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Phoneless Freedom in 2019

Sermon Shabbat Tazria-HaChodesh 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Last Saturday night my trusty cellphone, an iphone7, decided without any warning to die. I was sitting in my Jeep in the parking lot of a hospital preparing to visit patients and I was on my phone, as usual, reading a Facebook message when the screen suddenly went black. And did not come back on, no matter what I tried. Just like that, I was out of communication with everyone.

In the year 2019 smartphone failure is an experience both liberating and terrifying. Because so very much of our lives now run through these little devices, our connections to people and news and work and information are constantly available in our hands or, at worst, in our pockets. Most of us spend a very large percentage of our lives staring into our palms, reading, typing frantically with our thumbs, checking scores or stock prices or gossip or random bits of information that we just have to know right now.

And then suddenly, in a moment, I was cast back into, well, the last century, the 20th century, when phones were for talking, were wired into the wall and you had to be in a fixed place to use them. It was quite a strange sensation when my iphone died, like being cut off from the world while still right in the middle of the city.

After the initial fear that there would be critical and terrible failures—I did foul up two appointments and miss a couple of events—and the sense that I was wasting time because I didn’t know the absolute latest news about everything, not having a phone was at first rather liberating. And when the Apple store told me my phone was truly dead forever, and ATT’s insurance carrier said the replacement phone wouldn’t arrive for two or three days—three days without a smartphone!—that feeling intensified. I found myself looking at maps to find my way to unfamiliar locations. I had to call people from my landline at home—I still have one of those—and there were actually times I simply could not be reached. I was unaware of the latest terribly offensive tweet emanating from the cyberzone. And perhaps more importantly I no longer knew what every batter had done with every single pitch in each inning of every Dodgers’ game unless I actually watched the game.

There was a regular sense of tightrope walking without a net, worrying I had missed something or someone. But when actual emergencies ensued it turned out people still managed to reach me anyway. I wasn’t noticeably less productive than I would have been with my phone in hand; perhaps more so, in fact, since I was less distracted. And throughout that interphonal period there was an odd sense of freedom.

What is the line in that classic Kris Kristofferson song Janis Joplin sang, “Me and Bobby McGee?” -- “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Sometimes that true. If you can’t do anything about a situation, if you can’t text or call or email or Facebook message or Instagram post or blog or find out what for some reason you desperately want to know, well then, you are kind of free. No one can tell you what to do, you don’t know what someone thinks you did wrong, you can’t take pictures of everything going on in your life and post them, or try to. You just have to be present, here, now. Even if it’s boring, or painful, or odd, you have no instant escape from reality available to you.

You also cannot anesthetize yourself with information overflow. Without a phone to consult, Google is not instantaneously available if you don’t know something. You cannot just instantly find out whatever it is you don’t know.

How different the world has become since we all expect to know everything immediately! You know, when I’m in Los Angeles I often go with my dad to the daily Daf Yomi, the 7am Talmud class at his local shul. It is taught by a truly excellent teacher named Yossi who has Orthodox rabbinic ordination and knows Talmud inside and out, and he leads the one-hour lesson artfully. Every now and then someone asks a question to which Reb Yossi does not have the answer. And on those occasions he consults his phone and asks for help from what he calls in his Israeli-accented English, “Rabbi Google.”

That need to know makes perfect sense in a Talmud shi’ur, a lesson in Jewish law. If you don’t know the answer it is so much faster to pull it off the web, on your phone, than to pile up heavy Aramaic and Hebrew reference works and try to find your way through their bulky pages. What a gift we have in Google.

But we have now extended this need to know everything just a little too far, perhaps. We now have to know the answer to every question immediately. Comedian Pete Holmes puts it well. He says, the problem with Google—and thus all iphone accessible information—is that there is no longer any mystery or wonder in the world. If he wakes up one morning and idly wants to know something—say, “I wonder where singer Tom Petty is from?”—he checks his phone and, even before he has that nagging small empty space in his heart, he knows the answer. But, he says, there was a time not so long ago when you just didn’t know. And it bugged you until you happened to see a woman in a “Heartbreakers” t-shirt and you asked her, “Where is Tom Petty from?” and she answered, “Florida” and that’s how you met your wife!

But now, the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that they feel exactly the same, knowing and not-knowing. We never have that slight frisson, that tingling need to know something we can’t quite find out. We don’t really ever seek knowledge. We just assume we can always do a quick search and find out.

And that, in a strange way it seems to me, undervalues actual wisdom, true knowledge. If you can just google it on your iphone in a matter of a second or two, why respect it at all? Why study a subject seriously if that 6”X3” piece of glass and plastic can tell you everything you want to know as soon as you want to know it?

And so, this week, phoneless, I actually read a book printed on paper… and learned some things that I did not know.

I guess this week reminded me that being connected isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be. The need to constantly check for electronic input from everyone does nothing for our attention spans. When it’s so incredibly easy to pay attention to your smartphone that makes it incredibly difficult to stay in the moment. It’s a peculiar kind of servitude.

My friends, this is Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the Sabbath of the new moon that marks the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan, which means we are now exactly two weeks from the beginning of Pesach, and our inaugural First Night’s Seder will take place right here at Congregation Beit Simcha on the night of the full moon, April 19th. Passover, of course, is the holiday that celebrates freedom. I’m not saying that we are slaves to our devices, our Iphones or Samsung Galaxies or whatever multi-purpose electronics we rely on constantly. They don’t really govern our lives unless we allow them do so. But in truth, it is a kind of slavery to a device, as incredibly useful as they can be. And being freed from that this past week was, for me, a peculiar kind of liberation.

Of course the fact that AT&T didn’t deliver my new phone until today took this beyond the joy of being freed from expectation, to a high level of personal frustration. I do need that device in order to work effectively and efficiently, and to keep track of my kids and congregants and community and personal obligations. Sooner or later I’ll go back to using that phone all the time.

But this week was a kind of gift. And I think that I have a different perspective on the necessity of constantly being on-line and available to everyone who isn’t actually in the room with me. And maybe that provides a bit more insight into freedom.

Freedom may, in part, actually be being able to take a moment to not know something, to have to work to know it. It may be, in part, deciding to pay attention to what is right before you, rather than flitting about looking at what else might be more interesting. Freedom may lie in that reserve, that space that can exist only when we are not always connected. Kind of like Shabbat: a pause from the unending cycle of duties and information flow.

Holocaust survivor and pioneering psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This week I learned about that space.

May we each find, on this Shabbat that begins the month of freedom, our own space of liberation from what enslaves us, technologically or otherwise. And in doing so, may we learn a few things about both knowledge and freedom itself.

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