Monday, May 11, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai: A Slave to the Cellphone, or, Overcoming Technology: The Gift of Shabbat



We Jews have every reason to be proud, since we gifted Shabbat, the Holy Sabbath, to the world. Originally, Shabbatum was a gloomy day the Babylonians invented, sort of a Friday-the-Thirteenth, a bad-luck-day coming each week, during which superstitious pagans would stay at home, scared to go outside, lest something evil befall them. We took that miserable concept, cleaned and polished it up, added a soupcon of sanctity, and invented (with God’s help) the Holy Sabbath, the one day of the week on which all of humankind is commanded to rest.
But observing Shabbat doesn’t mean spending the entire day in bed or lying in a hammock, concentrating on moving as little as possible. No: it means refraining from creating, from causing anything to happen—a formidable challenge in our age, where we live surrounded by more machines than ever.
To what extent do those machines serve us, or we them? How often do you reach for that amazing marvel, your cellphone, that either hangs on your belt-loop like an albatross, or reposes noisily in your pocketbook? I am a member of that formerly-fortunate Baby Boomer Generation who can recall telling our mothers, “Ma, I’ll call you when I get there,” and then, conveniently forgetting to do so.
My poor Nana z’l, who passed away over three decades ago, is still waiting for me to call her up when I get home from visiting her. She lived on the seventeenth floor of our Co-op Apartment Building on Grand St., the Lower East Side of NYC; my family, on the seventh, a short elevator ride away. I would visit her in the evening, once a week. Together, we would enjoy one of her only-slightly-burnt homemade baked apples, lovingly lapped in a sauce of No-Cal Ginger Ale mixed with raisins, topped with a generous dollop of Breakstone’s Tangy-Style Cottage Cheese. This was her diet dessert of choice (she was always on a diet, though she did not have a weight problem), and one of the few things she was able to cook. We would watch “Chiller Theatre” together, on WOR-NYC, Channel 9, holding sofa pillows to hide behind during the scary parts of the movie. I never called. Sorry, Nana (I think that she has forgiven me, up there in Heaven. Grandmas will do that.).
How long has humanity been a slave to technology, or a servant to Work? It actually predates the Creation of Man and Woman: the Midrash, the legends which grew up around the Torah, tells us that, following God’s Creation of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, all the planets were racing about madly; the stars twinkled and flared in their courses; the sun and moon rose and set with punctual regularity. On Planet Earth, all of nature grew, flourished, and died with enormous speed, until the Sovereign of the Universe called out, in Yiddish, of course, “Shoin genik—Enough! Let there be menucha, rest, and oneg, enjoyment—let there be Shabbat!”
In this parsha/Torah reading, we find the concept of the Shabbat raised to an even loftier eminence: the shemita, or Sabbatical year, during which the land was to lie fallow. Laying aside the technical difficulties of observing this mitzvah—it continues to be a challenge for Israeli agriculture—we can admire its original intent: that of allowing even the land to rest on a regular basis. Everything on earth is subject to the mitzvot of God, and enjoys that benefit.
God pledges to shower the Israelites with prosperity, as long as they follow Torah Law and practice justice and mercy with one another. Should they become corrupt and fall away, God will send enemies to attack them, and in the end exile them from their land. And yet, God will not forsake them completely: even in exile, God will never end His sacred covenant with the people of Israel. This is the promise which sustained us through the long centuries of wandering and persecution; it is a holy bond which has lasted until the present day. We pray that it will continue until the Messianic Age, may it come speedily, and soon. Amen!