It really wasn't my intention to base multiple Hebrew school lessons this year around repurposed undergarments. But sometimes this rabbinic life takes me into places I didn't exactly expect to go. Case in point: yesterday I found myself preparing for my fifth-through-seventh-grade class by standing in line at the local Dollar Store (not my favorite shopping destination, but this time it was suitably affordable for my needs) with a double armful of cheap white tube socks.
I wanted to teach my students about Shabbat. I knew I wanted to begin with a short conversation about who creates holiness, God or us. (Psst: both, together.) I knew I wanted to convey that Shabbat is the holiest day of the year and it happens each week; that on Shabbat, we who are made in God's image rest as Torah teaches that God rested on the seventh day of creation; that Shabbat is a day to stop doing and to just be, to be "human beings" instead of "human do-ings."
In years past, I haven't been wholly satisfied with our conversations about different Jewish ways of understanding the commandment to rest and not do work. One year I taught a lesson about the 39 forms of labor which are traditionally understood to be prohibited on Shabbat, but it was hard to connect those to my students' lived experiences. It's too easy for them to start seeing Shabbat practices as deprivations, instead of as opportunities for connection, holiness, a different state of mind.
I know that most of my students have cellphones. And I'm pretty sure that if I suggested to them that they turn off their phones every Shabbat, they would balk. (As might their parents.) What I wanted instead was to get them thinking not about whether they use technology on Shabbat, but how they use it. For instance: is there a difference between using one's phone to call a friend and connect, vs. using one's phone to play a solitary game which keeps one disconnected from the world?
If nothing else, I thought there might be some interesting fodder for conversation.
So I decided to make and decorate cellphone bags. Not with an eye toward shaming my kids for using their phones on Saturdays, but with an eye toward shifting how they use those phones on that special day. (And even if they don't actually use the bags most of the time, maybe the act of making them would be a consciousness-raiser.) The challenge was, I don't have a very large education budget, and I didn't want to spend money on fancy cellphone cases which I wasn't even sure the kids would use.
Enter the tube socks.
Here is the demo version I made before class to show them how the project might look.
We began the class by talking briefly about holiness and how both we and God make things holy. I offered some teachings about Shabbat and what makes it special. We brainstormed what it might mean for them to "not work" on Shabbat -- "to not do my chores," one suggested; "not cleaning my room;" "not doing homework" -- and then I shifted into talking about other ways of understanding that commandment, including the practice in many Jewish communities of eschewing electricity use.
We were briefly sidetracked into a conversation about cooking, because a few of my students had never heard of the idea of not cooking on Shabbat. Some found it fascinating; others thought it sounded gross. (Though one student who attends Jewish summer camp exclaimed "Oh! That's why we always have cold sandwiches on Saturdays!" It was gratifying to see that lightbulb go on.) And then I pointed out that using our technological devices, like cellphones, constitutes electricity use.
"I spent a whole day without using technology once," one kid volunteered. "It was awful!" Agreement rippled around the table. As the boys in particular started agreeing vociferously that a day without video games sounded like punishment, I started asking the questions I posed above -- is there a difference between using a phone in a solitary way and using it in a connective way? For instance, is it Shabbat-appropriate to use one's cellphone to say something unkind about someone else?
Is there a difference between using one's cellphone for gossip (which we know can be spread in unretractable ways -- there's the parable of the person who comes to the rabbi seeking a way to make amends for gossip; the rabbi tells them to cut open a pillow and let the feathers blow away, and then notes tartly that it would be easier to gather those feathers than to undo gossip once it's spread on the winds of conversation) vs. using that same phone to call someone and express kindness and caring?
Is there a difference between using one's phone as a way to keep other people at bay (playing videogames instead of actually talking with family), vs. using one's phone as a way to connect with other people via voice or text -- either those in the room, or those whom we love but who are far away? Maybe I asked the questions in a leading manner, but they all seemed to get the point I was making. Technology can alienate us, or it can connect us. Shabbat is a day to seek connection.
And then we decorated cellphone bags. Everyone's bag says שבת שלום on it (and some also say "Shabbat Shalom" in English.) Some wound up adorned with flowers, or stars of David, or stripes and patterns. I have no idea whether or not the kids will actually use them this weekend. But I hope that perhaps making them will be memorable. Maybe it will plant a seed in the back of their minds which could someday flower into a Shabbat practice of mindful technology use.