The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, September 6, 2013

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: More is Less?

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5774 • 04 September 2013

More is Less?
Reclaiming Simplicity and Stillness

Two Things at Once • 

In the universe of this ad, there’s no such thing as “less is more.” It’s simply obvious to everyone in the room that doing two things at once is better. As one of the boys says, it’s “two times as awesome.” If you’ll indulge me while I deconstruct this ad for a moment... Without meaning to, it highlights exactly the problem I want to address tonight.

The example of multitasking -- the boy who can wave his head and his hand AT THE SAME TIME -- unwittingly provides the perfect metaphor for what we might become without some checks and balances on the omnipresence of technology in our lives. The boy’s multitasking is useless (if amusing), and worse: it disconnects him completely from the world around him. It even sucks in the adult in the room -- or anyway, the one who is supposed to be the adult. He has no attention left for the girl right next to him who just wants to be noticed.

The peshat (surface meaning) of this ad is the AT&T network’s superiority to its competitors for its capacity for talking and surfing at the same time. It's yet another example of the negative potential of smartphones: No more just talking to someone, it seems to say -- how boring. Now you can surf the web at the same time! God forbid you should focus your attention solely on the conversation.

This ad wouldn’t exist unless its producers and clients believed it would sell product. So it speaks to our cultural moment in time, when smartphones and mobile technology are virtually ubiquitous, and their purveyors ride the wave of our impulse to have more: more speed, more bandwith, more gadgets. “It’s not complicated.” they declare smugly. No! Wrong! It’s very complicated, and you’re not helping.

It gets worse.
Slow Grandma •

In this ad, we have a chilling example of market values supplanting human values. “Faster is better!” -- once again, it’s obvious to everyone in the room.

But wait, Grandma is slow, offers that boy with the last shred of his humanity that the AT&T goon hasn’t sucked out of him yet like a Hogwarts Dementor (for those of you who read Harry Potter).

Again, this embarrassment of an adult counters: “Would you like her better if she was fast?”
What?! What kind of sick world are you living in? A world where technology determines what we value, a backwards world.

Thank God for this kid’s maturity in answering: “I bet she would like it if she was fast.” Ok, some empathy, thank you. Yes, aging is difficult. Caring for aging parents is difficult. Your Grandma probably would prefer if she could move like she used to. It’s sweet of you to be aware of that. But then the conversation spirals downward into a perverse thought experiment about cartoonish ways to make Grandma faster. (I wonder if Medicare covers turbo boosters or a back cheetah.)

The point is, our obsession with technology blurs the lines of what we value. The implication that a slow grandma, like a slow phone, is undesirable, dismissible, obsolete, should make your soul cringe. Time to redraw some lines, to revisit our values.

Tree House • 

The idea of a treehouse disco, I admit, is compelling. But any glimmer of joy from that is overshadowed by, again, the universal assumption that bigger is always better, and by the boy’s monologue about how a small treehouse is bad—for it can only fit a small TV. Because that’s what makes a treehouse special—a flat screen TV! Mom, dad, I’m tired of being inside, I’m going to go hang out in the treehouse AND WATCH TV. God help us all!

Is this the value set we want our children raised with? Shouldn’t we be teaching them to feel gratitude for having a home, to let their imagination run wild in a treehouse, or outside with friends, rather than being obsessed with having the biggest treehouse on the block and the fanciest gadgets?

This ad speaks to a disturbing truth that studies have demonstrated: more unequal societies experience more crises in health, crime, and wellbeing. In other words, the more equal a society is, the better off EVERYONE is – happier, healthier, better adjusted. Constantly comparing ourselves to those who have more creates a thirst for gain that cannot be quenched. That thirst leads to stresses that hurt us all. How sad to see that need promoted among children.

*   *   *

It doesn’t have to be this way. And technology isn’t to blame -- we are. Jewish tradition speaks with great wisdom to those seeking depth, stillness, and simplicity in a world that thrusts upon us shallowness, constant multitasking, and the unending pursuit of more.

In the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah finds himself alone in the wilderness, having fled for his life from powerful people who want him dead. There in a cave he seeks refuge, and God’s guidance. God asks what he’s doing, and then as if to help him really hear the question deeply, God calls him out of the cave and parades before him an awesome display of nature’s might.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of ADONAI; but ADONAI was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but ADONAI was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but ADONAI was not in the fire. And after the fire — a  kol d’mamah dakah [often, "still small voice"; better, "small whispering voice"]. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold a voice speaking to him: “Why are you here, Elijah?”

(1 Kings 19:11-13)
The wind, earthquake, and fire, like so much of the technology we’re addicted to, are impressive and compelling at first. But they lack depth. Each time we are told, God was not in them. Only when Elijah -- when we -- can step back from all the noise and chatter can we even hear the kol d’mamah dakah, the small whispering voice, calling us to a higher purpose.

The first thing Elijah hears after the stillness is a question: why are you here? Those who meditate regularly can probably relate: when the pressures and anxieties of life fall away, the door opens to reconnect with your purpose. We are called to be more intentional about our life’s mission, and the meaning of our days. But first we must set aside, at least for a time, those distractions that get in the way of our deeper questions. And we must guide our children to do the same, because what they’re learning out there is not to be still, or to simplify, or to slow down, but rather to go faster, to have more, to do more, all the time.

On the relentless pursuit of more, our tradition speaks with wisdom and warning. “Ben Zoma said: Who is rich? He who delights in his lot” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 32a). Pirkei Avot teaches, “More wealth, more worry” (Avot 2:8) – or as one translator put it, “The more you get, the more you fret” 
(Book of Legends, 604:345).

To counteract these cultural forces, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, poet-philosopher of Judaism, explains why Shabbat is exactly what we need:

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments, and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.

(Heschel, The Sabbath)

As one commentator put it, “Daily life is often noisy and chaotic; spiritual growth is nearly impossible in that kind of environment... [Shabbat] allows one to become quiet and listen for that still, small voice.” In her recent book The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz brings the point home to us.
The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably in our lives... Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness--the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS...
There is something gorgeously naive about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away--it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization... 
The rabbis say the Sabbath is a taste of the world to come. Me, I think it’s an aftertaste of infancy. It’s a fantasy of perfect wholeness. If adult life is divided, the Sabbath is when we become one--with our family, with our community, with God...
Finally, one last commercial.

Slow Turtle •

I wanted to leave you with that one, especially the moment when the girl who expresses an independent thought is met with a patronizing, dismissive GROAN by the poor excuse for an adult. It’s not easy to go against the cultural grain. When you do, that’s often how people react. But it’s good to be the slow turtle sometimes, even when the world is yelling at you to pick up the pace.

May the new year bring us new awareness of the limitations of the “bigger, faster, more” mindset, and teach us to simplify, to slow down, and to find moments of stillness, to reconnect with our purpose and the people who matter most. 

L’shanah tovah.


Additional AT&T ads, in case you want to be even more depressed:

What’s better: being better, or worse?

Go Big or Go Home
Basketball in big fancy stadium or small driveway?

Pickle Roll

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