Despite the challenges and traumas of the past 18 months, one can’t help but marvel at all we’ve accomplished, thanks to technology. We have FaceTime and Zoom for ‘visiting’ family and friends or ‘attending’ classes and services. We have Netﬂix, Spotify and Libby to enjoy TV, ﬁlm, music and books. Podcasts and blogs make it simple to learn from people all over the world. And yet, our connectedness is both a blessing and a curse.
It is a blessing that my daughter can FaceTime with her grandparents and great-grandparents across the ocean. It is a blessing that my colleagues and I can correspond on WhatsApp, despite living on multiple continents. It is a blessing that we can learn with just a few taps of a screen.
But it is also a curse to be so dependent on technology to feel connected. We are drawn constantly towards our devices with each bleep – tearing us away from the present moment and turning our attention towards something happening elsewhere. With a 24/7 news cycle, it feels as if we are incapable of going even an hour without checking our screens. The greatest irony is that this connectedness has led to an increased sense of isolation from those around us. Not only that, but we also spend less time connecting with our own selves, as the gratiﬁcation provided by our devices is far more immediate than the difﬁcult work of introspection.
So how do we solve this dilemma?
The ﬁrst step is to disconnect from technology. In recent years, a group called ReBoot has been promoting what they call a National Day of Unplugging, running from sundown to sundown, on the ﬁrst Friday in March. In other words, it’s Shabbat. The fact is, every week, Shabbat offers us the opportunity to unplug and disconnect from technology without guilt. Family and friends are less likely to begrudge you for not answering their texts right away when you tell them you were following Jewish tradition. Better yet, the family and friends with whom you spend Shabbat will enjoy your physical and emotional presence that much more.
But if the idea of disconnecting every week feels a bit daunting, why not start with something easier? Try disconnecting from technology for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sadly, due to the restrictions of social distancing, we still need to rely on technology to ‘attend’ services this year. But I want to encourage you to try shutting down your device the moment services end. Use the time to connect with the world around you – take a walk on the Heath, meditate in
your garden or engage a loved one in meaningful conversation. If you’re able to attend services in person this year, seize the opportunity to check in with those you care about – those you haven’t been able to see this past year – by moving past superﬁcial greetings and asking how they’re doing in a respectful and meaningful way.
Finally, after you’ve disconnected from technology and reconnected with old friends, you can take on the most important (and challenging) task: connecting with yourself. This is actually what the High Holydays are about. The word that best describes this time of year is ‘Teshuvah’, which literally means ‘return’. Most commonly, this return refers to a reconnection with God. And as the way to God comes from within, the ﬁrst step of Teshuvah is listening to and connecting with ourselves.
This is the holy work we must take on during the holidays. By disconnecting from the noise in our lives, we attain a silence and stillness that sets the stage for our work. By reconnecting with those we love, we establish for ourselves a loving and supportive environment in which to work. And ﬁnally, we engage in the holy work itself by connecting with the deepest parts of our souls, through the framework of our tradition. In this sense, the Machzor (prayer book) serves as a guidebook. One should not feel obligated to follow every page, prayer or even word at the frantic pace of the communal service. Rather, take your time and meditate on these ancient words at your own pace. Use the poetry of our liturgy as a mirror to gaze upon yourself – searching within for any Divine attributes you recognise or wish were there.
Every year, we enter the High Holy Days with the intention of ﬁnding these connections – with others, with ourselves, with the Divine. This year, as we strive to move beyond the curses of our technological connectedness, the call of this holy work seems all the more important.
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick