as individuals.

I wish I could stand here as a good role model…as one who has already mastered the appropriate way to integrate technology into my life. But alas – I, too, am stuck in an overly dependent relationship with my iphone. For me, these issues are personal. They get to the heart of my struggle, as I seek to be a better husband, father, and Jew.

On this Rosh HaShanah, my hope is that we can all help one another to silence our phones, so that we might better hear the sounding of the shofar. For the shofar harkens us back to our tradition’s virtues: of healing the world, strengthening our relationships with family and friends, and of finding and nurturing our true inner selves. In doing so, we will be newly equipped to live less distracted and more focused lives in this virtual age.

To begin, let us start this new year by seeking to be more thoughtful about the kinds of activities we engage in online.

Consider the amount of time we spend in front of screens each week. During those hours, we are IM’ing, downloading music, and updating our facebook profiles.

According to media consultant and author Clay Shirky, it’s not that all of those things are bad in and of themselves. It’s that we are not using them to their fullest tikkun olam potential.

The way Shirky sees it, we are wasting our free time unless we’re going online in order to make a difference in the world, by effectively using the tools that are available to us.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Shirky relates the story of how online political organizing permanently changed South Korea. After five years of banning American beef, an agreement was reached in April, 2008 that would have returned it to South Korean markets.

Shortly after the word spread about the agreement, protests broke out. Candlelight vigils were held for months, eventually attracting more than 100,000 protesters daily! They became the largest demonstrations in South Korean history.

What was most remarkable was the fact that the protesters were almost entirely middle school-aged Korean girls.

At first, commentators were befuddled. They were too young to vote; and, this demographic had never been active in politics before.

It turns out that the young girls didn’t organize because of anything they had seen in newspapers. Instead, they were getting their information from the chat room of the mega-popular boy band TVXQ.

It seems that a few articulate teens raised their concerns in the band’s chat room. And since the participants were all likeminded girls that naturally identified with one another, a revolution was born.

They ultimately shamed the South Korean president into apologizing. His Cabinet was fired. And stricter beef guidelines were enacted. All thanks to a few passionate young women who like to chat about which singer in TVXQ was their favorite.

On this Rosh HaShanah, the shofar is calling to us: to be thoughtful and virtuous about how we spend our time online.

How can we justify wasting our time online, when there is so much good that we can use the Internet for instead…so much potential for us to connect with people…not just to chitchat, or game with, or gossip with about the world….but to join together – in healing it instead.

Becoming more mindful about the way that we use the Internet is only the first step toward managing the seductiveness of our screens. To really address the concerns that our phones and computers raise, we have to begin by thinking about unplugging...about actually turning our devices off – to get away from the deafening din of the virtual crowd. We need to do a better job of focusing on the most important people in our lives: the ones who are present, right in front of us.

We know that this is true when it comes to public safety. Did you realize that 2600 people were killed last year because drivers were using phones? And that drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car accident? The only way to stop the distraction is to turn our devices off in the car.

It’s too late for John Breen to learn that lesson. In 2007, Breen was home in Illinois on leave, about to ship out with his fellow Marines to Afghanistan. Shortly before his departure, he lost control of his truck while texting. He was ejected, falling more than 200 feet away.

His mother, who is seeking to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future, wonders what contributed to John’s lack of judgment in that moment. Was it the feeling of invincibility that comes with being a Marine? Or was it his insatiable desire to plug in, after being offline during his months of training on base?

In the end, the answer doesn’t really matter. The underlying issue – that our screens are menacingly distracting – is the same. And the only way to address it is to have the strength to disconnect.

Now texting while parenting may not be the same kind of life and death situation, but we need to understand that that too is a dangerous that carries its own kind of consequences with it.

How often, in the midst of quality family time have we given in to the urge to check our phones or email? When we whip out our screens, we unwittingly tell our loved ones that our phones are more important than they are. And in doing so, we implicitly give them permission to tune us out during designated quality time as well.

The cycle has to stop. We have a Jewish obligation to minimize the distraction that inevitably comes with checking our screens. The only solution is to establish some device-free parameters in our lives.

Some families might consider establishing parts of their home as being permanently free of screens or devices. Maybe it’s the kitchen or dining room. If loving partners are looking to reignite their intimacy, then maybe it should be the bedroom. Regardless: this first approach would be for us to put some distance between ourselves and our screens in certain parts of the house.

In our tradition, we don’t just establish sacred space. We also sanctify time. For more than 3000 years, we Jews have marked sacred time by observing Shabbat, and setting it apart from the rest of the week. We do this by joining with family and friends to light candles, bless wine, and share special meals.

In that spirit, Judith Shulevitz, in her recent bestselling book The Sabbath World, described Shabbat as “the ancient equivalent of social networking software.” The best part about Shabbat is that it brings us all together.

I can’t think of a better way to establish quality, or holy, time in our homes than by designating some window of time, rather than space, as being device-free. For some families this might be from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, in the spirit of a more traditional Shabbat observance. Alternatively, maybe your family will only power down on Friday night, or during Saturday afternoon. Or maybe it won’t be until Sunday morning. Whatever it is, I would urge us to consider observing a Sabbath of the screen - period of rest…from our devices. All so that we can concentrate on each other instead.

On this day of Rosh HaShanah, the shofar calls us away from the distraction of our homepages and inboxes, so that we might do a better job of focusing on one another. Not so that we can communicate with each other in tweets of 140 characters or less, but in deeper and more meaningful ways…ways that allow us to be truly present with one another, undistracted by the screens that usually surround us.

Living virtuously isn’t just about being mindful of our behavior online, and it isn’t just about unplugging to spend more quality time with the people that matter most. In this day and age, when so much of ourselves is projected online, we have to disconnect, in order to re-connect, with our true and authentic selves.

Robert Brault once observed that “A blogger is constantly looking over his shoulder, for fear that he is not being followed.” Brault isn’t just talking about blogging. We know that we mistakenly derive our self esteem from things like the number of friends we have on facebook, or the number of people who agree with our tweets.

And we’ve become so wrapped up in the details of other people’s online lives, by obsessively following our friends’ hourly status updates, that we have convinced ourselves that if we put down our screens for even a moment, we’ll miss something essential, or be left out. In doing so, we allow our own sense of selves to become linked to the gadgets we carry.

Psychologists have a name for the condition: nomophobia – the absolute fear of being disconnected from one’s mobile phone and the Internet.

The Jewish response to this sickness, which we all suffer from to some degree, is clear: we must unplug periodically in order to shore up our own identities.

Rav Kook, writing in the beginning of the 20th century in the Land of Israel, observed that “The greater the soul, the more it must struggle to find itself. One must have extended solitude – hitbodedut – examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”

Reflective solitude. An extraordinary concept.

Maybe it’s only a few minutes a day, or an hour a week. But we need to establish some space in our lives that is just for us. Perhaps it is reading a real, live book, or cooking, or eating, or meditating. Or just plain breathing…in, and out. In…and out. To create some distance between ourselves and the maelstrom of voices, both virtual and real, that distract us every day.

I, myself, have taken up running over the last year, and it has become a highlight of my weekly routine. Even with two young children at home, and with the demands of my job, I have found a way to eke out enough time to run a few days a week.

There are no words to describe how important that experience has become to me: not to worry about email, or stay on top of the latest news. Just time to be…outside, alone, to gain some wider perspective about the things in the world that matter most. I am a happier and healthier person because I have found a way to occasionally unplug, and seek out a sense of solitude, or hitbodedut, instead.

On this Rosh HaShanah in which we strain to hear the sounding of the shofar, we must begin by retreating to a place of quiet. For we shall never be able to hear its call, amidst the clamor of our online lives.

At the start of the last century, T.S. Eliot, reacting to the new technologies that were dominating his era, wrote that people were being “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

Just as our grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to navigate the lifestyle changes that came with the inventions of their day – so too are we called upon to respond to our’s.

We recognize the consequences of doing nothing to change our ways. We will only continue to waste more time online. And as a result, the relationships that we hold most dear will suffer. Even worse: we run the risk of forgetting who we are…allowing the crowd online to dictate our sense of self and self worth.

Yet on this Rosh HaShanah, we have an opportunity: to change the way we live! To live more virtuously in this new virtual world.

The shofar’s ringtone calls out to us on this holy day – not as a meek vibration, or as a kitschy pop song. It blares to us as tekiah! It is the sound of our history and our tradition – the sound that we associate with the call to change, and to improve.

It is a call to focus. To focus our online energies on the capacity to do the work of tikkun olam. And to focus, by unplugging, so that we might do a better job of tending to our real friends.

The shofar is also a call to us: to occasionally pull away from the deceptive voices of the online crowd, that we might maintain a sense of who we really are…not just the faux online profile that we have faked ourselves into being. 

The shofar calls us on this New Year’s Day. And it is asking us: “Can you hear me now?”

Shanah Tovah.


To access a collection of archived Temple Solel High Holy Day sermons, click here.

In addition to the links above, you might enjoy the following:

Click here for an incredible article about life at the 'dawn' of the PC age.

The Road Ahead by Bill Gates - His 1995 prediction of the future.  Do you agree with the criticism here?

What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr - An excellent introduction to some of the challenges our society is facing right now, with an emphasis on the neurological impact of technology.

Time by Eva Hoffman - A delightful poetic meditation on time, with brief sections dealing with technology's impact on the subject.

The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen - An early attempt at comparing the hyperlinked-tendency of the rabbis of the Talmud with contemporary technology.  For a possible glimpse into future uses of technology for Torah study click here.

Judith Shulevitz is fine.  So is Meredith Jacobs.  But if you're going to read one book about Shabbat, then that should definitely be (without question) The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

On the question of solitude, and how to seek it out without becoming a hermit (which Judaism does not endorse), there's no better starting point than Thoreau's Walden.

William Powers also calls for a 'Sabbath of Screens' in his book Hamlet's Blackberry, which I enjoyed.

Victoria Miles, daughter of temple members Debby and Todd Buchholz, is a singer-songwriter, and her song "Virtual James" addresses some of the themes in this sermon.  Check out the song here.

1 comment:

  1. Wow...outstanding sermon...thank you! Shana Tova...Michelle from Orlando