In the past week, I’ve come across the command “look up” in two very different contexts. Both are connected in an uncanny way. The first was this YouTube video that has been circulating for a few weeks. The second context was a dinner honoring an inspirational philanthropic leader in the Bay area Jewish community – Barbara Rosenberg.
The video is a visual statement about “unplugging” with a story about a marriage and a deeply fulfilling life that would not have happened if the main characters had remained with eyes down, focused on their phones. It is a message about moderation and not about abstinence. It is not so very different from earlier cries that permeated my childrearing years to moderate children’s television viewing. When I watched this video, I connected to the wisdom of traditional Shabbat observance that has included for centuries an “unplugging” for twenty-four hours. For those that embrace this practice, Shabbat is a time to talk, to take long walks, to entertain friends, to tell stories, to read, to imagine and to play silly games.
Some may see the observance of Shabbat practice as “limiting” - as an opting out of society. Indeed it does include this. But Shabbat observance can instead be understood as a “freeing” from our everyday obligations. It gives us a very thoughtful way to say “no” even as we may miss a particular Facebook post, tweet, game or show. This practice gives observers the opportunity to confront priorities. Is carpooling and rushing to another sport activity, followed by everyone retiring to their various electronic devices more meaningful than a day spent as a family engaging each other throughout the day in conversation? Perhaps the former scenario (the sports scene) is an overdrawn red herring – but you understand the point.
The second time that I heard that “look up” injunction spoke to the above idea about priorities with respect to character qualities. This time, Rabbi Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles) recounted a biblical interpretation about Moses’ leadership and linked it to Barbara Rosenberg’s approach to life. In the “midrash” (interpretive story), when the children of Israel faced the Red Sea, they looked down and were frightened to cross. Moses, on the other hand, looked up and forward. Because of this, the story suggests, Moses was a real leader. The midrash answers the question (midrashim are intended to answer big questions) of what constitutes a great leader. The answer: someone who looks up and forward. The connection between the two examples of “look up” is that a leader and a person who engages life deeply is someone who looks beyond what everyone else is looking at. In our day, smart phones is the something that everyone else is looking at.
Shabbat Shalom (Here’s to looking up this Shabbat!),