First, let me make it plain and clear that what I’m about to share with you is not meant as a recommendation. It is not the only way, and it is not better than any other way. But this is the popular way of seeing the subject in Jerusalem, and it’s the way I was raised and educated.
When I was young, before television came to our country, I enjoyed going to the movies. Before watching the actual movie we got to see the news of the day (or week) as presented on film, in black and white and in Hebrew. After that, there would be advertisements. These too would be in Hebrew, but they weren’t presented on movie films. We would watch a series of slides projected on the big screen, some of them in black and white and some in color, and a narrator would let us know the advantages of the different products. It wasn’t all that interesting, and we’d seen most of the advertisements before. But it was the way things were done, and we waited patiently for the slide show to end. In those days we didn’t have commercial advertising on the radio. Israel was a socialist country, and though you could see advertisements on posters or in the newspaper, it was something of a novelty, and we learned what was for sale.
Since then, advertisement has become intrusive. First in radio and television, with little taste or sensitivity, and now on the net, on certain popular sites, or when I want to read the news. There is a certain news platform that I visit often. It has taken the place of reading the daily newspaper for me. But though I got the app that blocks pop-ups, this online newspaper which sports advertisement between blocks of text, also has banners on the top, and a few snakes climbing up from the bottom, so that it’s quite a bit of work just to read a page.
Of course, there are tricks we develop to protect ourselves against the onslaught. I’ve learned to keep the sound on mute till I really want to hear something. Just so I won’t have to suffer the unexpected shriek in my ear. But in this age, when most people seem to be worried about sexual harassment, I have found that what bothers me the most is noise. And when checking to see if there was any literature on the subject, I was startled and dismayed to discover ‘ego depletion’, ‘Decision Fatigue’ and ‘negative feedback loop’ which led me to the book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister: “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”. It’s a book about self-control, and one of the first things I learned from them was that if you force students to choose between watching Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment” or each getting his own bag of Doritos, the students will probably be so ego depleted that they won’t be able to study again until the following week. It seems that making a lot of decisions wears out the mind. My reward for sticking with the search was the discovery of a fascinating writer on technology and the future, Prof. Tim Wu who teaches at Columbia Law School, and is famous for ‘net neutrality’, a concept which he is said to have originated.
Tim Wu recalls a point made by the economist Herbert Simon who said in 1971 that the wealth of information causes the scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. He pointed out that what information consumes is the attention of its recipients. A wealth of information then, means a poverty of attention. This explains why those poor children, forced to learn reading and writing in school plus history, adding and subtracting, after a night in which they watched wholesale killing and romance on TV… maybe even so-called reality… while communicating with their peer group on facebook, tweeter, and telegram develop ADHD. According to Wu, there are engineers at work developing apps that are meant to squeeze more and more attention out of young human beings, creating an addiction to media.
Now, some three and a half thousand years ago… even before the invention of Ritalin, there was a man named Moses who started conversing with god, and received a divine gift. Now I know that there are a lot of reservations these days about the existence of god, so maybe we should describe this ancient belief in more contemporary terms. We could call him nature, or the universe… or the entirety of all existence. The idea was to stop all incidental activity for one day out of seven, and instead of that, to celebrate life itself. You see, sometime in childhood, every human being discovers that he or she is not going to live forever; that we are born and eventually we’ll die. This is a traumatic piece of news. But after that we learn that if we’re busy doing things… running around, playing games of tension and suspense, or stimulating ourselves with the help of hormonal discharges… we can forget the traumatic knowledge and enjoy the excitement. Now this gift of the one day in seven is meant to give us back our perspective; to remind us that we are part of nature. For one day, there is no work. But work is a concept too. It doesn’t just mean your job. Our sages delineated work according to the activities in the holy temple. So we refrain from lighting a candle or turning on an electric switch… or even listening to instrumental music. Or getting into a car. There are people who say, ‘Back in those days you had to get on a donkey, and he didn’t have GPS, so it was a lot harder then. But that’s not the point at all. You can read, you can eat (and we generally prepare the very best foods for this day), you can walk and you can sing. Actually, there are a lot of things that you can do. But this one day has a character all its own. The Sabbath is different from all other days. We call it a holy day. In Hebrew, the word holy means different. The root is found in a word for negative difference too. But usually holiness is used for the positive difference.
And now we come to the very essence of what I wanted to tell you. The sanctification of this day; how it becomes holy. Sanctity is not automatic. The day does not demand its own respect. It is only we, each individual Jew who sanctifies it. First we light two candles, side by side, to mark the day. And then, at the beginning of the evening meal (because every day in our calendar starts with the eve and not the morning, nor midnight… but with the setting sun), we raise a goblet of wine, and bless the holy day. It doesn’t have to be wine. One can choose the alternative for any reason, and bless the day with bread. It’s either bread or wine. And most important, that the individual offers his devotion in order to make the object holy. Holiness is not imposed. It’s by choice. In a marriage between a man and a woman, we see a very similar process. The man says to the woman, ‘behold, you are holy to me’. Saying that alone, in front of two witnesses is enough to make a marriage. It is like love. The love is in its offering, and not in its acceptance, though that is important too.