Cheshbon HaNefesh and Accounting for our Social Media Usage

August 31, 2022Rabbi Austin Zoot

The irony of listening to an audiobook titled Digital Minimalism (Cal Newport, 2019) on my phone was not lost on me. It made it particularly challenging when I wanted to throw my phone out the window and never look back. The book, like so many others, asks us to think critically about the way we allow media to influence our lives, and how we are best served by containing them in safe ways. It seems that the more time we spend with technology, the more we understand the benefit to our lives, and the ways our minds are warping to accommodate the new demands of digital dependency.

I was discussing the book with my brother when he mentioned his recent trip to the woods with his fiancé. The trip was meant to be a retreat from the world, and in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky, he didn't have any phone service. The 24-hour escape became a digital detox and gave him a glimpse of what it looked like to live without the technological appendages that have become commonplace in our lives. Wouldn't it be nice, my brother remarked, if we were able to create this kind of technology-free space on a regular basis? And just like that, my brother invented… ShabbatShabbatשַׁבָּת"Sabbath;" plural: Shabbatot. Refers to the 7th day of Creation. In the Hebrew Bible, Shabbat is juxtaposed to the construction of the Tabernacle that carried the tablets of the Law throughout the period of wandering. The rabbis of the Talmud determined, therefore, that all the categories of work that were required to construct the Tabernacle would cease on the 7th day. There are 39 categories of work as noted in the Talmud. The goal is to cease effecting change in the world through work of any kind and to become "one" with God, community and the environment through prayer, study, community, and rest. . But in all seriousness, it is awfully hard to rest when we are always reachable.

Newport's book invites us to critically assess how we "play with" technology, and how technology plays with us. We should ask ourselves whether our cell phones bring more meaning to our lives or diminish them. A phone call can connect us to loved ones far away or cause us to be distracted when life is happening right in front of us. Music can help us set an intentional space, or it can fill the space we should be using to think, breathe, and just be. There is no single prescription that can work for all of us. If it were as easy as "turn off your phone," there wouldn't be countless books written about reining in our technological dependence.

There is no better time for this kind of digital soul-searching as the month of ElulElulאֱלוּלThe Hebrew month preceding Rosh HaShanah during which one engages in self-reflection and evaluation in preparation for the High Holidays. Traditionally, the shofar is blown each day during the month. , the last month of the Jewish year before Rosh HaShanah. Each year, we are given an entire month to ask the critical questions of better understanding ourselves, and exploring what it means to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.

One of the most profound ways Jewish practice can touch our lives is by providing space to step back and recalibrate a more intentional relationship with our everyday lives. In many ways, this contradicts the psychological tools that tech companies use to keep us engaged with our phones. Spend too much time away from an app, and we are bombarded with notifications, suggestions, and recommendations that try to suck us back in.

My undergraduate degrees are in Jewish Studies and telecommunications; it was always my goal to figure out how to take our ancient tradition and deliver it in a way that is accessible and relatable to the realities of our modern lives. Is it possible, I would ask, to bring the best of Judaism into the digital landscape? In many ways, the answer is a triumphant yes! We have seen countless blog posts, tweets, and TikTok videos proving that our collective wisdom can be impactful and resonant in any format.

Our devices are not inherently good or bad. Neither are we. Our tradition talks about the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, the good inclination and evil inclination, constantly demanding our thoughtful evaluation. This season of our year allows us to think back on all the ways we indulged each of our instincts, how we can better live fulfilling lives, and what tools we can use to best accomplish our goals. So, when you're done reading this article, I invite you to step away from your computer or phone, go for a walk, and leave enough space for your soul to guide you.

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A Liberatory Elul Journey

The month before the High Holidays, Elul, is a time of spiritual preparation and t'shuvah. This year, as we conclude a Shmita, or sabbatical year, after focusing on taking time to pause, rest and reflect, I feel a sense of urgency and the need to act.