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And God Commanded, You Will Not Use the Computer One Day a Week

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SHABBAT
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There was a time when our first association with 24-7 was a football score, now it is how we describe the pace of our lives. Emails, faxes and cell phones scream at us for immediate response. Add to this that we are surrounded by a nonstop news media that races to be the first to report the news, and then, before all the information is in, provide instant analysis. We are no longer trained, we are no longer given permission, to pause and reflect.

Between iPhones, BlackBerries, Bluetooth and text messaging, we have an array of technological devices that constantly connect us to others, while at the same time allow us to avoid listening to our own internal dialogue. This says nothing about the world of computers that includes email, Skype, JAHJAH, Facebook, IM and a host of other possibilities.

We are blessed to live to see the actualization of Marshall McLuhan's Global Village with its sea of worldwide communication, contact and knowledge literally at our fingertips. But there is a price we pay. While our lives may be richer by the ease in which we are able to stay in touch with loved ones and friends and the ease in which we can access information from the four corners of the earth, we are also the poorer for our growing inability to want to know who the "I am" is in our life. We would rather IM.

And there is something else that is lost: our interaction with the world that immediately surrounds us. iPods cut us off from the sounds of the world we live in -- the calling of a flock of geese in migration, the crackling of ice in a glass, the gears of a bike and the other subtle sounds from the symphony of our lives, not to mention the person who may be sitting right next to us. Why have we decided that a call from a cell phone trumps a conversation with a person that we are talking to face to face? Why is cell phone interruptus considered to be OK? There is something seductive about all these devises at our disposal.

Our challenge is not to do away with all these gadgets, but to find the proper balance of when to use them and when not to use them. Anticipating the need for this balance, long before IBM, Apple and Dell, Moses taught us in the Bible about a rhythm that was not to the beat of 24/7, but rather 24/6. That is to say Moses taught us about Shabbat (the Sabbath). In the Book of Exodus (20:8) we read, "Remember the Sabbath day, to hallow it. For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath for the Lord your God: you are not to make any kind of work." It all seems straight forward -- we work six days and don't work on the seventh day. The problem is the Bible does not define what work is. That was left to the rabbis of the Talmud.

The Talmud is the collection of the discussions of rabbis between the first and fifth centuries discussing the laws, ethics, and stories of the Hebrew Bible. Within their discussion of what was meant by work they asked themselves what work were the Jewish people doing at the time Moses brought them the Ten Commandments. They were building the mishkan, the temporary and moveable Temple or building of worship.

The juxtaposition of the instruction to build the mishkan with the laws of Shabbat in the Book of Exodus as found in chapters 31 and 35 gave rise to the rabbinic understanding of the definition of work. Actions used in building the mishkan (39 major categories) were defined as work and prohibited on Shabbat. This is the traditional understanding of the text. But there is a more subtle message taught here as well.

While the 39 categories tell us what not to do on Shabbat, they also inform us what we should do the other six days of the week. And what is that? Build a mishkan, a dwelling place for God in the world. This is our charge -- to understand that no matter what work we do in our lives, we must see the purpose of that work as creating a place for God to dwell among us. We must see whatever work we do as contributing in important ways to the tapestry of our world. That work becomes holy when we act with truth, compassion, love and humility. We must release the sparks of holiness contained in what we do.

But to be able to, if you will, "build a mishkan" during the six days of the work week, we need to be able to rest on the Sabbath. This brings us back to the question of how we define what work is. One of the 39 major categories the rabbis defined as work was the lighting of fire. With the advent of the use of electricity in the 19th century the rabbis expanded the definition of fire to include anything using electricity. During the 20th century the use of telephones, televisions, cars, radios and computers were added to the prohibition of the use of fire on Shabbat.

As we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century where the pace we are expected to live our lives is dictated more and more by the gadgets we are forced to use, the message of Moses not to work on the Sabbath, as defined by the Rabbis of the Talmud, is something that we should all take more seriously. We all need one day a week that we can call our Sabbath. That day does not have to be the same for everyone, but it is important that we each have a day where we turn off our computers and cell phones and re-soul our lives.

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