I'm Worried About the Places We're Going

Two recent scenes from my classroom:

Scene 1:

“Rebbe, I'm so sorry, I wasn't paying attention. I was up really late last night.”

“Is everything ok? Why were you up so late?”

“We have so many tests and assignments this week. I'm so stressed out.” (Murmurs of agreement from the class.)

“Ok, I hear you, and we all have stressful weeks, but I have an honest, and cheeky question: Were you up late studying or binge watching Netflix?”

(Sheepishly) “Well... it wasn't Netflix, it was Hulu.”

The rest of the guys seemed to concur. They too have experienced evenings like this. I paused to conduct an unofficial study: “Chevra, how many of you fell asleep last night holding or staring at your phones?”

Every hand went up. Except for one talmid, and, as he explained, his phone was dead, so he had to use his iPad.

Scene 2:

(From my Halacha shiur where, we're learning Hilchos Eruv 101).

“Guys, let's review: The Rambam is explaining that, as far as the Torah is concerned there are two “spaces” on Shabbos: Reshus HaYachid – a private area, and a Reshus HaRabim – a public area. Chazal are defining how to act in shared usage spaces that don't fit neatly into either category...”

A hand goes up at the back of the room.

“Rebbe, I get all that, but why does Hashem care? What difference does it make if I carry something from one space to another?”

“That's an excellent question. But before we discuss it, we should be careful to distinguish between what questions and why questions. This is a why question, and any explanation that we give will probably not satisfy every detail of the Halacha, because Hashem is infinite, Torah is infinite, and we are not. But we're going to make an attempt to at understanding this Halacha with the hopes that it enhance the way we learn and live...”

So let's explain:

The Private Space of a Jew

In the US, the right of privacy is a basic law. The extent of this right has been hotly debated, and its implications on security is at the heart of many legal battles. This notation of private space, however, is not the Torah's idea of Reshus HaYachid. Modern privacy is designed to keep people out, the Torah's Reshus HaYachid is a space that keeps us in.

The Shelah HaKadosh (בשלח תורה אור) explains: “Reshus HaYachid” is not a private domain. It is can best be translated as “Domain of Hashem, the One Who is Singular”.

On Shabbos, we are instructed to live in a space that is defined by our intimate relationship with Hashem. It's a space of wholeness where nothing more is necessary, and nothing is missing. To that end, we have no need to bring in anything from the outside, and everything we have is sufficient – the way it's supposed to be. On Shabbos, we have no desire to bridge the gap between this intimate space and the world outside. It's a moment to refocus on the joy of who we are, who we're with, and what we have.

Any attempt to bring something in, or take something out is to violate the wholeness and completeness of our date with Hashem. The prohibition against carrying on Shabbos is the greatest expression of “All I need is You.”

But most of us don't think about Shabbos this way. We don't anticipate the opportunity of בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – between Hashem and the us. We don't always see Shabbos as a refuge from the craziness of life, because we've trained ourselves to run to other things when we're overwhelmed or distressed.

This is the part that has me concerned, for myself, my family, my community and my students.

Where Are We Running?

Reb Tzadok HaKohen (י”ג מדות והדרכות) presents a litmus test for understanding ourselves, and the direction we're going in life:

אל מקום שאדם בורח בעת צרתו משם ניכר שהוא שורשו. ואם בורח לדברי תורה בידוע ששורשו מן התורה אף על פי שתולדתו אין כן

The place that a person runs to when they are in distress indicates where they are rooted. And if a person runs to Torah, it is clear that they have rooted themselves in Torah, even if they were not born with that inclination.

He proves this notion from the Mishna (כלים י״ז:יג):

כֹּל שֶׁבַּיָּם טָהוֹר, חוּץ מִכֶּלֶב הַמַּיִם, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא בוֹרֵחַ לַיַּבָּשָׁה, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא Rebbi Akiva says: (If one make vessels from the skin of) any aquatic creature, they are pure (and not susceptible to impurity), except for the seal. When a seal is in distress, it flees to dry land (making it a land animal.)

Reb Tzadok is teaching us a fundamental principal of identity: The places we run to are the places we feel most at home.

Where do we feel most at home? Where do we run to when we're stressed and distressed? Phones? Screens? Mindless scrolling? Substances? Or perhaps we are turning to friends, family, exercise, mitzvos, Tefillah and Torah?

Are We Guilty of Phubbing?

I learned a new word this week – Phubbing. It's a tragedy that the word even exists. It's a portmanteau of phone and snubbing: the practice of ignoring one's companion or companions in order to pay attention to one's phone or other mobile device.

In other words, phubbing is the habit of running away from our Reshus HaYachid – our places of relationships and intimacy. It's defaulting to the empty and infinite planes of the online Reshus HaRabim. The more we do it, the more distant we become, and the more our roots are tied to the endless mindlessness of an ever more anonymous internet.

But Reb Tzadok tells that none of this is permanent. We can always change, no matter where we are, or what our nature is.

Truthfully, the process of choosing a life of Reshus HaYachid over Reshus HaRabim is the definition of being a Jew. The Torah, this Shabbos, describes how Yisro came to become one of our people, with a strange phrase: וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ עַל כׇּל־הַטּוֹבָה – And Yisro rejoiced over all the kindness.

Rabbeinu Bachya (י״ח:ט׳) explains that the word וַיִּחַדְּ – rejoice, is the same as the word for unity and oneness:

ויחד מלשון אחדות לפי שנתגייר וייחד את הש”י וברך אותו We may also see the word אחדות as intimately related to the word ויחד, “he united.” This meaning would reflect that Yitro had converted and accepted the אחדות, the “Unity” of God.

In other words, Yisro fled the world of the Rabim, and entered the world of the Yachid, seeing Hashem as the source of everything. He built a connection, a relationship, a unity with Hashem and His people.

Everyone gets overwhelmed. Everyone has challenging times when we need to emotionally and cognitively disconnect from the stress and tune out the noise. When those moments come, where are we running to?

The answer to that question might be revealing something about ourselves than we're not happy with. So this Shabbos, Hashem invites us to begin to change. If Yisro could learn to run to the Reshus HaYachid, we can certainly do so as well.

Hashem should give us the courage to carve out new places, in time and space, where we can turn to Him, to our families and to ourselves.