Slave nations: America and Israel in the age of technology

What good is the flourishing of a nation if it is constantly at political, partisan war?

‘WITHOUT PEACE, life becomes unlivable. We’re all unnaturally nervous because there is hardly any downtime.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘WITHOUT PEACE, life becomes unlivable. We’re all unnaturally nervous because there is hardly any downtime.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I first arrived to serve as rabbi at Oxford in late 1988, I had no office help. Therefore, in addition to my rabbinical and organizational responsibilities, I had to do all the office work myself. I wrote the checks, copied the fliers, typed the letters and licked the envelopes. In terms of communications, in those days I had to deal only with the telephone and snail mail.
Next, the fax machine came into vogue, and soon its strange buzz was singing in my office at all hours of the day and night, giving me even more work and even less quiet.
Then, in the early nineties, the cellphone became the rage. I thought that this brilliant invention would make my life easier by allowing me to make calls while on the road. Little did I realize that it would mean that people could now not only leave messages for me at home and at the office, but they could also reach me at every location and at any time – there was nowhere to hide! That cellphone never stopped ringing, and I felt myself captive to its disquieting sound.
People always seemed more annoyed if they couldn’t reach you on the cell, because after all, the very idea of a mobile phone is that you are always available, even when on the move. But if I chose, nonetheless, to buck the system and incur public ire by not answering my cell, I would have to respond to the stream of messages on the voice mail that the cellphone company so kindly provided free of charge.
Of course, we can’t forget email, which I discovered earlier than most due to the fact that I lived in a university town. Now, when I came into the office, I had an in-box filled with messages.
Finally, with the invention of the laptop, I was literally able to take the workplace with me wherever I went. Indeed, the laptop redefined the very concept of the office from a place one goes to work to a place one brings one’s work. Moreover, since I could now connect to the Internet from virtually anywhere, responding to email became a full-time obligation rather than something that could wait until I returned to the office.
All in all, the world became a place where immediate responses were possible and therefore had come to be expected. It was clear that the concept of downtime was rapidly becoming a memory.
Nothing changed when I came to New York after 11 years at Oxford. These days, I have hundreds of emails to respond to every day, endless phone calls to return, hundreds of texts and WhatsApp messages to which I must respond and, perhaps the greatest challenge of all, an endless stream of social media with which I must engage.
Each day when I awake and see the workload awaiting me, I often want to scream. I feel like a machine. Work to me has come to mean anxiety, pressure and sheer madness, and I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Like an overextended electric socket that eventually sparks a fire, we are all about to burn out because we are just not built for this level of processing.
Long ago, Aristotle said – and it was elaborated upon by Maimonides – that the definition of goodness is moderation, and we should try to find the golden middle path in all things. But today, a stimulus overload has contributed to extremism in our working patterns. If moderation brings goodness, then it has to be unhealthy that we work our guts out only to rest like corpses. These are our patterns: frantic 14-hour days followed by coming home and dying in front of the television. And then we go on vacation, after months and months of nonstop, frenetic office work, and we lie like cadavers for days on a beach. All we really do here is jump from extreme to extreme.
Without peace, life becomes unlivable. We’re all unnaturally nervous because there is hardly any downtime. The craziness of work and career is bringing out the devil in us. And then there are the tens of millions of us who wish the phones would all go to hell, that the Internet would implode, that the world’s electric grids would suffer permanent meltdown, and that our television sets would be afflicted with irreparable shock to their diodes. And the amazing thing is that even while we wish these things in our heart of hearts, we still can’t turn them off.
THE TRULY unique offering that Judaism has made to our daily life is the structuring of a seven-day week which culminates in a day of rest. There is no country or culture, be it religious or secular, that does not follow the seven-day pattern that first made its appearance in the Hebrew Bible in the story of Creation, which we read two weeks ago in synagogue. By heeding and respecting this partitioning of time, we can come close to answering the problems of our addictive lives.
The early rabbis spoke of the seven days of Creation, yet the world was created in six. A Jewish legend explains the discrepancy. “After God had completed the entire world,” it asks, “what was it still missing? It was missing rest. It was missing peace. Along came the Sabbath, the day of rest, and now the world was complete.”
A non-Jewish friend once asked me, “Shmuley, how do you say hello in Hebrew?” “Shalom,” I told him. “And how do you say goodbye?” “Shalom,” I responded again. He was confused. “How many things does Shalom mean? I thought it meant peace, not a greeting or a salutation.” “In Hebrew,” I told him, “peace is at the center of all words and all ideas. It surrounds us in our coming and in our going. It must accompany us wherever we go and in whatever we do.”
Or at least it should. Indeed, what good are blessings if we don’t have peace to enjoy them? What good is a marriage if we bicker constantly? What good is the flourishing of a nation if it is constantly at political, partisan war? And what good is success at work if its prosperity cannot purchase peace of mind?
What we fail to realize is that every human being is a receptacle, and we are designed to absorb and contain only so much. What happens when the human organism is filled to capacity? What happens when we exceed our ability to receive? We break down. We walk around with sullen looks on our faces, our eyes having receded heavily into blue-encircled sockets, our lively personalities having atrophied from within. What is left is a human being with no inner fire. To use the language of the Bible, we become “dispirited.”
When Pharaoh enslaved the Jews of Egypt, we learn, he made them work “dispiriting labor.” How did he accomplish this? The Talmud explains that he gave them work without end. As there was no clear and definite delineation between times designated for working and those designated for resting, even when they were technically at rest the Hebrews were still preoccupied with their labors. The slaves could never allow themselves to relax, as they were constantly aware that, at any moment, they could be dragged from their periods of repose and hauled back into the working realm.
GIVEN TODAY’S labor patterns, it is hard to believe that in the early part of the last century, George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes envisioned that by the end of the 20th century we would see the workday reduced to a mere two hours. As they saw it, the problem of too much work would be replaced with the quandary of how to spend large amounts of leisure time. In fact, writing in 1930 on the “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes concluded: “For the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” As I sit here in my home office typing away at 2 a.m., I marvel at how far off the mark that prediction was!
Today we work longer hours than any generation that preceded us. In fact, according to a recent study by the International Labor Organization, Americans now work the longest hours of any industrialized nation in the world. Consider the following: The average American works 20% more today than in 1973, and has 32% less free time per week. To bring that figure closer to home, it means that if our workday in 1973 was an eight-hour day, today it is a 9.6-hour day. It means that if our workweek in 1973 was a five-day week, today it is a six-day week.
What we need is the reimposition of an American Sabbath. Not just on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, or Sunday, the Christian one, but a daily respite from work, engaging our spouses and children with an attentiveness that is not disturbed by anything that emits noises, beeps or vibrates. Only then will our work become a blessing that manifests our potential rather than a cage that dampens our spirit.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.