Eight days with no computer, this was the challenge my wife and I decided to place before our family for the duration of the Sukkot holiday. Like many parents, we have chosen not to own a television set, but we do allow monitored access to the internet including limited movies and television shows. With three laptop computers for a family of seven there is always at least one of us staring at a screen, and the instinctual, rather, habitual, reaction when anyone is looking for something to do will likely involve an on button.
Our decision to allow computers is not an easy one, and is often the subject of contention between my and wife and me. Despite our efforts to educate for smart consumption, the seductive ease with which nonsense captures the attention in the World Wide Web makes one wonder whether it was woven by the forces of light or darkness. My wife is attracted to the more Haredi approach: if we want our home to be imbued with holiness, the only manageable solution is absolute seclusion, to play it safe. I, on the other hand, appreciate the expansion of consciousness that comes when the world is at your fingertips, and love the fact that I am in daily contact with more of my “friends” than ever before. I am sort of a geek, and would not want to keep that from my kids.
As the holiday progressed it became clear that there was a mild addiction at play, and the pain of withdrawal was very present. It took significant vigilance and strength for Miriam and me to stand fast in our decision. There were breaches, which were handled with firm and patient admonitions. In the end the books came out for more hours a day, conversations between people sitting and simply hanging out began to re-emerge. Facebook was replaced with faces and books, hangouts were in our sukkah not on Google, real engagement and human contact were so much sweeter than status updates and digital photographs.
This was not completely new. We observe this shift one day in every week, on Shabbat. Here it is even stronger as the cell phones are turned off, the cars are parked, and the stereos are replaced by voices singing. I write this column noting the simple human value in this exercise, and the almost prophetic wisdom displayed by our sages when they chose to forbid the opening and closing of electrical circuits on Shabbat, a decision that was in dispute. It makes me sad to think that many families are not aware of the price we pay for the gifts technology has bestowed, the multitudes with no haven that reawakens the living room as a loving room.
Was it was only a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur that so many city streets were silent but for the sounds of people walking, people talking? It seems so long ago now that we shared this profound spiritual and energetic shift in our public spaces. What would happen were the entire country to embrace our weekly heritage of Shabbat in this regard only, no computers, cell phones, no television sets?
For many it would be an expression of religious values, for others perhaps ecological ones, but we would be creating a new shared value around preserving our humanity, a new face for our ancient tradition that we could practice together. Just as the concept of Shabbat was a gift bestowed by the Jewish people upon the world once upon a time, we could now pave the way for a new universal practice, one of quieting and human contact, a Shabbat for the future, a Shabbat for today.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.