2015-09-02 / Voice at the Shore

A reflection for the Days of Awe: Is distracted living unholy?

Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine, and the President of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors

RABBI GERALD FOX RABBI GERALD FOX How many of us feel obligated to multitask in our work lives or in our personal lives (or both)? I know that I do.

In fact, as the father of young twin (very active) boys, my deepest craving is for contemplative connection. I want to spend personal, meaningful time with my sons and/or with my wife, but what I actually crave, what my spirit is drawn to, is the ability to make that connection without chaos. The way I imagine living a “holy life” involves deliberate choices that almost seem as if they are being made in slow motion and without the distractions and sound. They also involve being aware of who I am and where I am in the universe.

Lately, I have been reminiscing about my youth when cousins or aunts and uncles, or just my immediate family, would gather at the table to play bridge or other card games and have tea and just talk. Invariably, there would be humor interwoven into more serious topics. I remember, as nearly always the youngest in the room, how much I enjoyed learning about life from those around the table. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling that we have lost our way because we view such things as luxuries and wastes of time. How sad.

Can we appreciate fully such experiences if we are checking our smart phones and worrying about some task that we have yet to complete? I think not. Our minds are made to wander and make connections; when constrained, or overwhelmed, they become limited. Living in the moment often involves experiencing many things at once and allowing the mind to engage with them while focusing on one or two things. I believe that this is how “inspiration” finds us and where we may find holiness. After all, holiness can be understood as an elevated connection between our self and our reality; sin, therefore, is anything that blocks that connection.

I recall a day when something unusual happened to me while studying Talmud at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. While studying a section that contained descriptions of nature, I readjusted myself in my chair and suddenly found myself witness to a truly magnificent sunset, one that evoked blessings from my lips. As I rose to utter these blessings, my teacher asked me why I allowed myself to be distracted from the holy work of learning Torah (in the more general sense). He referenced a passage in the Talmud that forbids someone from being distracted from prayer or religious study. I countered that my distraction— a connection with the revealed holiness in the world— was holy work as well.

Sin, or better yet, transgression, isn’t often what we think it is…it is acting at cross-purposes with allowing ourselves to being mindful, wherever that takes us.

This year, let us voice the Al Cheyt of the “empty calories” of social media and, instead, commit ourselves to the nourishment of cultivating healthy, real connections with each other. Let’s start with a cup of tea and a conversation. .

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