Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Getting the Sabbath all wrong

I have friends from all kinds of religions who agree that the Sabbath is an amazing gift. A chance to escape from the daily grind and renew. In the Torah, Shabbat is mentioned twice:

In Exodus 20:11, after Fourth Commandment is first instituted, G-d explains, "because for six days, the L-rd made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the L-rd blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it." By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, we remember and acknowledge that G-d is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. We also emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as G-d did. If G-d's work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?

In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we must remember on Shabbat: "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd, your G-d brought you forth from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the L-rd your G-d commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."


Because Shabbat rest was mentioned in connection with the building of the Temple, the Rabbis concluded that anything one would have to do to build a temple is forbidden on Shabbat. They came up with 39 tasks or chores, and from that list, a host of other prohibitions based on the assumption that anything even remotely like anything on that list is also forbidden. And that's where the problem starts.

In the world in which the Temple was constructed, and in the world in which the Rabbis first derived the list of forbidden tasks, life was hard and physical. There was no such thing as a weekend or a 5 day work week. Every act, from cooking to treating the sick to traveling required real physical labor, either from a person or an animal or both.

Now jump forward a few thousand years, or even a few hundred. We travel with no physical effort from us or animals. We light up a room or cook a meal with a flick of a switch...no wood to gather, fires to start, or massive pots to carry. We can cook in seconds on a paper towel, or illuminate our homes with a single remote.

We work, but by and large, our work is conducted in offices and cubicles. We are a sedentary society, much to the concern of bathroom scales and doctors. We have moved from a world where physical labor 7 days a week was the norm, to one in which many people are lucky if they get 20 minutes of exercise a week.

Our work is constrained by rules...what we wear, whether we may use a telephone or chat with a friend, where we sit, how long we have to eat, and when, if it all, we may go outside during the workday. We live by the clock, arriving at leaving based on times set by someone other than ourselves. Our work is the work of sitting, thinking and rules.

Blessed Shabbat! A gift from G-d to free us from our work for one day out of seven.

Except by following the rules detailed for a different place and time and lifestyle by Rabbis who could not have envisioned the slavery of the cubicle, or the lack of physical activity we now endure, we completely miss the point!

Rest, real rest, and a separation from the workday week requires that we use our bodies. Get out of the walls which enclose us and run and swim and dance and walk in nature. Do the things our daily slavery prohibits like painting, writing poetry, creating a scrapbook or making music. Traveling with our families to museums and parks and the ocean to experience that blessed gift of freedom Shabbat was meant to be.

Thanking G-d for our world, for our freedoms, for one chance in seven to break free from uncomfortable clothes and clocks and go out and experience the world created for us.

In this world so far from that of ancient Israel or 19th century Europe, we need a new and realistic definition of work...and rest. We need Shabbat, as we always have. We just need it for different reasons.

2 comments:

marye said...

This is profound. Thank you for writing it!

Quiet Paths said...

This is a very thought-filled essay, which reminded me of so many things I would like to remember but somehow keep forgetting.