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From Rags to Riches

Friday, 21 February, 2014 - 10:00 am

Facebook, the social media giant, has inked a deal to purchase Whatsapp, a social media messaging app, for a whopping $19 Billion.  Jan Koum, the Jewish, Ukranian-born CEO of Whatsapp has gone from immigrant living in poverty to Silicon Valley billionaire.  His journey is a remarkable tale of the American dream and the new age of instant wealth.

When a five-year-old company with only 55 employees eclipses the value of venerable Fortune 500 companies such as Sony, we know that we are living in a new era. Some might call it a kind of alternate reality.

It also demonstrates the fierce dependency and profound mania our society has with technology and social media in particular.  Whatsapp has reached 450 million users – without spending a dime on marketing – at nearly triple the rate of Facebook, itself a poster child of the miracles of modernity.

Observers will debate the hefty price tag of this sale. But make no mistake, it is a sign of the society we live in.


The advantages of modern technology are plentiful.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a pioneer of embracing technology as a tool for the divine.  Scientific research and advancement is a gift from G-d. It is our duty to utilize it for the correct purposes.

With this welcoming attitude to technology, we still wonder, “Is too much of a good thing a bad thing?”  Are we becoming too dependent on technology?  How can we balance the benefit of technology with the peril of losing touch with our humanity?


The answer, I believe, lies in this week’s Torah portion. The entirety of the parsha of Vayakhel is dedicated to relating in great detail the construction of the Mishkan, the traveling Sanctuary. The sole exception is two verses at the beginning of the parsha, where the Torah reiterates the command to observe Shabbat (the Sabbath).

Why does the Torah interject the discussion of the Mishkan with a reminder about resting on the Sabbath?


The simple answer is that the Torah is teaching us the rules and regulations of Shabbat. By saying in effect, “You must construct the Mishkan – but not on Shabbat,” the Almighty is characterizing the type of work that is forbidden on Shabbat. In simple terms: G-d rested on Shabbat from creating the world; we must refrain from creative work on Shabbat.  Thus, all tasks required to build the mishkan – a creative process – are prohibited on Shabbat.

Interestingly, the Torah begins its discussion of Shabbat by stating, “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the L-rd.”  G-d has no problem with work during the week. In fact, in a sense, He is advocating for it. (He could have simply started the instructions with, “On the seventh day…”).

This, explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, is itself an instruction. Just as the Mishkan was a vehicle for G-d’s holiness, so is our workweek – codespeak for our engagement in mundane affairs – a Divine undertaking.  This is the critical work of building a home for G-d out of the materials of physical life.

Which leads us to the deeper understanding.

The Torah interrupts the dialogue about the Mishkan to forewarn a potential hazard in our duty to elevate the world around us.  What if we are so engaged with the material world that we become enslaved to it? What if, in our quest to build a “Mishkan” for G-d, the means supplant the end? What if we become so enmeshed in the world that instead of elevating it, our surroundings demote us?


Enter Shabbat. Shabbat is the gift that G-d offers us as a cure.  He realizes that the task of building a home for Him is coupled with a potential hazard.  Shabbat is the antidote to our enslavement to technology.

During the week we honor our parents, study Torah, and donate tzedakah – enhanced by the vehicle of technology.  But on Shabbat we reverse course. We detach ourselves from the world. It’s a time for community and family; prayer and bonding; reflection and rest. This is the real transition from the rags of the world to the riches of priceless peace and meaning.

I’m no Luddite, but I wouldn’t trade my lo-tech Shabbat for anything.  Try it, you might just enjoy the freedom. Your family certainly will.

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