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Give Me Some Rest

People often say they are spiritual and not religious. “Rabbi, I am not really into organized religion. I am spiritual.” Sometimes I respond, “You do recognize that you are talking to one of the organizers.” Most of the time, I offer an understanding nod and ask them to tell me more. They suggest that they find spirituality and meaning in nature. They believe in the Ten Commandments. By this they mean the ethical precepts such as, “You shall not murder. You shall not steal.”

I do not have the heart to remind them about the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Lord your God: you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20)

In the early 1970’s Princeton University conducted a study of its seminary students. All the students were of course familiar with the story from Christian scriptures about the Good Samaritan from which the law protecting someone who stops to help another derives. This tale emphasizes that it is often ordinary people, not devout or holy people, who help those in need.

All the students were told that they had to travel to another campus building where they would partner with a fellow student on a sermon. They then divided the group into three. The first group was told that they had little time and they should rush across campus. The second was told that although they were not rushed, they needed to arrive promptly. The third was told that they could take their time and there was no sense of urgency regarding their arrival.

On their way to the other building, all the students confronted a stranger who appeared desperate and in need. Here is what the study revealed. 63% of those who did not feel rushed stopped to help. 45% of the participants who felt slightly rushed stopped. And only 10% of those students who believed that they were running late offered help to the stranger.

And here is the lesson. There is an ethical dimension to feeling rested. When one feels hurried there feels little time to do anything else. There is little room for others.

The tradition teaches that Shabbat is an expression of our freedom from slavery. Time is a gift given to free people. Judaism sanctifies time. It values time because it restores the soul. Shabbat is a vacation for the soul.

In New York everything seems rushed. Time is not something to hold sacred. Instead, it is something to conquer. “Did you take the LIE or the Northern State?” Time is not restorative. Instead, it is something wasted. “Can you believe the airlines? My flight was delayed for two hours.” We can never rest.

Our cellphones interrupt our meals. They intrude in our time with family. How many conversations were recently interrupted by someone who looked up from their phone’s notification and blurted out, “We shot that Chinese balloon down!” People interrupt others midsentence to share news items. Does it really matter when we find out such news?

We can never relax.

Judith Shulevitz writes in her breathtaking book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time:
In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart. The Sabbath prefers natural to artificial light. If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far. If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face. If we wish to bend the world to our will, it would insist that we forgo the vast majority of the devices that extend our reach and multiply our efficacy.
Perhaps the message, and import, of Shabbat is not so much about its seeming organization but instead about making room for others.

There is only one way to discover this. It is about feeling rested.

Put the cellphone down if not for the day, then at least for the day’s appointed meal.

Become attuned to the soul’s need for rest.

Breathe in the gift Shabbat provides.

I am grateful to the inspiration discovered for this article from Ezra Klein Interviews Judith Shulevitz on The Ezra Klein Show podcast.