My friends and colleagues at Romemu made the news recently for their publicly-announced decision to spend the days of Pesach free from the hametz of email. Hametz means leaven. In one popular Hasidic understanding the idea of cleansing one's home of literal leaven (which is to say: getting rid of the bread products and so forth) is transmuted into the idea of cleansing one's soul of metaphorical leaven. The hametz of ego, of puffery and pride. The leap from there to email is an intriguing one.
I find myself wondering whether email -- and the internet writ large -- is a thing to which we are sometimes enslaved. That's a strong word, I know. And usually it's not a term I would use. I rationalize that I come to the internet to communicate with friends and loved ones, and to read and write and converse about Judaism and the festival cycle and healing the world. These are lofty aspirations! On my best days, the internet is a tool which helps me connect.
But I know that sometimes the digital world gets its hooks into me in an unhealthy way. Who among us hasn't known the twitchy temptation to check email / Twitter / Facebook one more time, to make sure that we're not missing anything in anyone's life? Last summer during my week of vacation with my family, I had trouble staying away from high-holiday-related emails. "It's important," I rationalized. "The holidays are so early this year." But did any of those emails really require me to read them right that instant -- couldn't they have waited until I got home? When does the internet become a distraction from the life that's unfolding all around us, and from the holiness which we might find in that life?
That was part of what I was thinking about when I wrote Tele/Presence a few years ago:
I want your presence
twined around my forearm
when I snap open the Times
when I fret over trending topics
when I dream in status updates
(That poem, lightly revised, will be in my forthcoming collection Open My Lips, due later this year from Ben Yehuda Press.) Maybe when I'm online with awareness of divine presence, that awareness helps me transmute the possibility of enslavement into something redemptive instead. Enslavement is closed, constricted, possibilities shut-off. But the story of this season is the story of moving from slavery to freedom: from closed to open, from channels blocked to open conduits through which blessing can flow.
I think a lot at this time of year about the distinction between slavery and service. At Pesach we commemorate leaving slavery; fifty days later, at Shavuot, we celebrate entering into service. We didn't leave slavery in order to be purely on our own, devoid of obligations and responsibilities. We traded slavery to Pharaoh for service to God. In both cases, we acknowledge that there's a force greater than ourselves. But Pharaoh is the force of power-over; God is the source of power-from-within.
Enslavement means not having a choice. It means being owned. Service, in contrast, means choosing to place ourselves in covenantal relationship. I serve my congregation. I serve my community. I (aspire to) serve God.
When I allow my need for one more metaphorical pellet, one more email check-in, one more glance at the computer, to control me -- then I'm enslaved. When I allow myself the delusion that people need me to answer every single email that comes in, instantly, no matter what time of day or night, no matter whether weekday or Shabbat -- then I'm enslaved. That's when the internet becomes hametz, food for my ego, for the part of me which wants to persist in believing that my response is so critical that no one can get by without me. But when I choose to connect with intentionality and prayerful consciousness, with compassion, and with the good boundaries and good sense to unplug from time to time, then the internet becomes another way I can serve.