Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On the Seventh Day G-d Rested

Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, writes on Shabbat:
“Someone offers you a holiday. It will, he says, be an experience of total relaxation. No work, no phones, no faxes, no cars, no shopping, no television, no radio, just perfect quiet and peace. Best of all, there are no bills. The holiday is free.

"There is such a break. It involves a journey, not from one place to another, but from one time zone to another. It is called the Sabbath - the most original contribution of the Bible to civilisation, and still the most sublime…"On the seventh day G-d rested". It is hard for us today to recapture the revolutionary strangeness of this idea…. The ancients believed that we imitate God by exercising power. What was novel about the Sabbath was the idea that we can imitate God by doing nothing, by ceasing, pausing, resting, reflecting and seeing that the world is good.

“The Israelites had been slaves, and the defining feature of slavery is less the physical burden of labour (in a free society there are still workaholics) than the fact that your time is not your own. You are subject to someone else's will. The Sabbath broke that bondage. For one day in seven, no one could be employed. Everyone was master of his or her time. The Sabbath does not in itself create freedom, but it does generate a powerful appetite for it. No one who has experienced the Sabbath is content to remain a slave.

“Today, the battle against slavery has been won in most parts of the world. But liberal democracies have other, subtler pressures of their own. There are times when we work too hard, drive too fast, buy too much, driven by the thousand anxieties of everyday life, some real, others imagined. For me, the Sabbath remains the still point at the centre of a turning world. It is the time when we come together as a family: eating, talking, singing and catching up with one another's company. We stop rushing to make a living, and instead simply live and celebrate life. The Sabbath is a world we enter as equal citizens. The hierarchies of work and wealth are suspended. And as the rhythms of the day take over, I find myself once again recalled to the things that matter and that I sometimes forget in the rush of weekday time - love, listening, the company of family and friends, the glory of the created world. It remains a supreme example of holy time, an oasis of rest in an otherwise restless age.”
(Published in The Times, October 1997)

Efficiency experts like to divide tasks between those that are urgent and those that are important. So much of life’s daily duties revolve around the urgent at the expense of the important. How can we break free? How do we even find the time to reflect upon our tasks and decide what’s truly important? And once we’ve identified those crucial underpinnings of our lives, how do we carve out the time it takes to build and strengthen these? Rabbi Sacks’ answer is Shabbat. On Friday we rush around, actively working to take care of all that urgent flim-flam. Then we light the candles and Shabbat enters, displacing all urgency, leaving our time uncluttered, open for focusing on what’s truly important.

The great renaissance- era scholar, Rabbi Yehudah Löwe, known as “the Maharal,” wrote extensively about Shabbat. He notes that the number seven is intimately bound to many Torah cycles: the number of days in creation of the world, days of the week, the holidays of Sukkot and Passover, the weeks in the Omer cycle, the number of years in the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycles, the number of days required for ritual purification, and more. What is the meaning behind these? Rabbi Löwe explains that the six directions of the three-dimensional world represent the external form of each thing. The central core of this thing is not a dimension, but the essential point from which the six directions spring. Thus, seven represents the spiritual dimension within nature.
The days of the work-week are the external dimensions of time; Shabbat is its essential point, the core from which all time springs. By dedicating Shabbat to what’s truly important we cause a ripple effect, flavoring the external dimension of time as well, so that even when we perforce attend to urgent matters, we maintain our own core for what’s important: “love, listening, the company of family and friends, the glory of the created world.”

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