Know Comment: The power of Shabbat

We need the wide mental spaces and healing calm created by the Sabbath.

JEWS ATTEND the morning prayer at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year (photo credit: REUTERS)
JEWS ATTEND the morning prayer at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I often tell my secular colleagues that the greatest proof of G-d’s existence is the cellphone.
Only He or She, who created the world 6,000 or 6,000,000 years ago, could have known that one day we would be inundated by 21st century communications technologies.
Only G-d could have known that we would regularly need a day of respite from technologies that beep, buzz, ring, ding, tweet and demand our attentions every minute. Shabbat is the only day of the week that no boss can bark, “I sent you a blog/email/post/text, or a Plurk, Skype, Vimeo, WhatsApp, Yammer, YouTube, or Ziczac message 15 seconds ago! Why haven’t you responded yet? I called you 10 times and left you five voice messages! Are you deaf?” Only Shabbat protects us from the crushing weight and the noisy mental distractions of the modern world. Only Shabbat’s manifold limitations on the self-exploiting machines of industrialized Western civilization allows for the emergence of an intellectual, spiritual and family space that is reflective and uplifting.
This is not to say that Shabbat observance in our day and time is primarily utilitarian. Despite what many people think, Shabbat is not mainly about “resting” or “recharging” one’s batteries so that we can go back “refreshed” to work on Sunday or Monday. Shabbat is not just a certain type of leisure time.
Rather, the Jewish conception of Shabbat is an attempt to teach man the proper balance between creative action (work) and contemplative restraint (passivity); between an obsessive drive to build, achieve and succeed that is the basis of Western civilization, and the ego-nullification and submissiveness of Eastern civilizations (as expressed, for example, in Zen Buddhism). By observing the Sabbath, Jewish tradition teaches a careful oscillation between the two civilizational ideas, fashioning an idea of human creativity that integrates the salient feature of each.
The profound Jerusalem scholar Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Lifshitz has written: “During the week, man creates worlds, as in the West; while on the Sabbath, his creative action gives way to contemplative restraint, as in the East.” And both are necessary. “In the Jewish view, neither achievement nor passive unification with nature is seen as ideal. It is through the kind of creative activity that results from the combination of the two that man achieves great things, in imitation of the Creator. The Sabbath teaches about the rhythm of all true creativity, human and divine.”
Through the Sabbath, man learns the proper balance between “working” and “keeping” the Garden of Eden that is our world.
Thus, the prohibition on doing melacha (certain types of intentional workmanship) that is at the core of Halacha (Jewish law) for Shabbat is primarily spiritual. It is not meant just to institutionalize downtime or to protect workers from the harsh demands of capitalism. It teaches us the basics of Jewish faith. It is theology about the share in Creation assigned to man by the Creator, and about the restraints on man’s narcissism and compulsions that is critical to his well-being and that of the world.
Shabbat is also about dveikut or cleaving to G-d, and by extension also to family and to peoplehood. By imitating G-d’s creation of the world over six days and then His “resting” on the seventh day, man can adhere or cling to a Divine message. That message – the centrality of creative drive circumscribed by moral and spiritual restraints (call it tikkun olam or repair of the world) – is what unifies us as a Jewish civilization and a people.
The society we are creating today in the modern State of Israel is sorely in need of much greater public and private Shabbat observance. Our society is too aggressive and cutthroat, too arrogant and over-achieving, too materialistic and hedonistic, too fiercely ideological and violent.
We need to impose upon ourselves more humility and self-discipline. We need to create psychic vacuums that suspend our struggles and rivalries and allow for joint meditation on our commonalities and values. We need a void where Israeli Jews can come together and search for renewed shared meanings; to discuss, dream and sing together.
We need the wide mental spaces and healing calm created by the Sabbath. We need the elevation and sublimity of the Friday night table. We need the unifying potential embedded in G-d’s great gift of Shabbat.