Shabbat: A Sabbatical in Time (Shabbat Yitro, February 17, 2017 Sermon)
Time is precious. In our fast-paced, calendar-demanding world, time is the one commodity that seems to control us, constrain us, and confine us. At our Selichot service every year before Rosh Hashanah, we read the meditation whose refrain is “I haven’t the time.” At the end of the reading, the author runs out of time. In preparing the 2019 Bar Mitzvah list in December, I programmed my life for another year. Everything I do revolves around our Bar and Bat Mitzvah schedule, my teaching schedule, our holiday and Shabbat schedule. For decades, those events have governed my life even more than the birthdays and births of family members and friends.
We all try to cram as much as we can into a 24-hour day, wishing it were 30 hours long. Sleep suffers. Relationships suffer. Our minds and memories suffer. Our health suffers. And our spiritual wellness suffers. We live in a world of tasks and “to do” lists, always seeing how much more time we can give, until there are no minutes left to pause, breathe, reflect or just “be.”
The Torah begins in Genesis with God setting aside the seventh day of the first week of creation, and making it holy, because GOD stopped working. When I reread Genesis 2:3 recently, I realized that God didn’t give us Shabbat at the beginning of creation. God just created Shabbat after a tough week as Creator for God.
It isn’t until this week in our Torah cycle, in Exodus 20: 8-11, that the connection is made between God’s rest on the seventh day and our need for rest, as well. We are commanded to “remember” the seventh day by keeping it holy. And in case you aren’t sure what that means, the commandment tells you: “six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements—for in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea (and all that is in them) and then rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed and hallowed it.”
We mortals, are given permission to imitate God. We are endowed with one day out of every seven to STOP -to stop working and running and doing… to be… to be holy, as the day itself is holy. And the commandment begins… “Remember,” because we seem so easily distracted and so often forget.
When the Ten Commandments are reiterated again in Deuteronomy 5, many years later, this commandment gets a rewrite. I realize now, that the rewrite comes because we really don’t “get it” the first time. The Deuteronomy version teaches us to “Observe” the Sabbath day and keep it holy, and gives us a NEW reason: because we were slaves in Egypt.
Our ancestors were just like us. Given a suggestion to remember to take time for ourselves, because God took time, didn’t cut it. There was always something to do. So the Torah has to clarify Shabbat for us. You aren’t enslaved anymore! it teaches. Observe the Sabbath. Stop enslaving yourself. Stop enslaving your time.
Stop doing…to just…be.
I read a lot during my sabbatical about the difference between doing and being, and I really am trying to take it to heart. When you take 60 seconds to just “be” in a situation out of your control, you can wait in a line, in the heat, without the same frustration you have when you feel as if you are being robbed of that time, or that someone or something is preventing you from “doing” the thing you seem so driven to do. I am learning to “chill out” more – sixty seconds at a time. We’ll see how long it lasts.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and rabbi, reminded people that Judaism is a religion where time is holy, even more so than space. For millennia, people created sacred spaces to their gods, cathedrals in stone. Heschel encourages us to create cathedrals in time. And Shabbat, is the quintessential cathedral for us as Jews. In this time palace we cease to be a part of the world as it is, and we enter the world as it could and should be.
The rabbis of old used to teach us to consider Shabbat as “a taste of the world-to-come” – “heaven on earth.” We eat, we pray, we love, we pause, we cease to do as we seek to be.
For the agricultural Jew, the Torah also creates a Shabbat for the land, which is called a Shabbaton, a sabbatical. The land is given time to rest and refresh so that the crops will grow in soil that is not depleted of all its nutrients. This awareness of the land’s limits, was crucial in an arid agricultural climate such as Israel. Even the soil needed time to recuperate from “doing” to just “be” once every seven years. A sabbatical.
I have never known what that would be like. I have been working since I was 13 years old and the most consecutive time I have ever taken off in all of those years is three months. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have my soil rest for an entire year. There are times I am envious of the land. You must be, too.
But, I do know that you can’t keep doing and giving and producing and creating, non-stop, without getting depleted. So, my recent five week sabbatical was a welcome respite for my mind, my heart, my soul, and my spirit. I read more books than I have in a very long time, and my mind was clear enough to read a few books at one time, which I haven’t really been able to do in a while.
And each Shabbat was about observing, as well as remembering. I wasn’t working to make Shabbat for others, I was remembering to make Shabbat for myself and my loved ones and friends. Each Shabbat was precious. Each Shabbat was a cathedral in time.
One of my adopted Israeli sisters was in Los Angeles on business while we were there, and she joined our family for Shabbat. We had a wonderful dinner with the children, homemade challah baked by a friend, and Shabbat continued the next day with a long walk that even included a visit to one of our favorite museums. We loved being together. I loved that she could see our grandchildren sparkling with Shabbat. And our mutual mother was thrilled that her children were together thousands of miles from Israel.
When we were cruising French Polynesia the past two weeks, I was a person, not a rabbi, so we didn’t attend the advertised Shabbat service onboard the ship…too stressful for me. I wanted to be anonymous. We did ask for a challah for our table for that night, and they were happy to accommodate us. When the hot, fresh challah came, our new friends, who were having dinner with us, joined us in feeling the special taste of Shabbat. And when the lady at the table next to ours asked if we were eating CHallah bread, I offered her, and her husband, a taste of challah. The taste of challah made the Shabbat special, as did praying on my deck overlooking the open ocean. I wasn’t a leader of worship, I was a child of God, remembering and making holy, as God made holy.
Shabbat is a sabbatical in time. It can nourish and refresh us if we let it. If we let go of “doing” to just “be.” I missed services. I like the structure of remembering in community. Being in temple is so much better than staying home and watching TV, even if you are exhausted. If the service is well done, Shabbat is enhanced by the holiness of time and space. We carve out the time. We chisel Shabbat memories in sacred space. We vow to “be” for 24 hours.
We put down the technology to breathe, to think for ourselves, to connect with real people in real time. We take time to be at peace within our own heads and to open our hearts to whatever emotions have to stay buried so we can get through the week. We remember our loved ones and have a chance to say Mi Shebeirach for the people who need healing. We have space to mourn and to grieve. We have time to love and be loved. Magical and memorable, Shabbat transforms us as it hits the pause button on our busy lives. Shabbat reminds us what is really important amidst the daily clutter on our “to do” lists.
I didn’t take a sabbatical from Shabbat these past few weeks. I took a sabbatical to reconnect with Shabbat, to embrace its peaceful respite and mindful embrace. In remembering and observing, we make our lives holy, we restore ourselves, and we rekindle relationships with others. My sabbatical may be over, but Shabbat is still here. Shabbat beckons us, not because it is commanded, but because it is a gift from God. Accept the gift. Give yourself Shabbat. You deserve a sabbatical in time, not just this week, but every week. Shabbat Shalom.