I was away for a week without devices. Coming back online, I had a strange sensation.
Nothing had changed, and yet I had to catch up on exactly what it was that hadn’t changed. Right? New headlines every day. Specific details that are not insignificant because each one points to decisions intended to change particular lives and livelihoods.
But still a feeling of stasis, of nothing changing.
How can we be stuck when the very way of the world is change? When each moment is, by definition, something different from the last. When we always have to deal with new eventualities in our own lives, in the lives of our loved ones, in the backdrop we live against, in a place we see on a screen, nearby or far away.
How can things feel stuck when they move so fast that we can’t find the right place to focus?
That may be why. Many of us have it backward. Instead of finding a point of focus that allows us to appreciate change, to understand its possibilities for renewal and engagement, we are bombarded by so much diversion, so much expectation on our time, that what is different in each moment has no significance. We are left with the illusion of being the same.
So what to do? The most obvious answer may seem to be to chuck the devices, to disconnect from the distractions. For some, this could be a fruitful direction.
Personally, though, I believe that the devices, the screens and the often-sterile places they connect to are the symptom, not the cause. Even in their absence, most human beings will be pulled in every direction, partly by the unplanned and random eventualities, but also by the regular, everyday stuff we know is coming.
The deeper question for me is not what takes away my focus, but what might provide a focus in the first place.
And while I was on the airplane back from my conference, I found a source on my own device that, despite being written centuries before the printing press, let alone the Internet, went to the heart of this question.
Truth be told, the line was a commentary on the more ancient words of the Book of Exodus, words to which one of the teachers at my conference had reintroduced me. In addressing the people Israel on the eve of their release from Egyptian servitude, Moses said, “Remember this very day on which you will go free from Egypt.”
The words “this very day” could easily be applied to the day on which Moses was speaking. But the 11th century commentator known as Rashi teaches, “This means remember going out of Egypt each day.”
“Going out of Egypt” is a pretty important moment in the story of the Jewish people and by extension a major theme for many faiths and movements. The holiday of Passover is built around the retelling of this moment as if it were freshly experienced every year; however, the key concept that Rashi points us to is not the time-to-time reliving of this peak moment, but specifically coming back to this moment each day.
Each day is “this very day.” And the Jewish traditions respond to this core idea by including the mention of going out of Egypt twice a day.
No, we do not have a Passover seder twice a day. But embedded in the third paragraph of the Shema, recited both morning and night each day, is the phrase “that you see the fringes and remember … I am G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt.”
As a phrase goes, it is both overwhelming and mundane.
Overwhelming because to plumb the depths of what it would mean to take this idea seriously is a big deal. That’s what a Passover seder can be for. Even a quick run through the haggadah, let alone a deeper dive, is a once-a-year, twice-a-year-tops kind of endeavor.
But it’s also mundane because just mentioning something from the Bible, let alone at the end of the three-paragraph version of the Shema, doesn’t really make a dent in the day.
And yet the idea of coming back to the same words at least once a day points toward finding a focus that at least for a moment removes the pull of what distracts us.
At Gesher L’ Torah, on Shabbat we do something similar in the prayer before the morning Shema. The blessing recited asks G-d to bring us together from the four corners of the world to one place.
This is ritually symbolized by holding together the fringes of the tallit before our eyes. In our service we add the desire to feel pulled in from all the directions from which we are distracted toward what we know to be important in ourselves.
We bring the fringes together, looking for a focal point, an opening that can be as small as a pinhole, to let the light of G-d’s oneness, the meaning of the Shema, be noticed. In fact, this concept of faith is just as vast and easy to dismiss as the idea of going out of Egypt. The point, however, is the focus itself.
That focus of attention can be as simple as our own heartbeat, our own breath. The drawing in and out of life itself that happens automatically, whether we think of it or not.
Taking a moment, just a moment, to find that focus will not blow away all the distractions, technology-related or otherwise. Just as mentioning the phrase “out of Egypt” won’t grant us deep understanding of the Exodus. But this teaching deep within the Jewish tradition is a profound reminder to find a focus each day.
My suggestion is to try this even without the fringes of a tallit and without saying all the words of the longer version of the Shema. Think about drawing away from all the directions that distract you, hold your hand over your eyes, perhaps in the double-u shape of the Hebrew letter shin, and … listen. Shema.
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah.