Unplug Yourself

Could it be that the venerable New York Times actually imitates Mishpacha magazine? Could they possibly be taking their ideas from the Orthodox and using them as their own? Highly unlikely, but the facts are curious.

Exhibit A: My December 2011 Mishpacha column dealt with the stranglehold of modern technology on our modern necks. We have no time to be alone with ourselves, I wrote: iPads, iPhones, iTablets, and iApps leave us no time for the only “I” that really matters.

Exhibit B: Four weeks later, the Jan 1, 2012, New York Times featured a column by famous British travel writer Pico Iyer, entitled “The Joys of Quiet.” Iyer extols the virtues of letting go of our modern technological baggage and returning to the peace and quiet of being utterly alone with ourselves. Sound familiar?

Let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps this was merely a coincidence. In any case, the Times column is fascinating, as Iyer describes a $2,285.00 per night hotel perched atop the Big Sur cliffs in California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Part of its amenities: there are no TVs in the rooms. People come there for the stillness and the quiet. The next big thing in the travel industry, he writes, are “black hole resorts” which are extremely expensive. Among other luxuries, wireless is not available in the rooms. And there is a new “Freedom” software that allows one to disable for eight hours all Internet connections (apparently for those who have no willpower of their own — EF).

Evidently, busy and creative people are trying to find ways to unplug themselves from that which was once touted as life’s panacea: Time-saving gadgets, all-in-one adult toys like tiny phones that also take pictures, handle e-mail, log on to the Internet, and plug us in to the world. Enough, many are saying. Stop the world and let me off! I want some quiet so I can think and observe the world around me. Unplug me. Give me some relief from all the fancy thingumajigs and apps and all the social media that advertisers have convinced us that we simply MUST have. These time-saving devices leave us no time at all. Post-modern man is beginning to understand French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s comment that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

What struck me most keenly was Iyer’s description of some writer friends who, in an effort to preserve their sanity, observe an “Internet Sabbath” every weekend, “turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday, trying to revive ancient customs like family meals and conversation.”

Hello? It’s hard to believe that a professional world traveler like Iyer never encountered Orthodox Jews. From Bangkok to Brussels, from Melbourne to Mumbai, from Cape Town to Cape Canaveral , there are Jews observing “Internet Sabbaths” and more, complete with family meals and conversations that center on intellectual, religious, and nonstressful things like Biblical readings. Although our Shabbos practices are ancient, it turns out — despite the common view that its restrictions seem to constitute a difficult straitjacket — they are very au courant: traditional Shabbos foods, welcoming guests, singing zmiros, the reunification of the family every seventh day, a fusion of the material and spiritual. No need for radical escapes like visiting hermitages or moving to rural areas, as Iyer suggests. With the halachic Shabbos, waves of peace wash over us. Everything is unplugged. We get re-plugged into our own souls, we say hello to ourselves, we learn to sit quietly — because we realize that although we have more and more ways to communicate, we have, as Thoreau remarked, less and less to say.

How wondrously strange that the venerable Shabbos Kodesh — which the Creator Himself sanctified after the Six Days of Creation, and which is the fifth of the Ten Commandments — is now being transmogrified into the cutting edge of postmodern life, with society’s pacesetters trying to replicate it. But we are not surprised. Long ago, G-d Himself said to the Jews, “I have a special gift in my treasure-house, and its name is Shabbos” ( Tractate Shabbos 10a).

Memo to the New York Times: You want to observe the Joys of Quiet? Do an investigative report on the traditional Orthodox Shabbos. You will find several living examples not far from your New York offices.

This article first appeared in Mishpacha.

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3 comments to Unplug Yourself

  • Reb Yid

    Someone tell Rabbi Feldman to check out today’s NYTimes Lens Blog. There is a wonderful, exquisite photographic piece/essay on a Viznitzer wedding in Bnei Brak.

  • Dr. Yitzchok Levine

    How much time does the average young man learning in Bais Medrash have to be “alone with himself” given the long hours he is expected to put in learning?

  • Chizki

    Here’s from another recent NYT article on the same theme: .”Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.”

    And here’s from a fascinating essay on the addictive nature of many of the fruits of modern technology written by Paul Graham, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist: .”The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40. …[A]s the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.”