A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of accompanying the ninth and 12th graders of our yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, on the first shabbaton of the year. The shabbaton was held at a resort deep in the Catskill Mountains, way up the 17, well past the bungalow colonies and summer homes.
The lack of an eruv was a bit challenging, but it was a great reminder of how careful we have to be regarding hotza’ah (carrying) on Shabbos. Many, if not most, of us live in communities where there are communal eruvs, and we tend to forget how careful we must be without one. After every tefillah and every seudah, everyone was reminded to vigilantly check his pockets prior to stepping outside.
It was a beautiful and inspiring Shabbos. The davenings, learning sessions, zemiros and general atmosphere were very uplifting. An added highlight was spending Shabbos in the crisp and clear country air, away from the distractions of home. On Friday evening, as we walked from the villa where we davened to the villa where we ate, there was minimal electric light along the path. I don’t remember the last time I saw the stars so clearly. Many of the students were excitedly pointing upward at the Big Dipper and the North Star.
Then, early Shabbos morning, the steep mountains facing us were covered in a fog that was visibly moving across the mountain. The sun was barely shining atop the peak, while the clouds still veiled the rest of the mountain. Over the next hour, the sun slowly spread across the mountain range. Deer grazed freely on the fields near the villa, in a stunningly serene and picturesque scene.
One of the rebbeim noted afterward the irony between the uplifting weekend and coming back home. Throughout the weekend, we connected with nature and enjoyed the perfection of Hashem’s world in a manner we hardly appreciate. Everyone felt uplifted by the genuine and liberating experience. Then, as soon as we pulled onto the highway, we returned to a world where we confine ourselves to screens that block out not only nature—but also each other.
It’s often been noted that the more we connect digitally, the more we disconnect naturally. The irony is that the more we step into the world and appreciate the vastness of God’s creation, the more humbled we become. But the more we stick our heads into our little devices and bury our minds in it, the more self-centered and unemotionally involved in our surroundings we become.
Dr. David Pelcovitz relates that in a survey he conducted on the greatest impediments to spirituality, he found that number one on the list is the fact that we are always rushing and never have moments of calmness or stillness. We never have time to reflect and think about our priorities, values and what’s important in our lives. In our world, even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, because we are still connected to technology and surrounded by its endemic noise.
It’s impossible for us to truly connect to Hashem and to our own selves when connected to our smartphone, a friend, a song or the internet. Dr. Pelcovitz notes that in Shema we say “Ve’avadtem meheira,” literally translated as “you will quickly be abandoned.” The Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted those words, not as a threat but as a command: “Get rid of the rush” from our lives. We need to be able to find internal serenity to enable us to refocus and turn our attention to our relationship with Hashem and with what’s truly important and matters most.
Part of the beauty and gift of Shabbos is being able to step back from being completely immersed and overly involved in our mundane affairs. Shabbos grants us the opportunity to pull our heads off the little boxes and cubicles—literally and figuratively—in which we bury ourselves all week, and to step into the vast and beautiful world of Godliness. In a world of tension and hurriedness, Shabbos is an island of tranquility and true connection.
We should use this priceless gift well.
By Rabbi Dani Staum
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is the rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead as well as a rebbe and the guidance counselor at Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, New Jersey, principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor, and a division head at Camp Dora Golding. He also presents parenting classes based on the acclaimed Love and Logic methods. His email address is: [email protected]. His website is: www.stamtorah.info.