Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 3, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Hi My name is Michael Friedland and I am an iPhone addict.
I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6s. Actually Hillel upgraded to an 8 and I took his 6s. I was excited because the 6s is a little larger than the 5 which is what I had. I spend hours of my precious time reading the tiny tiny print in news articles on the iPhone 5. My eyes were going from bad to worse. But I couldn’t help it – my phone would notify me of every breaking news headline from the 5 news services that I subscribe to. And when that breaking news headline comes across, I mean, what else are you supposed to do but stop everything in your life at that moment and go to that page.
I also follow people on twitter – I am not on twitter – but I follow certain opinion writers on twitter. And I have to stop every, oh I don’t know, five minutes to see if they have published any new comments.
My old iPhone 5 was barely functioning, in fact it was only held together by its otter case because I had smacked it so many times when it did not give me the news fast enough!
So it was a relief when I read that I am not alone.
David Greenfield, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut explains that "Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov's dogs.”
Whenever we hear a ding or a ping or lightning sound that alerts us to a new text, email or breaking news story, because we have received a kind of pleasurable feeling when we receive these notification, the cells in our brains are taught to release dopamine or something like it. That dopamine makes us feel pleasure, Greenfield says.
"That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us," Greenfield says.
In other words, just hearing the notification can be more pleasurable than the text, email or tweet. "Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov's dogs," Greenfield says.
The average adult checks their phone 50 to 300 times each day, Greenfield says. And smartphones use psychological tricks that encourage our continued high usage — some of the same tricks slot machines use to hook gamblers.
"For example, every time you look at your phone, you don't know what you're going to find — how relevant or desirable a message is going to be," Greenfield says. "So you keep checking it over and over again because every once in a while, there's something good there."
Some psychiatrists are now suggesting that over reliance on smart phones can become a behavioral addiction like gambling.
"It's a spectrum disorder," says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, who studies addiction. "There are mild, moderate and extreme forms."
For perhaps some people, the solution as with alcoholism, might be total temperance. Buy a flip phone.
For others, the solution as for so many challenges in life is: Shabbat !
That’s right. Shabbat is now a saving grace for our over reliance on cell phones, iPhones, iPads and all things electronic.
NPR had a report a couple of weeks ago in which Tiffany Shlain and her husband Ken Goldberg discussed their family power down from Friday night to Saturday night. It was not a coincidence that the power down coincides with Shabbat.
The family's not religious, Shlain says, but they love the Jewish Sabbath ritual of setting aside a day for rest or restoration.
"The days felt much longer, and we generally feel much more relaxed," added her husband.
Their daughter, Odessa Shlain Goldberg, a ninth-grader, says the unplugging takes some of the pressure off. "There's no fear of missing out or seeing what my friends are doing," Odessa says. "It's a family day."
"During the week, [we're] like an emotional pinball machine responding to all the external forces (by turning the technology off and powering down) You're making your time sacred again — reclaiming it," Shlain says. "You stop all the noise."
Moses could not have said it better himself.
Speak to the Israelite people and say: Verily, you shall keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you. You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. …
The Israelite people 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 Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.
This passage, the V’shamru, which we sing on Friday night and Shabbat morning, offers us two key pieces of information about the Shabbat. That Shabbat is holy and that God offered it to us, just as God’s self found, that ceasing from creative labor allows the soul to refresh.
It is not by accident that this passage comes just before the experience of the Golden Calf. Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk in his commentary, Meshekh Hokhmah, writes "There is nothing intrinsically holy in the world save God, to whom alone reverence, praise and homage is due. The Holy comes into being in response to specific Divine commandments. Rabbi Meir Simha explains why Moses was willing to smash the Luchot HaBrit, the tablets written by God with the 10 commandments on them when he saw the people praying to a Golden idol. “He feared they would deify (the tablets) as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the Tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not reformed their ways. Now that he had broken the Tablets, they realized how far they had fallen short of true faith . . . and by this, Moses had demonstrated that the Tablets of God, themselves, possessed no intrinsic holiness."
Things are not holy. Things can represent ideals or experiences that we deem holy. Nahum Sarna the great modern Bible scholar noted that the ancient place of worship, or even today's synagogue, "enshrines the concept of the holiness of space; the Sabbath embodies the concept of the holiness of time. The latter always takes precedence over the former."
This is because time is arena in which acts and deeds take place. Acts and deeds have the potential to be holy. As Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, "Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time [not space], to be attached to sacred events [not things], to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals!"
Technological devices are simply another amazing creation by human hands. They are so useful, so helpful in connecting us to the outside world, in achieving needed information instantly and working out solutions to challenges we face at work or in the home. They are comparable to the great and awesome physical structures and palaces constructed in the past. And because of their ability to help and assist and connect, there is a potential of holiness in accessing the most positive elements in these devices.
A phone call to a lonely person. A tzedakah contribution made easy. Even prayers and Torah at the touch of a button. But like all things that represent or assist us in achieving sanctity, at some point holiness in time must assert its precedence. The soul needs time to refresh, to reflect without the constant barrage of information, to power down.
May we all learn to appreciate the gift of Shabbat by refraining one day a week from creative labor and engage in holiness in time through Shabbat encouraged activities. Might we learn from this “Tech Shabbat” and apply the spiritual lessons of our tradition’s spiritual giants to the technological advances of our day.