As you and I prepare for a period of sabbatical this July through September, I’d like us to consider what things will make for a real rest for our tired bodies, minds, souls, and spirits. Sabbath and sabbatical come from the same Hebrew word, and they both are about integrating the rhythms of rest and work into our lives so that they’re in balance. In this new series of columns on Sabbath, we explore the gift of God in the practices of letting-go and resting in God and Creation.
Many religious people grew up with a notion that Sabbath was primarily about one day a week when you weren’t allowed to work or do certain things, and required to attend church and do certain other things. As a result, until relatively recently, Sabbath as a life-giving practice was a foreign concept, obscured by all the Do’s and Don’ts.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Sabbath IS a command in the Bible—the longest one of the Ten Commandments: “8 Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20:8-11).
But how do we practice Sabbath without it becoming legalistic and connected with guilt for failing to practice it, or not practicing it perfectly? How can Sabbath be liberating, as Exodus intends it and as households practice it in Judaism?
I think it helps to start with what the Hebrew word for Sabbath, “Shabbat,” means: “to stop.” To stop worrying, working, desiring, cleaning, scrolling—the constant motion that everyone, whether high or low achiever, can fall prey to as we live our lives and try to make a living or achieve goals, or to numb ourselves to meaninglessness, or pain, or boredom.
In her book “Invitations from God,” Adele Ahlberg Calhoun observes: “We get more kudos for being insanely busy, overextended and on the edge of exhaustive collapse than we ever get for taking a much-needed rest.”
To make room and time in our lives for activities that replenish our bodies, minds, souls and spirits, we first of all have to stop. The space that simply stopping opens up may be unnerving, at first; if we are used to being in constant motion and thought, anxiety and guilt may be the first things we feel when we stop. But it gets better, and we are headed for what’s intended to be our natural state
This does not look the same for everybody. What each of us ceases doing whenever we stop to take Sabbath time varies with the kinds of activity that keep us too busy and going well past the point of exhaustion. The late Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “If you work with your mind, sabbath with your hands; and if you work with your hands, sabbath with your mind.”
This highlights an important point: Sabbath is not just about “doing nothing.” But the Exodus quote above reminds us that God intended Sabbath as a gift—a celebration of the fact that they were no longer slaves in Egypt.
As Adele Calhoun writes, “If you aren’t resting, you are a slave to something. Slaves have no Sabbath, no rest, no time off, no six-day work week, no reprieve….You may not feel like a ‘slave,’ per se. But if you compulsively overwork—if you cannot stop, cannot take a vacation, cannot turn off the email—you aren’t free. You are a slave with an income.”
I am well aware that the Church has too often substituted work for trust in God, self-giving love and service, and healthy community. We’ll take these up in subsequent columns and ask, “What would life-giving Sabbath practice look like in our church?”