A Sabbath From and a Sabbath For

September 16, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

Remember the Sabbath Day, when we kept it sort of holy? I do. We called the Sabbath "Sunday," and I called it boring. We went to church in the morning, had brunch as a family (eating what my parents called "Jewish soul food," which dad picked up at the deli in Stamford), and hung around the house the rest of the day. Everything was closed. Although my siblings and I watched Saturday morning cartoons at my house, I don't remember us watching TV on Sundays unless dad was watching football. It never occurred to me until adulthood that my day of boredom was my parent's day of rest from feeling obligated to entertain us and chauffeur us around. My parents' unconcerned response to my complaints of boredom was, "Find something to do." That directive, so irritating at the time, sowed the seeds for my spiritual practice of contemplative prayer and study. Today I'm grateful for those boring Sundays. Today I cherish the silence, quiet and peace of the Sabbath spirit whenever and wherever I find it. Tomorrow at sundown is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the birthday of humanity. The Sabbath has been called the Jewish people's gift to humanity. The concept of the Sabbath is introduced during Moses' interview with God at Mount Sinai, during the giving of the Ten Commandments.

This is what God reportedly says, "Remember the Sabbath day, to hallow it. For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for YWHW your God: you are not to make any kind of work, not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, not your servant, nor your maid, nor your beast, nor your sojourner that is within your gates. For in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore YWHW gave the Sabbath day his blessing, and he hallowed it." (Translated by Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

So the Sabbath isn't just about relaxing. It's actually about establishing an ethical society, a just society. Not only do you not work, you give your servants and animals a day off. I'll be quoting a lot from Abraham Joshua Heschel's beautiful book, "The Sabbath" this morning. Here is the first quote I want to share with you: on the Sabbath, Heschel writes, we must "say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without [our] help. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth. On the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul." (Heschel, p 13)

The Sabbath is a way for humankind to break our obsession with material existence - "the things of space." We labor/work for things of space - to fill our lives with things we can see, touch, hear, smell, enjoy on the material plane. But Heschel says that what God does through the creation of the Sabbath is to render a holiness in time. It is a surprising departure from "accustomed religious thinking" that God did not make a sacred place after the creation of heaven and earth, but rather a sacred time. This is what we try to capture in this church at 10 am on Sunday mornings. A sense of sacred time. "Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time." This theological idea of time has served the Jews well through their history of persecution. A temple can be destroyed and a people dispersed. But a Sabbath day cannot be burned, smashed or shattered. Heschel writes that "Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. . . the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals. . . The seventh day is a palace in time which we build."

But the rabbis warn us not to misunderstand the reason for building this palace in time. We shouldn't do it so that we can get stronger for tomorrow's workday - you know, to rest up for Tuesday through Saturday - but for the sake of creation itself. That's a mystical concept that is very difficult for me to understand, but my best attempt is to say that Sabbath is like a free will offering, or a love offering that we make of our time. It is our attempt to honor creation by living in a completely non-aggressive way with it for one 24-hour period every seven days.

Maybe a metaphor will help. The Bible refers to the Sabbath as a bride whom we welcome as the bridegroom welcomes his beloved. (Today we could say, "As a groom welcomes his groom, or as a bride welcomes her bride. – the gender doesn't matter.) Just yesterday afternoon I stood right down there with a handsome groom and watched a splendid bride come up the aisle. It was a gorgeous day and, wow, was it dramatic when the back vestibule doors opened and she appeared, all backlit, on her father's arm. Meredith is an amazing woman - a teacher who has recently spent time researching education in El Salvador, and she also happens to be gorgeous and look a lot like the movie actress Cate Blanchett. I admire her inner and outer beauty, and as often happens to me at weddings, I got choked up when she appeared. It is a powerful moment. And that is how we are supposed to welcome the Sabbath. With that sense of enchantment and reverence for life's beauty. And life loves us back, too.

To "hallow" the Sabbath day, to sanctify it, is stated in the Book of Exodus as the Hebrew "le-kadesh" - the same term used in reference to two people becoming betrothed. But Heschel says, "[humanity's] relation to the spirit is not one-sided; there is a reciprocity between [humanity] and spirit. . . At the beginning of time there was a longing, the longing of the Sabbath for man." Not only do we humans yearn for transcendence, the Divine reaches for us with deep desire. This is a central Jewish idea, the mutual need between God and humanity, the intimacy of the relationship between creator and created.

For orthodox Jews, welcoming and honoring the Sabbath means doing no work at all. None. No driving a car, or answering a phone, or turning on a light, or cooking. Does this seem like punishment? It is not meant to be. Instead, it is meant to be a radical return to being rather than doing. Here is some interesting news. Just recently, in June of 2012, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, a college of conservative rabbis, published an 86-page report calling conservative Jews to refrain from using computers, cell phones and e-readers on Shabbat. You may think, well, they're conservative, no surprise. But this same group of rabbis also informed their constituents of their support of same-sex marriage. So it's not like they're not open to evolving their positions. The decision on electronic devices, the assembly said, was ‘countercultural.' And here's what they wrote, ‘This is a countercultural finding because the constant use of electronics is extremely seductive to our generation,' the rabbis said. ‘In the face of this great desire to ‘stay connected' we often forget the cost of losing the precious hours of quiet that Shabbat offers to those who cherish her.' (Ari Goldman, June 05, 2012, The Jewish Week) (Notice the language of "cherishing her.")

A decade ago when I last preached on this topic, the Sabbath renewal movement in Judaism was focused on economic justice: how our culture's addiction to overwork was unethical because it committed time-theft against workers, their children and our communities. Today, there is a tremendous emphasis on refraining from using technology that has snuck into our lives and taken so much of our time and attention. There is no question that any serious consideration of a Sabbath day today has to include our personal electronic devices. 66% of Americans polled recently described themselves as being "addicted to the Internet." The vast majority of professional women surveyed by a top fashion magazine confessed to reaching for their PDAs or smart phones first thing upon waking up in the morning. Technology is neither moral nor immoral in and of itself. It is how these inventions begin to define our time, and thus define our lives, that should concern us.

For people who love their work, this is especially complicated. I find it very easy to advocate for an eight-hour day, and the six day week as a general justice issue. I understand that many people fear to take a day off because they can't afford it, or they are being pressured by a company or organizational culture that rewards bad boundaries or workaholism, or because they have unfair expectations placed on them, or because they may be reported to INS by an employer who knows they are undocumented and can exploit them because of their vulnerable immigration status. In those cases, yes! One day off in seven for everyone! We need it, children and families need it, and communities need it.

But there are others who find great joy and meaning in their work, and whose work is also their community. Then there are the un- or under-employed who would love nothing more than the opportunity to do a full day's work, which grants dignity and identity as well as a wage. It seems cruel to someone who is unemployed to even talk about a day off when their life feels like an endless procession of unwanted days off. This is why the Sabbath has to be understood as a time set apart not just from employment, but from labor. For someone without a job, that might mean that the Sabbath is for surrounding him or herself with supportive friends, to share a meal, to pray together, to play music, to tell stories. For the person who loves their work and derives great meaning from it, the Sabbath may be a time for remembering that no matter how much one loves his profession, he should not fall into the trap of believing that it is his work that makes him worth knowing or worth loving.

For all people, a Sabbath can break the bondage of habitual thought and practice. The rest of the week it is easy to react, to live on auto-pilot emotionally, spiritually and physically. The news causes our rage to flare. Family concerns circle each other in our brain like children playing an endless, noisy game of tag. Loneliness beats its incessant, deep drum in our hearts, trying to persuade us that no one notices, no one cares, we are invisible and unloved. The Sabbath, the palace in time that we build and enter for the sake of creation itself, interrupts those regular rhythms and plays a different music. It is - or it could be - a banquet that God sets before us that many have chosen to pass by, preferring to fill their plates at the buffet of chaos, overwork, consumerism and diversion. "The Sabbath, what a ridiculous commandment! So glad we've gotten over that! Everything's open, it's so convenient, and we don't have to stop life and lose that day every week." I ask you, for your children and grand-children's sake, for your friends' sake, for the sake of creation, and for God's sake, to consider the possibility that the observance of a regular Sabbath may be what starts life - not stops it - and what restores the other six days of the week to you in a peaceful, grateful and healthier way.

No one can or should dictate what the conditions of a Sabbath observance might be for you. But as a suggestion, you may choose to include in that day only activities that are life-giving, that give you an opportunity to practice the lost arts of peace and quiet (and yes, boredom), and that include the isolated, lonely, or alone in your plans. Make it a day or time when you can cultivate the seeds of eternity planted in the soul. And when you have established your Sabbath practice and begun to feel the results in your life, tell everyone you know. And in that way, we take back time that we have mindlessly thrown away, or that has been stolen from us.

L'chaim. To life. L'shanah tovah. Happy new year.