On Presence & Living With Intention - Rabbi Alex Kress

A few weeks ago, Maili, the kids, and I went over to Reverend Tim Vance’s house, our friend from First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. You see, he told us he had one of those at-home pizza ovens, and became quite adept at making pizza. He invited us over and let me tell you, when you see him during Sukkot, when we host his church for dinner in the Sukkah, you might want to try to get yourself an invite. But, alas, this sermon is not about Pizza. Maybe next year.  

While we were eating, his older son and his wife Maya were talking about directions somewhere. Maya told him to Mapquest it. He looked at her totally confused. “You want me to what it?”  For those of us that navigated before smartphones and Google Maps and Waze, Mapquest was revolutionary. It was the kind of internet innovation that made life seem easier, that made the quick technological advances that were happening seem harmless.

I’m not a digital native like kids today, but almost. My primary screen time growing up was an old tube TV and lots of Disney VHS tapes that my sister and I would watch over and over and over again. We had one of those “speed rewinders” because the VCR rewinder was too slow when we wanted to rewatch Beauty and the Beast for the 500th time. 

When I think of the internet, growing up, I think about the sound of dial-up <try to imitate sound>. I think of AOL <You’ve Got Mail> & Instant Messenger and the many hours it took to download a single MP3 on Napster or Limewire – alongside a few unintended viruses of course. What we now call Social media took the form of Friendster & MySpace & my favorite named social media company of all time – Jewster. Eventually, Facebook entered my life, then Twitter, then Instagram. The Internet slowly morphed from the innocent playground of my youth into something much more complicated. In addition to connecting us, it began to divide us. In addition to giving us access to an unprecedented amount of information, it began to be used to manipulate that information to confirm our biases and plant seeds of untruth. In addition to productivity tools and new channels of entertainment, it began to steal our focus and take over our lives.

One of the most prescient movies of the past few decades was 2008’s WALL-E. The love story of two cute little robots came to us just a year after the iPhone debuted and projected human life in the year 2805. For a little context: Facebook was 4 years old in 2008, Twitter was just two years old. Instagram and TikTok didn’t exist. The world that Pixar Studios birthed WALL-E in was a very different place than the world we live in today. 

The disconnect between then and now was driven home in one of the opening scenes of WALL-E, where the little robot watches Hello Dolly on an iPod Video.  I giggled that the animators, who were creating a hellscape of earth in the year 2805, thought iPods would still be around. Instead, 15 years later, kids don’t even know what iPods are and smartphones have taken over our lives.

If you haven’t seen WALL-E, the premise is that humanity was evacuated to space after earth became uninhabitable. The plan was to leave trash compacting robots to clean up the planet for humans to return in five years, but seven hundred years later, the plan has failed and humanity still lives in space.

When I first watched WALL-E, I was not tuned into the social commentary throughout the film. But on a recent rewatch, I was astounded by how much the film felt like a sharp critique of where we’ve landed 15 years later. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson writes that “the film paints a pretty stunning picture of the deleterious effects of letting two things continue unchecked: a society’s insatiable need to consume (cheap products, entertainment, food, resources), and private industry’s drive for profit when it overtakes public good.”

When we first see the humans aboard the Axiom ship, we see two people in floating chairs gliding through the ship, staring at screens right in front of their faces. Even though they are floating right next to each other, they’re conversing through the screens in front of their face. They can barely stand or walk or sit up – they are blobs staring at screens all day, every day. 

This extreme representation of human life in a dystopian future seems…a little on the nose, honestly. In many ways, the exaggerated depiction in WALL-E is a mirror for us and where we’ve landed in 2023. Not only have we grown an insatiable need to consume cheap food and products and content, but much of what we consume is engineered to addict us and have us craving more. We might not yet be blobs floating in space, but, there are billionaires building rockets to take us to space to escape our planet’s impending climate catastrophe. And many of us do stare at our screens all day, working and playing and reading and doom scrolling…  consuming without end.

In 1986, Researchers at USC and the Open University of Catalonia found that if you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being through TV, radio, & reading, it already amounted to forty 85-page newspapers’ worth of information every day.  By the time the iPhone debuted in 2007, they found it had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. Assuredly, that number has gone up significantly in the last 16 years, since the average person now touches, clicks, and swipes through their phone 2600 times per day 

As Johann Hari writes in his phenomenal book Stolen Focus,  “we told ourselves we could have a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to, and the speed at which it hits us, with no costs. This is a delusion.” In an interview with Sune Lehmann, the professor explains: “what we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions. . .. Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth…It’s pulling us more and more up onto the surface.”

But it’s not just depth that we sacrifice, it’s our actual smarts. Hewlett-Packard commissioned a study to understand the effects of distraction on their workers. They first tested their IQ undistracted, and then tested again when they were distracted by a phone call or email. Johann Hari reports that this “study found that ‘technological distraction’ – just getting emails and calls – caused a drop in the workers’ IQ by an average of ten points.” To give you a sense of how much 10 IQ points, it’s the equivalent of not having slept the night before.

We’ve come to see our world as inseparable from our devices. Just think about that feeling you get when your phone battery is dead, or when you accidentally leave it behind: completely cut off from everyone and everything! But as author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his latest book, Team Human, “Our most advanced technologies are not enhancing our connectivity, but thwarting it. They are replacing and devaluing our humanity, and—in many different ways—undermining our respect for one another and ourselves. Sadly, this has been by design.”

Judaism offers many approaches to the problems faced by the onslaught of information and attack on our attention. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a wonderful California rabbi and author,  writes that the story of Moses at the Burning Bush is actually a tale of attention. “The story,” he writes,” is customarily offered as a “miracle” that God performed to get Moses’ attention…[But] Look more closely at the process of combustion. How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it actually was being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. This then would mean that Moses would have had to watch the “amazing sight” closely for several minutes before he could possibly know there even was a miracle to watch!….The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test: God wanted to find out if Moses was capable of paying attention to something for more than a few minutes… There is another world, hidden right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

As I read Stolen Focus – which you should urgently read – I realized I was living life through a blurry lens of distraction. I let my phone addiction stand between me and the thing I built my life around – connection, most importantly, connection with my kids. Right in front of me was my world, everyone I cared about, but I couldn’t see it because I had a little digital vortex in my hand. 

Rabbi Kushner drives home this inability to see the hidden world in front of us – to see beyond our screens – with the story of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis. After Jacob’s majestic dream of angels climbing up and down the ladder, he wakes up and says, “Wow! God was in this place! And I did not know.” 

Rabbi Kushner notes that Rashi, the great medieval commentator who focused on the literal meaning of the Torah’s words, teaches us “to do again what we haven’t done since we were small children: pay close attention to the obvious…What Jacob means [when he says God is in this place and he did not know] is so obvious, it is almost comical…: “If he had known [that God would have been there] he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in such a holy place!”

How many of us need such a simple reminder?

If I had known my phone would interrupt family dinners & worsen my work-life balance…

If I had known that the dopamine hits of instant gratification from likes and two-day shipping would undermine my discipline…

If I had known Facebook was intentionally addicting me & spreading lies for profit…

If I had known Google had researchers finding ways to make me spend more hours in email…

If I had known my daily screen time would far eclipse my daily time being present with my beautiful, fast-growing kids…

If I had known that online shopping would condition me to need more and more and more and clutter my home with unnecessary purchases…

If I had known that the digital age would make community and genuine human connection feel increasingly elusive…


If we had known, maybe then we would have acted differently. But we do know. One of the powerful parts of Jacob’s dream is he woke up with perspective, he woke up understanding what was happening, he woke up with intention.

The Hebrew word for intention is kavanah. In our tradition, it is generally understood as focused, intentional thinking for the purpose of prayer. The 12th-century Egyptian sage, Maimonides, explained that prayer cannot be said unless the davener – the person praying – has the proper intention. In fact, if you say a prayer without the proper intention, you have to repeat it. Maimonides gives some examples of distractions that keep us from having that proper intention: anyone who is confused, anyone who comes in from a journey, anyone who is tired, anyone who is irritated. Honestly, this kind of sounds like me coming home after a long, tough day, and I’m sure we could list many more examples that keep us from being present. But ultimately, the idea of kavanah can be expanded to help us find balance in a digital world that is not slowing down.

When you have family time, what rules do you have in place for your phone? 

When you’re sitting at the dinner table or after you get into bed, how often do you check your phone? 

When you’re watching TV, are you watching TV or sitting on the couch scrolling on your phone? 

When you have free time, are you enriching your life and practicing self-care or staring at screens and doom scrolling? 

At the beginning of the prophetic text of Haggai, he preaches to those who have returned to Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE but live amidst the ruin, failing to begin building their next chapter. He tells them, “שִׂ֥ימוּ לְבַבְכֶ֖ם עַל־דַּרְכֵיכֶֽם, Consider how you have been faring, Pay attention to your ways, or more literally put your heart on your path. You have sowed much and brought in little; you eat without being satisfied; you drink without getting your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one gets warm; and he who earns anything earns it for a leaky purse.”

It feels like Haggai would have been a good prophet aboard the Axiom ship in WALL-E pleading with these human blobs to pay attention, to שִׂ֥ימוּ לְבַ, to look at each other instead of their screens. To recognize that the blessing of life is connection. In a scene that struck me, two people who cross paths with WALL-E, and consequently end up without screens in front of them, touch hands. Their reaction has you believe that this was the first human touch on the ship in centuries. 

But Haggai could also be criticizing us. Again, the metaphor from WALL-E might seem extreme, but our increase in screen time has correlated to higher rates of loneliness and disconnection. Yes, we know what our high school friends are doing all over the country…or, we know what those friends want us to know that they’re doing…but we are talking less to the people next to us. We are engaging less in community. We are staring at screens instead of faces. When was the last time you noticed two strangers in public – on a train, at a coffeeshop, at a park – actually interacting?

And this technology isn’t going backwards. We cannot return to a world without technology, as much as some of us would like to. Author Brad Stulberg, who just published a book on accepting change, explains that most human beings prefer homeostasis. That means that when we experience change, we prefer to return to the same state we knew before the change happened: X to Y to X. If we knew life without technology, or pine for the innocent internet of the 2000s, we might be tempted to force the technology of today backwards. But there is another model of change called allostasis. “In allostasis,” Stuhlberg writes, “healthy systems also crave stability after a change, but the baseline of that stability can be somewhere new: X to Y to Z.”

So how can we learn to accept the changes of technology in a healthy way and deal with our new reality? 

One of Judaism’s oldest technologies to keep us focused on what matters is ritual. Professor Dan Ariely teaches that there is, “An interesting distinction…between habits and rituals. Habits are usually things we don’t think about…we do them in a routinized way, we don’t spend effort, we don’t pay attention. They’re not in our consciousness to the same degree…Rituals are different. Rituals are ways to direct more attention, rather than less attention. Think about the ritual of drinking fancy wine…you take a glass, you swirl it, you look at it in the light, you sip, you smell. That takes much more attention. If you sat next to your laptop and you drank a very nice wine from a very nice glass, but you didn’t pay attention to it, you wouldn’t get the same value and joy and meaning out of it…There are some things you don’t want to do as habits. You want to do [them] as rituals because you want people to pay extra attention.” 

Our phone use is a habit. We can’t wait in line at the grocery store or go to the bathroom or get through a meal without checking our phones. You probably don’t want to know how many times you pick up your phone a day – mine is over 200 – mostly because we’ve lost our ability to be bored, to be idle, to just sit in our thoughts for a moment. But ritual allows us time and space to be idle, to focus on what matters, to reset and recharge. While Judaism offers many built-in rituals, like Shabbat, it also offers a starting point for creativity, to create set-apart, sanctified time for what matters. 

Maybe you don’t want to turn your phone off for 25 hours every week for Shabbat, but you can turn your phone off every Friday evening and sip, savor a glass of wine with your partner. Maybe Saturday morning your family goes for a walk and you all leave your devices at home. Maybe Jewish holidays become a time for long, disconnected meals to focus on what’s in front of us. Or maybe you create rituals that aren’t connected to our heritage, things that your family loves to do. My family loves National Parks and visited Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia this year. Being disconnected amongst the giant sequoias this summer were some of the most restorative and spiritual moments of my year. Whatever helps bring you balance away from screens, turn them into rituals and don’t let them lapse. 

Our task during the High Holy Days is to heed the call of Haggai, and pay attention to our ways; to put our hearts on our paths. To ask ourselves, honestly, “How have we been faring in the digital age, in the age of information, in the age of smartphones, in the dawn of artificial intelligence? Do we have a healthy relationship with technology, with social media? Take a look at your screen time…are you proud of it? And I know you’re with me this evening, but let’s be honest: how many times have you checked your phone during this sermon? 

If you’re anything like me, we have a lot of work to do. But know, there is another world, a world of connection and beauty, a world of savoring moments and milestones, a hidden world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention, whenever we put our phones down and live in the moment. To a year of being present, a year of observing meaningful rituals, a year of quality time with the people that matter most.

Shanah Tova.

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