Parshah Yitro – Multitasking and the fourth commandment
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Parshah Yitro – Multitasking and the fourth commandment

Some years ago a television commercial expressed the frustrations many of us feel, but I am not sure that the solution is viable. The assumptions in that ad also touch on one of the Ten Commandments.

Ellen Goodman, a newspaper columnist, noted that the unreality of the ad is masked by the seemingly simple solution it proposes. In the commercial, a woman is readying herself to leave her children with a sitter on her way to work. You hear the children complain. They would like to go to the beach with their mom instead. So the mother makes a quick decision to take them there. The children are thrilled. We might say here is a real supermom. At the conclusion of the commercial she is at the beach with the children, in her bathing suit, with her sun screen at her side. She is holding her cell phone, allowing her to pursue a career and spend quality time with her children. Ellen Goodman’s column rips apart this seemingly perfect solution. She notes that while the commercial is trying to convince us that cell phones, laptops, faxes, and pagers liberate us so that we can work anywhere, “the dirty little secret is they neglect to mention however that people who can work anywhere end up working everywhere.” Then she brings some additional evidence from The Wall Street Journal, about a wife who drew the line at his husband bringing his laptop to bed. “Work had become the ménage a trois of the plugged in household. Home is not where the heart is, it’s where the satellite office is. Even those of us who aren’t officially telecommuting, are tele-moonlighting… the idea that new communications tools shall set us free is about as rational as the idea that you can conduct serious business with three preschoolers building sand castles around your briefcase.”

The larger issues of how we use our time and how we balance time with our families and time when we work is the subject of one of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. It is true that electronic means of communication were far in the future when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. However the fourth commandment says, “Keep the Shabbat hallowing it, as the Lord your God commanded you, for six days you are to serve and to do all your work but the seventh day is the Shabbat, for the Lord your God. You are not to do any work” (Exodus 20:8-10). One day a week is for rest. It is a day for not mixing work and rest but for a respite from all our work. It is not a time for multitasking, doing work while at leisure. My computer can run Microsoft Word as I type, and in the background my e mail is arriving, filing my inbox. Occasionally my antivirus software is automatically updated and I can listen to my music on iTunes while I type. Such multitasking, however, is anathema to Shabbat rest and spending time with your family. Imagine when you are home and your spouse is talking to you. He/she complains you are not listening because he/she sees you are reading the paper or watching television. Could you deflect any criticism of what you are doing by saying, “Yes, dear, I am listening. I have just accessed you though my multitasking function”? I don’t suggest you try that at home, even if you are a professional multitasker. If you do, you might want to hide behind a chair to avoid an object thrown in your direction.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out many years ago -when computers were the size of a living room and the only one to have a portable phone was Dick Tracy – that, “The solution to mankind’s most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization. But in attaining some degree of independence of it. In regard to external gifts, there is only one proper attitude – to have them and to be able to do without them” (The Sabbath, pp. 28-29).

Yes, I do own a cell phone, and a Palm Pilot. They make my life easier. Six days a week I carry them with me everywhere I go. One day a week I put them down. I want to give my full attention to my family, my community, and the words of our tradition. I know that everyone is not going to observe a full Shabbat. I wonder, however, if we can turn off our cell phones while watching “Avatar,” why can’t we do the same one night a week at dinner with our family? Don’t they deserve as much of our full attention, without any interruption, as the residents of the planet Pandora?

Thinking that work and family time can easily combine makes as much sense as having your hot pastrami sandwich on Wonder Bread. Some things are not meant to mix. One day a week we can enrich ourselves by truly focusing on those around us and the eternal values of Judaism.

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