Winter, when my commute home from Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry is shrouded in darkness, provides me a singular opportunity.
That’s because the thousands of other commuters sailing along with me are more subdued than at other times of year. There is, of course, artificial lighting on the ferry, but the darkness outside seems to quell conversations somewhat; the boat is noticeably more subdued than when the sun sets later. And where the electric lights are most dim, in a certain part of the vessel unknown to many passengers, is where you will find me.
I use my commute to study Talmud and catch up on reading. In the winter, the study is particularly sweet in that poorly lighted, somewhat remote area, where the only other passengers are interested exclusively in napping or listening, eyes closed, to their iPods. A small, battery-operated booklight clipped to the cover of the tractate I study casts soft light onto the page, and, unless one of my neighbors is intent on annoying the rest of us by turning up the volume on his “personal” audiodevice so it sounds like an angry bee (and no doubt permanently damages his eardrums), all is quiet and dark, with the Hebrew words before my eyes drawing me in. I wouldn’t come home any other way.
At an Agudath Israel national convention several years ago, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach, or dean of students, of the famed Lakewood Yeshiva (Beth Medrash Govoha), delivered an address that I often recall as I settle into my ferry-seat. His topic had been the centrality of introspection and focused study to the essence of true Jewish life, dedication to the Divine. And then he bemoaned how chronically unconcentrated we all are these days.
When incandescent lighting was first commercialized in the 1920s, Rabbi Salomon recounted, committed Jews – like the rest of the world – were enthralled with the possibilities presented by the new technology. They saw wondrous potential in not having to rely on the dim, flickering light of wax candles or oil lamps to illuminate the sacred books whose study they so cherished.
But the revered Torah personage Rabbi Elya Lopian (1872-1970), a giant of the Mussar movement that stressed striving for personal ethical perfection, was less sanguine. He told his students that the more primitive lighting to which they were accustomed, for all its drawbacks, facilitated concentration and focus. The new technology, he feared, for all of its advantages, would undermine those things.
We don’t generally think of our well-lighted spaces as impairing concentration, but the logic is unquestionably there. The more informational input to the senses, the less mental focus. That is, after all, the point behind darkened arenas and spotlights. Our brains are wonderfully able to filter out much that might distract us from tasks at hand, but the extraneous information is still there even if we don’t consciously notice it, background static to our contemplations. Every time I turn on my little light on my winter commute home, I appreciate Rabbi Lopian’s prescience anew.
Rabbi Salomon went on to add the telephone to the list of erosions to deep thought. How often are not only our dinners but our reflections rudely interrupted by ringing or warbling, or trilling? And the more mobile the technology, he noted further, the more opportunities for our concentration to be broken. Anyone who has silently cursed his cellphone knows just what the rabbi meant.
“Something that looks like a blessing,” he recapped, “can be, in fact, a disaster.” The glut of available information came to mind, and the dubious marvel of multitasking. Then, moving on to the options for travel in modern times, he mused sadly, “Today we are expected to be everywhere.”
How sadly true. In pre-automobile times, people were rarely if ever expected to travel beyond the confines of their immediate towns or neighborhoods. With options so limited (and towns so small), there was more time to stay put, sit still, stay focused. Many of the things that pull us, unresisting, into our cars and onto our highways, around the corner and around the world, may be worthy ones, but that cannot change the fact that they take us away – from our homes, from our families, and from study and introspection, the pillars of Jewish existence.
Rabbi Salomon was not asking his listeners to return to horses and buggies or oil lamps. He is no Luddite and has no disdain for technology. No, he is simply an exquisitely sensitive observer, someone who sees a broader picture than most of us do. He challenges us to open our eyes to what we have lost even as we have gained. The losses are tragic, even if so subtle that most of us don’t even realize what we are missing.