I used to say that I lived on the Cross Bronx Expressway. For the first year and a half of my married life, I commuted from Washington Heights to the Five Towns and although without traffic the ride is an easy 45 minutes, most of the time, the trip home took closer to two hours. There is nothing like finishing an exhausting day teaching, when you’re just counting the seconds to get to the couch, and then getting off the bridge, which is a ten minute distance from home, only to see traffic backed up for miles. Most of our readers are New Yorkers, I hardly think I have to explain. While there were days that I found the commute frustrating, especially when I was late for an appointment or fighting sleep from the slow lull of stop-and-go traffic, in truth more often than not, I actually enjoyed the commute. I would listen to Torah CD’s (these were the days before ipods), or at times, I would just enjoy the quiet and think.
It may sound strange but years later, it is one of the few things I miss about living in New York (I do NOT miss the tolls).
Thanks to a short commute and the four passengers who accompany me to and from work (my kids), there is no longer quiet in my car. And perhaps because I am out of practice, on the rare occasion I am alone in my car, I find myself spending the time catching up with my family or friends on the phone (hands-free). Even my morning walk, which started not only as exercise but as a time to sanctify time for myself, has become a time to catch up with my friends on whatsapp and even to write articles as I walk. Life is busy, there is much to accomplish and who has time? I’ve told myself I need to grab every moment available.
And in truth, I like being busy. I like answering messages immediately, finishing that last load of laundry, crossing that last item off the list, being ahead of the game.
But I’ve come to realize the drawbacks of constantly doing. Of constantly answering the bings on my phone from emails, texts, whatsapps and messages from Facebook messenger and Slack. Of having a super busy calendar with every minute programmed. Aside from the obvious- of not being entirely present with my kids, husband, co-workers, it also means that I’m losing the ability of being present with myself.
And especially now as we find ourselves at the beginning of Chodesh Elul, a time to introspect, I find myself craving quiet time to think. In some ways, this month when school starts and the chagim are looming, that it is the hardest to stop and think. There are teacher schedules to create, classes to prepare, school supplies and uniforms to buy for my kids, doctor and dentist appointments to squeeze in before school starts. Guests need to be invited for Rosh Hashana, menus need to be planned, there is shopping and cooking to do, and in the busy home of a Rabbi and Rebbetzin before “Rabbinic tax season”, there are shul events to plan and classes to write. And yet despite all that is pulling at me, I know that I won’t have a meaningful Yamim Noraim (High Holiday season) if I can’t find the time or ability to make some think time in the month before. How can I make a game plan for improvement if I can’t find the time and mental space to make an accounting?
But I can hardly take a break from work, children and life at large and write “Introspecting for Chodesh Elul” on a request for leave slip. And so, I’ve looked elsewhere in life to where I can cut back.
And this led me to deactivating my Facebook account two weeks ago. This was a big deal for me (as evidenced by the look of shock on my husband’s face when I told him). I’ve been an active Facebook user since 2008, when my best friend in Israel urged me to sign up so we could easily see pictures of each other’s families. Something I had thought was “not me” very quickly became something I did very often.
Facebook gave me a platform to share thoughts, articles and divrei Torah. Not just with my personal friends, but also with congregants of our shul. It was an opportunity to connect with people in my community who I don’t usually meet. To raise awareness about news in Israel to people who only know what CNN is reporting and to encourage them to advocate for Israel. Facebook was a place where I tried to build community by starting groups of kosher consumers, first in Houston where we used to live and now in Charleston. And of course, Facebook was a place where I could read thought-provoking articles written by friends, which were a source of inspiration for me. Because there was so much good that I gleaned from being on Facebook, I tried to ignore the many drawbacks. Namely, the diversion it offered from real life, that quickly became a drain on my time.
I deactivated without committing that this would be for long term. There are many good reasons for me to be on facebook but for right now, I need the space and the quiet.
I thought I would miss it. It’s amazing how much I don’t.
If anything, I am enjoying the break from the drama of reading incendiary posts and measuring the success of my own posts by the amount of likes I get. I feel zero feeling of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and being off of facebook has brought home the point of how utterly unimportant and not real social media really is.
In the increased quiet from the buzzing of my phone, I have found more time to think, more time to devote to projects that are more worth my time. More exercise, more learning, more focusing inward rather than outward. With less diversion, I have found myself more able to enjoy time spent with my husband and children, those who matter the most in my life. With less distracting opportunities offered on my phone, I feel less compelled to check it, and less compelled to answer messages immediately.
And quitting Facebook has become a metaphor for how I can look at life during these awe-inspiring days. Just as Facebook, a website that used to use up so much of my time now seems so unimportant, I wonder what else do I spend my time and energy on that is really a waste of my time and thoughts? As I stand in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and reflect on my year, how much of it was spent on things that truly count in the spiritual realm? Were my acts of “productivity” truly so “productive”?
As I spend more time with my thoughts, I am certainly less productive with the amount of things I am accomplishing, which is the measure of success in our society. Productivity was always the way I measured the success of my days.
But in these weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana, a time of the accounting of the soul, I have come to learn that perhaps it is the quality of time spent, that is the true measure of productivity.
Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.