[As I get settled at the podium, I pick up my phone. I lower my head and begin to tap and swipe away, looking up occasionally to say: “oh, so sorry, I gotta take this…uh, just a sec…be right with you…oh, right…the d’var torah!”]
Missing the moment
What I just did was a joke…but also NO joke. As I have engaged in חשבון הנפש –spiritual accounting–during Elul and these 10 days of repentance, I have felt particular remorse—not for all of the moments in which I missed the mark, ,חטאתי I sinned, but for all of the moments I missed. How many times was I in the car supervising my kids as they learned to drive when I responded to a text, read an article, or grazed over to Facebook? How many times when I was in our room after our 10 p.m. computer curfew, talking to David, but also playing solitaire? How many times was I having a meeting when my phone went off and I reached down “just gotta check this—could be my kids” and checked my text messages?
I doubt very much that I am alone in this experience of engaging with a technological device instead of being fully present in the moment. I will not ask for a show of hands. But I do very much hope that exploring distraction, its causes and costs, can help not just me, but all of us, to retrain our sites on the target from which we have strayed—what E.M. Forster captured in his memorable phrase: “Only connect.” If not, while I am talking, feel free to plan your work schedule for tomorrow, or fantasize about your post-fast feast.
The late Rabbi Alan Lew taught about the importance of staying focused. As he analyzed the rules in Parashat Shoftim about exemptions from the obligation to go to war, he noticed commonalities. The Torah teaches that you cannot be required to go to war if you have:
1) built a new house and not inhabited it
2) planted a vineyard but not harvested it; or
3) are betrothed and have yet not married
Rabbi Lew taught that people in these situations are excluded from obligation because of טירוף הדעת—their mind is pulled in multiple directions, and hence, cannot fully engage in the life-or-death decisions required in battle.
Their minds are pulled in multiple directions.
OUR minds are pulled in multiple directions. We might not be engaging in battle, but we are making life-or-death decisions every time we get behind the wheel of a car. And also every time we cross a street. And it might not be life-or-death decisions, but we are surely losing real connection when we engage in a conversation while operating a phone, computer or iPad.
Why Are Our Minds Pulled in Multiple Directions?
The easiest and most immediate answer is that we are not alone—we are constantly in the company of all of these incredibly enticing devices. They offer news (though honestly, how many times a day do we NEED to check the latest headlines?), entertainment (I can listen to edifying podcasts!), and the promise of connection (better check my e-mail, maybe somebody needs me!). And oh, the apps: I even have an app for meditation!
But beyond the sheer seduction of worlds upon worlds available in the palms of our hands, there is more going on. I notice that I tap, tap, tap my phone when I feel bored, when I feel anxious, when I feel frustrated, or sad, or mad. I can take myself away from the challenge of the moment with a tap or a swipe. I don’t have to tolerate difficult emotions.
And I am an impatient person. I don’t like waiting. The other day I was in the doctor’s office. The nurse asked me to wait while draped with a paper blanket on the examining table for the doctor. Would you be surprised to hear that I grabbed my phone and was looking at my calendar when the doctor entered the room? That was nothing compared to the long and angst-filled waiting in the years of my late sister’s illness—waiting for news of a treatment, waiting for test results, waiting with dread for a phone call. Those moments, sometimes days, sometimes months, of waiting, were agonizing. I felt I couldn’t engage fully in what I was doing because I might have to take the call, or cancel a professional engagement and jump on a plane. Not surprisingly, my Solitaire addiction ratcheted up to an unprecedented level during that period. Just one more game…and another..and another…though, to be honest, my angst was not salved in the least.
The Costs of Distraction
There is a rabbinic teaching that, when we are brought before the Throne of Glory for our ultimate judgment, we will be called to account for every lovely flowering tree that we failed to notice and enjoy. So easy to do, when we are caught up in thoughts, or conversation.
The rabbis were talking about the sin of missing the moment. Imagine if we were called to account for every sight, smell, or sound we missed as we were plugged in to our phones or other devices. Even more terrifying: imagine we were called to account for every emotional connection we missed when we were multitasking when we should have actually been there—our attention drawn elsewhere when we should have been listening, looking, and feeling what the other was communicating!
In I and Thou, Martin Buber posited that there are two fundamental and very different ways in which humans can relate, I-It, and I-Thou. In an I-it relationship, we are relating to the other, whether the other is a person, a tree, or an animal, as an object. We are interested in the utility we can find in that other. In an I-Thou relationship, we are encountering the other with our full being, without agenda. When we meet the other as a “Thou,” by which Buber meant the most intimate, familiar YOU, we are truly alive, we are truly present in the present moment. In this kind of genuine relating, we become fully human. Even more than that, says Buber: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” We experience God’s presence precisely in the moments of I-Thou encounter.
When we attempt to be with another AND check our email, we are involved in an I-it relationship.
When we go out for a meal and leave our phones out on the table because we are expecting an important call, we are making an IT out of the person across from us.
When we sit on a conference call while reading the news on our computer, we are objectifying each and every person with whom we are supposedly in conversation.
More than that, though, we are making an IT out of ourselves, robbing ourselves of our deepest humanity.
When someone tells you they are multitasking, they are not. They are I-itting.
We have forgotten Buber’s precious teaching: all real living is meeting.
How shall we live our days in the year ahead? Surely not in continuous I-Thou encounters—we might be attracted to that, but no one can live at that level of intensity—we would never pay our bills or get our laundry done—though perhaps we could grow to be more present even amid those mundane tasks.
I want to offer you a teaching from my favorite rebbe, Shalom Noach Berezhovsky, the Slonimer, as a vision and promise for us.
The Slonimer Rebbe holds Avraham Avinu up as an example of presence and mindfulness. At the end of his life, it is written of Avraham,
אברהם זקן בא בימים וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל
Abraham was old, had entered his days (come of age), and God blessed Abraham in everything. The Slonimer asks: why do we need to learn that Abraham was come of age if we already knew he was old? He answers: each of us is given a portion of Torah at birth, and each day, a small piece of that portion is revealed to us. In addition, each of us has a task —a tikkun/repair that is ours alone to do. One person’s task cannot be done by another, and one day’s task cannot be completed at another time. What was it that the Torah wants to teach us in telling us that Avraham ba bayamim?
Abraham came into his days—he inhabited each and every day of his life. He learned something new, and he performed some act that healed or aided the world daily. Maybe one day he apologized to Isaac for the trauma of the Akedah. Maybe he found new neighbors with whom to make a covenant of peace. But perhaps his acts of tikkun/repair were not always so dramatic—perhaps one day, he gave a friendly greeting to a lonely soul; maybe on another day, he listened really well to Keturah, the wife of his old age.
Because he truly was present to the moment-by-moment learning and healing of each day, each of Avraham’s days was full, and rich until he died at age 175. God truly blessed Abraham in everything.
May we come into our days in the year ahead.
May we experience the wonder of doing just one thing at a time.
May we feel the power of paying our full attention to the person we are with, whether at work, at home or at shul.
May we pry the phones, or mice, or tablets from our hands and learn to be with our own experience.
May we meet many Thous, and may we discover the exaltation of being an I.
May we experience the electricity of God’s presence surging through and between us and those we truly meet.
May we come into our days in the year ahead.
May God bless us in everything.
Ken yehi ratzon.
Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Netivot Shalom on Hayyei Sarah.
Martin Buber. I and Thou. Martino Fine Books. 2010 (reprint of 1937 edition).
Alan Lew. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. Little, Brown and Co. 2003.