Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - May 17, 2024

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Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - May 17, 2024

Lately, I've not been sleeping well. And while these days the news is full of distressing stories bound to keep any Jew up at night, generalized anxiety about the state of our world isn't exactly the reason. The real culprit, my husband loves to point out, is my phone

Each night, you see, after our little boys are tucked in, I succumb to the siren call of social media. I doom-scroll through news about Gaza, domestic politics, microplastics in our water, you name it, until—suddenly, somehow—it’s well past midnight.

Needless to say, that is not how I want to be spending my evening (or living my life). So what is going on here? Why do I instinctively seem to reach for my phone upon waking up each morning? Why do I willingly sacrifice my serenity—and my sleep—for an activity I know to be shallow and fleeting? There’s no use denying it: I, especially in these heady months following the October 7th attacks, have become a slave to my social media feed. These soulless algorithms, playing on my fear and anger, are adept at keeping me compulsively "engaged" on their platforms; my anxiety is money in the bank for these tech conglomerates.

Maybe you can relate? Over the years, many parents in our community have confided in me about their difficulty negotiating screen time for their children—and for themselves. As parents, we know these magical child-rearing years are so short, yet we can’t seem to resist the urge to check our phones—even during Lego sessions and family dinners. As a clergyperson, mother and human being, I’ve become more and more convinced that dealing with these “phantom limb” phones is going to be a major struggle of our time.

This week's Torah portion, Emor, invites us to reflect on the notion of sacred time, through the introduction of the Jewish calendar year, including ShabbatPesachShavuotRosh HashanahYom KippurSukkot, and Shmini Atzeret.

Each of these holy days is designed, with myriad rules and restrictions, to cultivate an active and thoughtful relationship between we human beings and God—and with each other. According to Emor, setting aside sacred time for reflection, nourishment, and reconnection is a direct commandment from God; to break this commandment, we are told, is to be “cut off from our people and cut off from life.” We will simply be existing, day after day, week after week, year after year, in the chaos of the wilderness—living, but never thriving. Unless we can manage to routinely gift ourselves some sacred, focused time, we’ll be destined to wander this fast-moving world in a blur, forever lost.

Could there be a more fitting passage for our modern age? 

Perhaps you’ve noticed this idea of pausing and disconnecting is lately gaining traction. Author Cal Newport's recent bestseller "Digital Minimalism" explored strategies to minimize digital distractions in our day-to-day lives. The New Yorker just last month featured an article on the "dumb phone" movement, where Gen Z’ers are trading their smartphones for old-fashioned flip-phones in an attempt to break their social media addictions. And a so-called "digital Shabbat" strategy encourages people, even non-Jews, to lock away their phones once a week, so as to enjoy a day of true presence

As a cantor, I find the “digital Shabbat” idea intriguing—though not quite on the mark. I, for instance, don’t feel the need to abstain from using GPS to guide my car around traffic on Saturdays (or to listen to enlightening podcasts while doing so). And let’s be real: these days, all my sheet music is stored on my 13-inch iPad Pro; I don’t think switching back to photocopied paper would achieve much of anything. For me, a Reform Jew, the goal isn’t really to eliminate all electronics from Shabbat; rather, it’s to impose more intentionality on my sacred time. To that end, I’ve recently been experimenting with what I call "Analog Shabbat."

The idea stems from our family’s nightly "reading time" routine. Each evening, while I get the boys into their PJs, my husband lights a fire, picks out a children’s book, and drops a record onto his vinyl turntable—this despite the fact we also have digital Bluetooth speakers arranged throughout our house. My husband could just as easily switch on his “reading time” music (usually some ambient Brian Eno record, the appeal of which I don’t understand!) via Bluetooth and Spotify on his phone. But then, he reasons, he'd probably also end up stealing a glance at his work email, or notice the notification badge on his text message app… Before he knew it, my husband would find himself distracted by his phone, rather than focusing on his adorable little boys. He’s noticed there’s something about the intentionality of keeping his phone out of reach, choosing instead to drop the needle on an old-fashioned analog LP, that puts him in the right headspace for family time.

I suspect there are some similar techniques that we, the non-Orthodox Jews of Wilshire, could develop to bring this same intentionality to our sacred time. Perhaps it’s implementing “app locking” software on our phones on Saturdays, to keep our social feeds out of reach. Or what about an “analog Shabbat” service, where attendees have the opportunity to surrender their phones when entering the sanctuary? How much freer might you feel without that ever present phone buzzing in your pocket?

I’m very open to suggestions and excited to explore this idea with you all. It’s time to reclaim our sacred time, presence and intentionality—and Judaism can help show us the way. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Lisa Peicott