Oftentimes, we think of ecology as just referring to the world of nature. Yet, the dictionary suggests ecology concerns “the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment.” Trying to make a positive difference in this totality as an individual can seem just too much. One can feel so helpless and insignificant in the midst of global crises such as the destruction and deterioration of the natural environment; world hunger; killing and unrest among nations and neighborhoods. Recycling, voting, responsible consumerism, picking up trash, trying to practice “right relationship,” all seem to be positive actions, the right thing to do. Yet, do these actions stir the heart and soul, or fill the spirit? Sometimes, sometimes not.
Maybe what there is to do, at times, is to not do. Maybe what there is to do is to slow down and walk lightly on the Earth, even if just for a moment. Might it be possible to take a day from time to time, to rest and reconnect with all of creation, its wonders, and its creatures? Work and do in the mundane world for, let’s say, six days, but take a seventh day to make a place for the Sacred? This is what the Jewish Sabbath or Shabbat is all about.
From an outsider’s perspective, the Jewish Sabbath may appear somber and restrictive, a list of do’s and don’ts. Yet, in the Hebrew Bible, writings of the ancient rabbis, and Jewish literature through the present age, Sabbath is extolled as being a sublime gift from God.
Shabbat begins shortly before sunset on Friday night and is introduced with the lighting of the Sabbath candles. The meal is usually simple to avoid a lot of preparation for an end of the workday meal. There are prayers, blessings over the wine and bread. With special care, the home becomes like a miniature sanctuary.
Saturday morning is traditionally a time for prayer and study. The midday meal may include guests and like the first meal there are prayers and blessings, and perhaps songs are sung after the meal. The afternoon is dedicated to relaxing pursuits, perhaps walks, reading, study, companionship with family and friends, even napping. The mood throughout should be one of enjoyment. Shabbat traditionally ends, however, bitter sweetly on Saturday night with the Havdalah, meaning “distinction,” ceremony. In addition to well wishes for the coming week, it is said some of the customs are to comfort the soul that grieves when Sabbath ends.
The ritual meals, wine, singing, company of family, guests, friends, perhaps of the congregational community if one ventures out to the synagogue, demonstrate that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observes in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for the Modern Man, “the Sabbath is a day of the soul as well as of the body; comfort and pleasure are an integral part of the Sabbath observance. [People] in [their] entirety, [with] all [of their] faculties must share its blessing.” According to Heschel,
Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
In Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings she writes, “In an ideal world, we might be aware of the potential for holiness at every moment of every day.” Yet in “the real world, the business of life—the busy-ness of life—often seems to distract us from our most profound connections.” Shabbat returns “a sense of balance,” helps us to “regain our perspective,” it is “an opportunity for pause . . . to step back from our occupation with the world and to appreciate instead our very being-in-the-world.” In the language of Heschel,
He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil . . . say farewell to manual work. . . . Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing the profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.
Refraining from labor and resting on the Sabbath isn’t for the sake of preparing for the tasks and productivity of the other six days of the week, “for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor,” Heschel writes. “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. . . . It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”
Try as we might, it is difficult to maintain a sense of the sacred and the holy throughout the “busy-ness” of the week. We get caught up in “the tyranny of things.” As stated by Heschel,
Technical civilization is the product of labor, of man’s exertion of power for the sake of gain, for the sake of producing goods. It begins when man, dissatisfied with what is available in nature, becomes engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance his safety and to increase his comfort. . . . In spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.
The intent, as Heschel writes, is that “on the seventh day [humanity] has no right to tamper with God’s world, to change the state of physical things. It is a day of rest for [humanity] and animal alike.”
It would not be a great sacrifice to consider setting aside a day each week to refrain from doing chores. Yet, what if this day of rest also included refraining from turning on the lights, using the telephone, the computer, listening to recorded music, cooking, or driving? There would be no “work” or spending of money, but there would be no recreational shopping or going out for entertainment either.
Without the telephone and email, perhaps I would seek the companionship of those under my own roof. Without a car, perhaps I would stroll in my own neighborhood, invite a neighbor to the Sabbath table along the way, meet new neighbors, and really take in and notice my immediate surroundings. Look at the sky and out across the ocean instead of the pavement before and underneath me. Perhaps without recorded music, among family and friends, we would make our own “joyful noise.” Perhaps without electricity and other distractions, I would feel free to linger and meditate upon the beauty of the Shabbat candles, watching them until they burned out by themselves.
What a luxury it would be to read all that you have been waiting to read. Not what you felt you should read, but what you want to read.
I wonder if over time, these practices and peace of mind would spill over into the other six days of the week. Perhaps refraining from the use of certain modern conveniences, letting the Earth rest, wouldn’t seem to be so difficult throughout the week.
And what if I wasn’t the only one to let the Earth rest this one day a week? What if besides me and practicing Jews, others joined us who were interested in “keeping” and “guarding” the Sabbath and all of creation? Consider the impact on the use of electricity and fossil fuel, the reduction of pollutants and emissions into the air. The ingathering of love, joy, charity, and peace might even overflow into the world.
I conclude with these words adapted from Heschel:
The Sabbath, thus is more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is a profound conscious harmony of [humankind] and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above. All that is divine in the world is brought into union. . . . This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe.
May it be so.
Adapted from the UUs for Jewish Awareness 2008 Jerry Davidoff Award winning sermon, delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, July 15, 2007. (The full sermon is available at uuja.org.)