National Day of Unplugging

By Rabbi Brandon Bernstein, Reform Outreach Initiative Rabbi at Rutgers Hillel

Brandon Bernstein tabling about unplugging on campus

Rabbi Brandon Bernstein tabling about unplugging on campus

There’s an unavoidable irony inherent in tabling on campus for the National Day of Unplugging: namely, the majority of students who ignore me as they pass me by with headphones on their ears and glowing smartphones before their eyes. Many of them are too plugged in to even notice me, so caught up with the world inside their screens that they pay no attention to the world outside. At first glance, unplugging seems a radically unpopular, counter-cultural concept.

After all, “plugging in” is simply a way of being these days. Especially on the college campus, so much of life occurs via technology, through wall posts and emails, text messages and yaks. Professors post lectures to class websites, and students take midterms online. Not only is technology necessary to register for and take classes, it fills up our free time as well. Bored? No problem, just aimlessly click from page to page on Wikipedia or video to video on YouTube! Lonely? Post a status update on Facebook and wait for the comments to roll in! Curious? Answers are only a Google search away! The entire world lies literally at our fingertips, we can feel connected at all times – who would want to give that up? Why would you possibly face the potential empty space of a moment disconnected?

I find it all too appropriate that this year, the National Day of Unplugging (which lasts from Friday, March 6th to Saturday, March 7th, sundown to sundown) falls right after holiday of Purim. Purim may be popularly recognized as “the Jewish Halloween” (with all its costumes) or “the Jewish carnivale” (with its revelry), but the true nature of Purim can only be understood, fittingly, through its source and inspiration: the book of Esther. The book of Esther is unique throughout the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) in that it remains entirely devoid of God’s name (or any sort of divine appellation). Despite this, God’s presence can be felt throughout the story, influencing events beyond human control; indeed, God hides within the book of Esther. Even the protagonist’s name is a hint as to what’s going on under the surface, as Esther is related linguistically to the Hebrew word nistar, meaning “to be hidden/concealed.” Purim’s focus on masks and strange behavior only bolsters one of the key concepts of Kabbalah and Hasidut: “that there is no place devoid of [God’s presence]” (d’leit atar panui minei) (Tikunei Zohar 91b). The world is not as it appears on the surface; nothing is empty of divinity (or at least the potential for divinity).

Which brings me back to the concept of unplugging. Technology fills the surface interactions of our daily lives, but what might hide underneath the radio waves and WiFi signals? The thought of putting down our phones and abstaining from our tablets, even for 24 hours, can cause us great anxiety (FOMO – the fear of missing out – is no joke). But there is no reason to fear that isolating moment of unplugging, for it’s not actually isolating. Hidden beneath the surface of disconnection is the potential for greater awareness of the moment. Unplugging doesn’t mean missing out; it means checking in. With beloved friends and family. With the natural world around us. With the thoughts and feelings we don’t allow ourselves time to process during the hectic school week. Unplugging means looking beneath the distractions to see what’s truly present, to bypass instant connection online in order to search for true intimacy offline. Anyone who has ever lost track of time laughing with a friend knows that technology isn’t necessary to feel the electricity of the moment.

Though a large number of students pay no heed to the National Day of Unplugging table on campus, it always amazes me what happens when someone actually hears me. It’s always the same: they ask me what Unplugging is all about. And as I explain it, a smile slowly forms on their lips, they nod and say, “Yeah…that sounds great. I could be into that.” And they accept the challenge to unplug for twenty-four hours, for a myriad reasons. They unplug to reconnect. To think. To unwind. To focus. To live. They unplug to see what it’s like, glancing beneath the surface. And you can do the same. Just imagine what you might find.

Participants at a Jewish-Catholic Dialogue share why they unplug.

Participants at a Jewish-Catholic Dialogue share why they unplug.

To find out more about the National Day of Unplugging, visit their website here.

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