When I learned recently that a major study had found out not taking time to relax on weekends was the major predictor of heart attacks in their subjects, I thought, “Wow. Once again, God’s ways are better than we even knew.” I mean, seriously, it’s a little bit odd when you think about it that kosher laws specifically advise avoiding shellfish and pork, the meats most notably harmful to your health if they’re not cooked properly. And now we learn that keeping the Sabbath is good for you, of all things. Sometimes it’s good not to do a freaking thing but connect with God (as you understand God) and your friends and family – what a concept for those of us with the typical Western industrialized lifestyle.
Of course, when Jesus talked about the Sabbath, he mostly talked about not keeping it – at least not as it was understood by many people at that time. What had begun as a way of joyfully imitating God, who scheduled rest into the supreme act of work (i.e. creating the world as we know it), had become a burden to many. Terrified of doing anything that might count as work, they were suspicious even of God-honoring actions, like healing, on that day. Jesus asked them hard questions, like “What is lawful on the Sabbath – to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” He pointed out that inaction has consequences as much as action does, consequences that may not be in line with the heart of the Creator.
But he also said another surprising thing: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” That is to say, keeping the Sabbath is literally a constraint, but it’s not meant to constrain. Rather than an occasion of anxious rule-keeping, it should be a time of joy, of enjoying the world just as God did after creating it.
Moreover, observing such a day can be a way to experience time itself differently. This isn’t something I learned from experience, sadly, but from a graphic novel a friend gave me called Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. Great book about, and I quote the cover, “yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.” Most of the book is about said troll-fighting, and what it says about Mirka’s complicated relationship with the community of Hereville, but from Page 76 to Page 84, that action-packed narrative stops entirely so Mirka can celebrate Shabbos with her family. “It’s not that Mirka was an especially chassidishe [religiously observant] girl, by Hereville standards,” the narrator explains. “But being raised in Hereville had given Mirka an instinctive knowledge of which things belonged to Shabbos and which where uvdin d’choi [weekday things]. Troll-killing, Mirka understood, was not a Shabbos thing. Once the candles were lit, she would no more have [talked about it] than she would have deliberately sneezed on the khale.”
Well, I’m half-Jewish by birth (a story for another day), but I certainly wasn’t raised in this kind of world. I wonder what it would be like to have my time interrupted by a day that was devoted to rest, praising God, and blessing others. My weekends are usually full of work and play, one intertwined with the other. Sundays are different because I take time out to refresh myself with group worship, and I’m also in the habit of calling my mom on that day, but other than that it’s not much different than any other day off. But there is something in me that longs for that Sabbath experience, a time to put aside the worries and responsibilities of adult life and just connect with God and with people. I long to experience time in a different way sometimes, like the community depicted in Hereville, to leave my weekday worries behind to the extent that they never entered my mind.
I may not observe a regular Sabbath day (yet) but I definitely try to set aside Sabbath moments, so to speak. For the last few years, for instance, I’ve taken Good Friday off of work so I can set it apart to reflect on how, and why, Jesus died. And, on a lighter note, I try to observe Friday nights (ironically, closer to the original Sabbath!) as a night free of work as well. My partner and I put aside the work that follows us home, forget housework, and spend some time just focusing on each other. We often get out of the house to take a walk or visit the art museum in our city, which can help us turn our thoughts to things that are bigger than our everyday worries and stresses.
Taking a real Sabbath is tempting, though. Even though, as Hereville also emphasizes, it takes a lot of work to prepare for a day of true non-work (Cooking extra food! Doing the cleaning early! Pre-setting the table!), the attempt to totally distinguish between work and rest is both a foreign one to me and one that feels inherently sacred. If a basic definition of “holy” is “set apart,” setting apart time to connect fully and purely with God and loved ones is definitely holy. Whether it’s measured in moments or days, I want to strive for that.