Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sabbath World

I recently finished reading Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz. I had read so many good reviews of this book that I was a little unprepared for how scholarly it was. Surely a book that got that much popular press would be an easy read, I thought naively. It took me three months to finish the book because of the time necessary to read and process all that Shulevitz discusses from the Biblical and rabbinic history of the Sabbath through blue laws, Industrial Revolution Sunday Schools and the lack of and need for a space apart in modern time.

I'm still processing all that I read, but I want to share a part of the book that I found particularly meaningful.

"As God creates things, he moves from the lowest (the creatures of the sea) to the highest (humans, made in God's image). As [God] ekes out the unites of time, [God] also ascents. Each day has more acts of creation than the previous one, and each is deemed to be good, but still, the stakes get higher each time. On day six, God creates man and woman, and that, [God] says, observing [the creation] with satisfaction, is "very good." At long last, we get to day seven. We reach the end of the week.

Whereupon God rests. It seems an odd thing to do. As endings go, it's pretty muffled...

When P [the priestly writer of the first creation account] had God withdrawing to the Sabbath, he must have imagined God entering this most sacred of all spaces [the middle of the Temple, the holy of holies]. Which makes the ending suitably grand, God enters his palace and ascends his throne. The medieval Jewish liturgists adored this image; they called the Sabbath "God's Coronation"...

By stopping work on the [Sabbath], we imitate God when he stopped working on the world. We too enter the Temple. This image allows the rabbis, in the centuries after the Romans burned and looted the Jewish people's most sacred space, to erect the Sabbath in its place. It is another of the ironies of the rabbinic Sabbath that it replaced a structure with a holy hole in its middle, for the holiness of the Sabbath lies in its being a not-doing in a not-place."

(Shulevitz, Judith. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. Random House. New York, NY, 2010. pp. 66-69)


Not-doing in a not-place. We have so little of that these days. Someone almost always knows where you are and what you're doing. There's so much constant activity that to stop seems a guilty pleasure. ("I turned off my phone for 3 hours yesterday!")

We often forget that, through Christ, we are made co-creators with God. As an active part of creation, we are called to be participants in the shaping of God's work on earth, which God can do with or without us. However, God constantly invites us to be a part of that work.

And part of that work is rest. Shulevitz's point above is that humans aren't the pinnacle of creation, the Sabbath is. A time of holy rest and holy remembering, of awe in the work that has happened and a hope in the work that is yet to be- this is what the Sabbath is for.

Yet we often find ourselves too busy for that kind of reflection, that kind of work stoppage. Our lives have become a kind of industrial production of rapid activities and chores, day after day. It's easy to mistake busy-ness for business and importance. And we're entering a season of intense busy-ness that will be lamented in the same breath as issued invitations, shared schedules and laments over lack of time.

We can choose rest. It's right there. But we must remember to do it. We must decide to do it. We must want to do it.

Shulevitz says,
"Why did God stop, anyway? In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (the Vilna Gaon) ventured this explanation: God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful only once we stop creating it and start remembering why it was worth creating in the first place... We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember." (217)

What we do, frantically and frenetically, won't matter without reflection, without enjoyment, without remembering how it came about. The stories last. The moments last. The dinner gets eaten. The toy breaks. Batteries wear out and don't get replaced. But the memory remains.

We still retain, in our bones, the memory of the Sabbath. And we long for it. Let us seek it, so that we may enjoy it. So that we may be found by it and overcome by the glory and holiness of rest.


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