UNPLUG: Spiritual Lessons From a Lost Cell Phone

I had totally given up, accepting that this loss was beyond my control. Yet there it was -- my phone -- disconnected, out of juice, sitting there in the middle of Torah.
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Last June, during a week that was "over the top" even for me, I lost it. The staff was undergoing changes; there seemed to be wedding or a funeral at every turn. The late spring bar and bat mitzvahs were coming to a crescendo, people close to me were seriously ill or dying, and I had rented my house for the upcoming month away and had not even begun to empty the closets. Finally, I lost it...

I lost my cell phone.

We may have difficulty processing the big, important losses in our lives, but all of us can relate to the anguish and despair of losing our phone. The loss dawned slowly on a Monday evening, just as I returned from a trip to Palm Springs via the Jewish Home, where my uncle was very ill, to race over to the synagogue for our annual board meeting. At one point during the meeting, I dug around in my purse for the phone, just to make sure that it was turned off. Hmm. It wasn't there. No worries; I must have left it in the car or at home. I didn't think about it until the next morning, when I tried to call in on the way to work to say that I would be 10 minutes late, only to be told by the Bluetooth in my car: "The phone is not linked." Right. It must be in the house, hiding under some papers. Upon returning home, I called from the landline. Again. And again. Despite the imperious tone of my Bluetooth I persisted in calling the cell phone from the house while straining to hear a signal in the car, any small chirp. No luck. Straight to voicemail.

That night, I obsessively searched for the phone, certain that it must be in the car, stranded and out of juice. I slipped my fingers into the crevasses of the car where my phone loves to hide. Nope -- not under the seat, or in the tiny space between, where only a runaway phone can fit. How about the trunk? I pulled it apart, filling the driveway with my stuff. Many missing items, but no phone.

By the next day, I was feeling an intense sensation of disorientation and loss. Why would I care so much about a small object that could be replaced, even if the price was steep? Why such pain? I felt as if a body part were missing. Depression was sinking in. I slowly realized that all of the pictures from Passover with my adorable 6-year-old grandson dressed up as Moses were gone, never uploaded because I didn't know how. All of my phone numbers. The Gmail at my fingertips. My ability to turn my car into a mobile office via Bluetooth. My constant lifeline to the world had been severed.

By Wednesday, I was frantic. I called Verizon to check on the last phone call made. It was from the Jewish Home. Oh no, I thought, I could have dropped it in the parking lot before getting into the car. That's a public space. I may have to ya-ush the phone.

Ya-ush is a Talmudic term specifically applied to lost objects. The sages who wrote the Talmud in the early years of the second century understood about losing things and were very detailed in their laws of loss and return. To ya-ush means to give up an object, to let it go, either because the object cannot be properly identified, or because it has been lost in a heavily trafficked public space where anyone can find it. Losing $10 on a public subway is a definite ya-ush. Who would the finder return the money to? Losing a cell phone that has my picture on the front but no number to call, in a public parking lot, is not as clear. Time is also a factor. How long does one search for a phone? How long does one wait before abandoning all hope?

At that point, I realized that it was not the cell phone that I was mourning, but my uncle Norman, who was in the process of dying. How long does one wait before abandoning all hope? My last visit to the Jewish Home, where I made the final phone call, was to convince my aunt to put my uncle in hospice care, but she was unwilling to give up hope. I began to realize that my obsession with the phone was really a pretext, a metaphor for the larger question that plagues all of us in times of illness and loss. The question for all of us, as we struggle through life's challenges, is simply this: How can we continue to hope, but still acknowledge that in reality, some things are out of our control? When do we hold on and make every effort possible, and when do we release and let go?

People are not lost objects. We do not ya-ush, or give up on, our loved ones, but continue to hope and pray for miracles until the last breath. But when do we acknowledge that some things are just simply out of our control?

On Thursday morning I called my aunt right after Talmud class from the office phone; she had agreed to put Norman in hospice. I knew that I would not be able to reach her for several hours as I drove to Santa Monica to do some errands -- obviously, I had no cell phone -- and I did not want to disconnect.

There are many levels of communication in this world, and sometimes the loss of an external device enables us to tune in on a deeper level. Messages are transmitted in other forms, often with a cosmic sense of humor. As I stopped for a red light, I turned my head to the right and saw the sign. In huge black letters it read "R.I.P.," with a tiny scrawl, "Malibu Lagoon," etched below. The message was for me. "Baruch Dayan Ha'emet," I said. Blessed is the True Judge. That is the formula to be said upon hearing of a death. God is in control of timing; we are not. When I arrived at my friend's house, I made the call. "Your uncle passed away about 20 minutes ago," the nurse told me. "Thank you," I said. "I know. I got the message."

I also got the message that it was time to let the cell phone go. That evening, after multiple "one last" attempts, I called Verizon to disconnect the phone. I "ya-ushed" it. It was out of my control.

Friday passed in a tumult of family connections. By the time I stood at my Shabbat table to light candles, I really had let the phone go. I gave thanks, as I always do, for the blessings of my life, and said special prayers for my uncle, whose funeral I would lead on Monday. It was time to turn the page, and I was at peace. I welcomed the angels of Shabbat.

The next morning I got up, as I always do, at 7 a.m. to prepare for my Torah study class. It is my favorite moment of the week, as I sit in the quiet stillness of a Shabbat morning and envelop myself with words of Torah. Coffee cup in hand, I comb the commentaries for new insights and inspirations that I will later share with the group.

I keep a copy of Etz Chaim, the book-bound Torah that we study from on Saturday mornings, along with various Torah commentaries, in a cabinet in my living room that I call the "ark." It is blue, with two magen Davids on the doors, and my favorite Torah study books are behind those doors. I only open them to study on Shabbat. I opened the blue doors and fished around for Etz Chaim, which I always wedge between the shelves because it is outsized. I sat down and opened the book, and there it was: The Torah was holding my cell phone.

I sat there, stunned. I had totally given up, accepting that this loss was beyond my control. Yet there it was -- my phone -- disconnected, out of juice, sitting there in the middle of Torah. In my frantic rushing before the annual meeting, I must have searched for an appropriate Torah quote and closed the book with the phone inside. I had been running so fast all week that I literally did not -- could not -- see. The phone had been a few feet away from me the entire time.

And what was the text message that this sacred text was sending to me via my lost cell phone? I quickly scanned the page, and there it was, nestled in Deuteronomy:

Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, as the Lord you God has commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all Your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord Your God; you shall not do any work...

What else would a cell phone want to tell you? Turn me off on Shabbat! You, and your household, and all of your workers. Unplug the phone.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the spiritual leader of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. She can be reached at rabbi@mjcs.org. The above was excerpted from her 2012/5773 Rosh Hashonah sermon. The National Day of Unplugging is March 1-2 from sundown to sundown.

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