In the past few years I have made time to go on meditation retreats, and friends are often curious to know whether I find it challenging. Without a doubt, the most difficult part of being in silence for a week is staying off technology, a practice with which I consistently struggle.
It is common knowledge that our most beloved gadgets were designed with clever features that trigger addictive behaviors. I am deeply aware of my longing for my iPhone when I self-limit access to it.
We are all distracted and bored with and without our screens. My 9-year-old son was recently visiting a friend whose attention he could not reach because the friend was engrossed in a video game. After 20 minutes of waiting, he left the boy’s room, and the visit was over.
It is not just kids who are having a difficult time connecting face to face. When we go out to dinner, we often see families sitting together, each person on a separate device. And let’s be honest: How often is the blue screen the last thing we see before we fall asleep?
We are slowly learning to adjust to the reality of human faces bending toward the light of screens.
On the one hand, I feel grateful for my pocket-size computer because knowledge flows freely and quickly through my thumbs, and there is power in that. On the other hand, the endless stream of words and images often makes me feel numb and detached from my feelings. The speed of technology and the rate at which our responses are demanded dim the senses.
Most disturbingly, we often don’t look at each other’s faces.
As if speaking directly to our times, there is a curious interruption in the Torah narrative of Parshat Nasso, in which G-d teaches the priests a special blessing for the children of Israel. There are several possible translations for this blessing, but the essence is this: “May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you. May G-d’s face rise toward you and grant you shalom.” (Numbers 6:23-27)
The word shalom in Hebrew means peace, and it also means wholeness or completeness. Our prayer for this type of shalom helps strengthen our efforts in being mindful of the sacred, as well as the possibility of divine light being reflected in the faces of the people around us. It’s a reminder to create and maintain wholesome relationships, those between each of us and G-d, and those between people.
Unlike feel-good affirmations common in self-help guides, blessings carry a powerful and intimate message anchored in the recognition of the divine nature of being. Meditation teacher Yael Shy writes: “Giving blessings is a very active practice, and a slightly presumptuous one — bringing holiness into space between human beings.”
The call for G-d’s face to rise toward us makes us feel seen and supported, elevating our own faces.
The priestly blessing has permeated Jewish family life, and parents are empowered to bless their children, traditionally at the beginning of Shabbat, by placing hands on their children’s heads. According to Rashi, the text of this blessing is written in a way that signals that it “should not be said in a hurried manner, but with concentration and with wholeheartedness.”
Extending the theme of encountering faces, there is also a tradition of singing Lecha Dodi and welcoming the beloved bride — the face of Shabbat — to enter our homes.
My husband and I have been blessing our children every night since they were born. Keeping the cadence of the blessing intact, we sometimes insert other words, depending on our kids’ unique needs. Regardless of the conflicts, stresses and hectic schedules of the day, these words remind them that their faces are gateways for connection.
The blessing offers them the possibility that we are all capable of becoming vehicles through which the mystery enters the world. That’s a powerful message, especially as our oldest son is moving into his teenage years, when many children are tempted to hide their faces from the gazes of others.
As we carve out new paths of being human in a technologically advanced life, may we remember to lift each other up by seeing each other’s faces. And may we remember to bend toward the light of the natural world and toward that which is holy.