Take Time To Treasure The Holy Moments of The Silenced Machine

By Shmuley Boteach

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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Arnold Schwarzenegger wants us to forget his movie career and focus instead on his untested abilities as governor. But to me the “Terminator” movies are far more realistic than the surrealism of California politics. Mankind has indeed fought a battle against machines and lost so decisively that we have become machines ourselves. We are a generation of robotic men and women defined by frenetic activity and ruled by upward career mobility — a collection of human doings rather than human beings.

Welcome to a static and sterile, electronically controlled universe where, like an answering machine, humans are on call 24/7. The United States was once unjustly divided between free men and slaves. Thank God that wrong has finally been righted, yet we have now become slaves of another kind. Men and women chained to a career, yoked to their jobs, treat chronic workaholism as the Holy Grail before which all else is trampled. I was speaking to a 34-year-old woman whose husband is angry over her refusal to have children six years into their marriage. “No one in my PR firm is pregnant. My bosses told me that I could get maternity leave, but there is no guarantee that I would keep my big clients.” “So what?” I asked her. “Do you think your clients will still visit you when you check into a retirement home?”

I love summertime visits to Italy, where a youth culture and dating scene utterly different from ours is on display. Thousands of young people gather on the streets to hang out, enjoying the warm air and warm company. But youth hanging out on our own streets is synonymous with hooliganism, eliciting not admiration but a call to the cops. The United States, unlike Europe, doesn’t even have a real pub culture, where friends get together at day’s end. A bar in the United States is usually a place to pick up rather than to catch up. For most Americans, recreation involves activity: going to a club or gym, watching a movie, eating out or shopping at the mall. Had Hamlet been American he would have asked, “To do or not to do. That is the question.” Many fear that if they stop treading water for even an instant they will sink.

Then it happened. On a magical Thursday in August, the Terminator — invisible and clad in the name “Blackout” rather than hulking and bearing a black leather jacket — came and beat back the machines, both the ones made of metal and the ones made of flesh. It was as if the Sabbath had come a day early. Across the Northeastern United States, televisions went off, offices shut, stereos went dead and e-mail went unsent. An eerie silence fell over Manhattan, enveloping it in peace.

But something even more mysterious happened. In a city famous for world-class whiners, almost no one complained. Thousands of people slept outside in Bryant and Central Parks. Tens of thousands walked home when the trains stopped dead in their tracks. And millions couldn’t watch their favorite sitcoms or check their e-Bay bids on the Internet.

Yet everyone seemed to take the blackout in stride. Even looters, famous for targeting electronic shops, couldn’t muster the energy to steal a stereo. It was as if anything technological became anathema and everyone welcomed the respite from the unending noise of things that ring, beep and vibrate. A consensus emerged that our labor-saving devices do not relieve us of work so much as rob us of quiet and are as incarcerating as they are liberating.

In New York, many escaped the heat of their apartments by sitting under a cool sky and actually talking to strangers. In the course of a conversation, many even discovered that they had something in common, like living next door to each other in the same building.

Moses told Pharaoh to let my people go. African Americans had Martin Luther King Jr. to shout, “Free at last.” But the clueless inhabitants of the world’s richest city had to settle for a short circuit as a liberator, a coerced Sabbath that arrived as an uninvited, yet not completely unwelcome, guest.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the sin of modern man, with his orbiting rockets and huge real estate developments, is to value space over time, possessions over special moments. Time is treated merely as a currency with which to acquire property. We labor till we drop just to afford that bigger house or SUV.

Judaism conceives of life differently. Man’s most valuable possession is the time he spends with loved ones and the lasting memories these moments create. “Remember the days of old, consider the years long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Time is life’s most precious gift. Life is measured by the years we lived rather than by the things we owned. The Sabbath is designed around the idea that man should work six days and get all his troubles out of the way, so that he can enjoy a totally tranquil and uninterrupted interval dedicated toward human connection and divine closeness. The Sabbath is a day of relationships over riches, introspection over exertion, people over profits and raising a glass in friendship over raising one’s social profile. It is a day to toast “L’Chaim”s, a lesson that New Yorkers — whose island of Manhattan translates as “island of general intoxication” — would do well to recapture.

The time we parents have with our children when they are young is fleeting. Is it right to forfeit it to a video game? Husbands and wives can learn that “doing something together” need not involve sitting idly and silently side by side while watching “Late Nighte With David Letterman.” We all know what is important in life. But it seems that the important is usually superseded by the urgent. When the lights went out, all the things we thought were urgent had to wait till the next morning — at least. And we went home and dealt with what is really important: our loved ones and our communities. And guess what, all those thing we thought were so urgent actually awaited our return.

I read that in order to prevent another electrical meltdown, New York state might initiate rolling blackouts of the type last seen in California. But there is a better idea: Persuade America to rediscover its lost Sabbath. One day a week, turn from the tyranny of the TV, shut down the shops, have candlelit dinners with friends like a Jewish Friday night. Instead of catching a ball game on cable, catch up on reading a book.

The energy conserved will be enough to replenish not just our national reserves, but our personal ones as well.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has a nationally syndicated daily talk show on the Talk America Network, is the author, most recently, of “The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age” (ReganBooks/HarperCollins).

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