Torah | Unplugging lets the mind rest and life sink in

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I Kings 18:1-39

One of the best presents I’ve ever received was a small, red, drawstring pouch with the words “shavat va’yinafash,” “rest and refresh,” written across the front in gold puffy paint. It is my iPhone’s sleeping bag, created by a colleague after hearing about how tough it can be to turn off my cellphone for Shabbat. Now even my kids know that cellphones need to take a rest on Shabbat.

My colleague was inspired by Reboot, an organization dedicated to inspiring young Jews in innovative ways. Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging, a day of giving ourselves a break from our devices, falls this weekend. Its goal is to help hyperconnected people of all backgrounds embrace the ancient ritual of a day of rest, and this section of the Torah is a perfect entry point.

Among the laws and rituals Moses learns from God during his time atop Mount Sinai is the instruction to observe the Sabbath. The words from Exodus 31:16-17 express so clearly the need for a break that it became the prelude to the weekly Shabbat Kiddush.

“The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time … For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [shavat va’yinafash].” The final words in the verse tell us that when God rested, God was refreshed, literally “resouled.” So when we imitate the way God rested on Shabbat, we get resouled, as well.

One of the downsides to our fast-paced lifestyle in the Bay Area is that there rarely is time to integrate all of the amazing things we do into who we are and who we are becoming. Like the final rest pose of a yoga session, we need the downtime to allow the work we’ve done to settle into our bones and penetrate our minds. We need time disconnected from our devices to let life sink in; to be with people face to face, to be in nature, to be in silence. Within this Torah passage lies the secret to living a reflective, less manic life: We just need to rest. Obvious? Maybe. But until we carve out the time on a regular basis, it doesn’t happen.

Unfortunately, this call to unplug could be perceived as anti-technology, and in our locale, perhaps too countercultural. But we can rest assured that nowhere does our tradition suggest that being plugged in most of the week is a problem. Nowhere in the Torah does God say work is bad or that resting is somehow favored over being creative (after all, God created the world in the previous six days “and it was good”!). It’s just that we need a break from it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “external gifts are fine,” and we need only to cultivate the proper attitude toward our possessions: “to have them and to be able to do without them.”

Diane Bloomfield tells a story in her book “Torah Yoga” of someone asking an Indian yoga teacher, “What are we trying to accomplish by doing yoga?” She had expected some lofty, deep answer but received this: “We are learning how not to answer the phone for an hour.” The teacher did not say that we strive to never answer the phone, which would imply that the goal is to be disconnected from others or disavow technology. We just need a rest from being beholden to it all the time.

I know that for many, a whole day of unplugging from sundown to sundown can feel daunting. Like any new practice, a better way to try it out is to go slowly. Perhaps shut off your phone for a couple of hours this Shabbat. Or instead, add to your day something new, like making plans with friends or loved ones, or taking a walk. Reboot finds that people like to have a sense of what they will do with the time when they unplug; you can find a great list of ideas at www.nationaldayofunplugging.com.

Take some time this Shabbat to think about how you get “resouled.” What will do when you unplug?

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at rabbimrc@stanford.edu.

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Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."