© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Losing the iPhone, Finding The I

The Vacation by Wendell Berry

Like any good poem, this one by the poet, Wendell Berry, employs a concrete  metaphor – a man who misses every moment of his vacation because he is too busy recording it – to examine a universal theme: how we absent ourselves from our own lives when we rush through them, disengaged, contracting them out to someone or something else.  Berry uses the word, “move”, with great rhythmic and symbolic effect.  We feel like we are on that speed boat with our vacationer, peering through his video lens at all the beauty which the film captures more accurately than our own minds.  However, for all the movement, there is nothing really moving about the experience:  the man’s camera is a pathetic emotional replacement for the man himself.  Berry also repeats deceptively simple phrases like “have it”, “having it”, “be there”, “would be” and “would not be”.  This turns the poem into a mournful tune about how technological devices are becoming our stand-ins for authentic living.

As a wired society ever more entangled and digested in the bellies of beasts like Apple and Google, we risk letting the “video camera”, in our case the iphone, dominate how we see, feel and interpret reality.  Our struggle with the spiritual risks of technological advances is not a new phenomenon.  Examining the spiritual implications of the explosive growth of technology as far back as the 1950’s, the philosopher, Abraham Heschel remarked, in his classic work, The Sabbath, that “The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it.” 

We are not renouncing Apple or Google anytime soon in preparation for some Neo-Luddite jump off the grid. We should not have to, given the blessings that technology at its best confers upon us.  For me, the Jewish Sabbath is the way in which, once a week, I learn to do without technology, which is an extension of our power seeking, space-controlling selves.  I love the way that Jewish Sabbath laws help to construct what Heschel called “architecture in time.”  The prohibitions and rituals of the Sabbath fashion a weekly twenty five hour reality in which I can sanctify time and learn how to be fully human again. They paradoxically liberate me and the spiritual community with which I live.

Something as intense as the traditional religious Sabbath will never be the right path for everyone, Jewish or non-Jewish.  Still, modified versions of the Sabbath spirit are available to everyone. How about signing up for the National Day of Unplugging, sponsored by the Jewish organization, Reboot?  Imagine twenty four hours spent without filtering our existence through anything beginning with a small case i?  What if we put down the iphone for just a bit, even  once a year but hopefully more, in order to rediscover pieces of ourselves, our “I”? Or, with vacation season upon us, how about turning the ipads and the iphones off during those trips to the beach, long enough to focus our actual eyes on seeing the endless sea, freed from the blinders of a camera?  What we behold might be a tiny glimpse of paradise.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content