Every Friday as Shabbat gets close, I do something radical. It is an act horrifying to young children and their parents alike. I go to the power switch that controls my cable access and I switch it off. For the next twenty five hours, my house is a television and internet free zone. Even my phone is turned off during that time. (I do keep my cell phone on in the event of Synagogue emergencies, though I leave it at home sitting on my dresser. I am greatly appreciative of how respectful the community is of my Shabbat time, calling me only in the event of a family emergency that cannot wait until after Shabbat.)
There is something marvelous and freeing about living in a media free zone once a week. It is amazing some of the things that happen instead. For one thing, we nearly always entertain on Friday night and always have a Shabbat meal together. There are no distractions of telephone ringing or children begging for computer time. The only distractions are good food and singing. We break bread together. We talk. We meet new people.
Saturday similarly frees us in all kinds of ways. Shabbat mornings are the most marvelous experience in my house. My kids generally get up around 7ish. I give them breakfast while Carol sleeps in. By 7:30 the kids are involved in some kind of pretend play back in their rooms. They play quietly together until its time to get ready for Synagogue. There is no lure to watch TV or play on the computer. Instead, they engage in unstructured play. My children are developing a genuine closeness. They draw support from one another and they like being together. If the television were more readily available, it would drain away some of that energy.
One of the customary Shabbat songs says that sleep on Shabbat is to be praised. I take this seriously and take a nap in the afternoon. Again, because there is no television or telephone calling me elsewhere, I study or read. I take a walk with the kids. They go out and play with one another or with friends. Each moment is enjoyed and activities are chosen thoughtfully. Instead of zoning out in front of the television as hours drift by without notice, I fall back on my own internal resources to create an enjoyable day.
I do watch television during the week. I certainly use the internet and the telephone. Shabbat, though, makes me reflective on how I let those technologies determine the type of person I am. I watch my kids sitting in front of the television and I see how seductive a medium it is. They are incredibly focused when watching TV. If someone speaks or asks a question the response is “Be quiet – I am trying to hear the show!” Turning the television off once a week has made me thoughtful about limiting my own television habits the rest of the time.
I notice something similar with cell phones. A couple is having a romantic dinner together and the phone rings. It’s amazing to me how many people answer the call and then talk for a while. I see teenagers during breaks in programs texting their friends who are far away instead of building relationships with those right around them. People often make friends with those who live near them or share similar interests because they talk to them at school pick up or during a work break or outside their garage. Cell phones let us avoid those kinds of contacts and so we never develop the social contacts in our neighborhoods, schools, and places of work that used to occur in an organic way.
Shabbat is the time when I meet my neighbors – and learn that they are worth knowing the rest of the week.
Our modern technological age lets us be anywhere we want to be. We can talk to loved ones and friends thousands of miles away and we can transport ourselves to imaginative worlds filled with drama and adventure. Shabbat teaches me that technology never substitutes for human caring. Immediate community is as important as ever.
This Shabbat try turning off all the media technology that takes you somewhere else. Focus instead on the blessings you have at home. I suspect you will be amazed at what you find.
Rabbi David Booth