The Sabbath is a cosmic gift woven into the fabric of creation from the very beginning of time—a gift that we desperately need today.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel revitalized Sabbath practice in American Jewish communities in the twentieth century with the publication of his magisterial little book The Sabbath. Heschel brings unique passion, insight, and poetic imagination to bear on the challenges of contemporary life in order to show us all a way toward recovering this gift.
The gift of Sabbath is all about time. Sabbath reorients us from our addictions with the “things of space”—addictions to our devices, to acquiring and consuming, and to the status we believe those things bring us—and attunes us to “holiness in time.” Heschel calls the Sabbath our “great cathedrals” and “palaces in time,” ushering us into God’s presence and realigning our longings away from the values of the kingdoms of earth and back toward the values of the Kingdom of God. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he says, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”
“Well,” you might be saying, “that sounds lovely on paper, but who has time for that?” As modern people, enslaved to the tyranny of the clock, overwhelmed with responsibilities and obligations that occupy our calendar from our rising to our laying down, practicing Sabbath rest in community might feel quaint if not preposterous—yet another thing we are failing at in life. Rehearsing together the fundamental patterns of creation is as out of touch with the modern world as it could possibly be. Isn’t it?
Perhaps the opposite is true though. Perhaps the way our lives are ordered today and the value systems that have shaped and formed us make Sabbath more relevant and urgent than ever.
Part of Heschel’s project in The Sabbath was to emancipate the Sabbath from the purposeless prohibitions it had been shackled by for generations and to reorient us toward its deeper and more transformational purpose.
The Sabbath is much more than a day to abstain from grocery shopping, checking work email, or mowing the lawn. It is a day to be realigned with the rhythms of creation, to slow down long enough to hear the Spirit’s still small voice calling us home to ourselves, to take stock of our lives and ask life’s essential questions—and to listen carefully enough to hear our heart’s reply. For example:
- “What is all of my striving ultimately for?”
- “When will enough be enough?”
- “What core beliefs are influencing the way I am living, working, or responding to this situation in my life?”
- “What brings me delight? And why am I not choosing to do those things?”
I imagine many readers are, by this point, agreeing with me in principle, and affirm that these things are important, but are noticing internal resistance in the form of the statement: “I do not have time for this in my life right now.”
To this I would respond: Great! You have diagnosed the problem!
The Sabbath is intrinsically disruptive. It is this way because our lives are shaped and controlled by structures, systems, and values that are diametrically opposed to the Sabbath-values of wholeheartedness, gratitude, presence, delight, contentment, and connection. For example, our economy is rooted in the values of unceasing productivity, increasing efficiency, expanding profit margins, and ruthless competition. It achieves its goals by creating blind consumers (us) who work longer hours with less enjoyment in order to acquire more stuff to feel better about our lives in comparison with our neighbors.
If we conform to the system and succeed according to its standards and priorities, our lives are valuable and we belong. But if we cannot conform to this system, either now or at some point in the future—if we have a disability and can’t move fast enough, if we are attracted to the wrong gender, if our skin is the wrong color, if we have the wrong sign planted in our yard, or live on the wrong side of town, or speak with the wrong accent or don’t make enough money, then the system tell us that our lives do not have value and we do not belong.
The Sabbath is a weekly protest against a system and a culture that associate value with productivity and identity with appearance. Sabbath-keeping is apprenticeship in the values of the Kingdom of God while living in the kingdoms of earth.
And so, on the Sabbath, we cease from work to remind ourselves that “I am not what I do.” We cease from buying and consuming in order to remember that “I am not what I have.” And we cease from social media and from conforming to what we think society says we should be to remember that “I am not what people say about me.” These three lies—“I am what I do; I am what I have; I am what people say about me”—are what the late Henri Nouwen called the three lies of our culture. And they are insidious.
In a world shaped by values that undermine the Sabbath at every turn, Sabbath-keeping is a radically counter-cultural practice. It is a weekly act of faith and a weekly act of protest against a system that reduces humans to consumers, neighbors to competitors, and the earth to raw materials, all to be exploited for the self-enrichment of whomever can make their way to the top.
In such a world as this, Heschel asks, “is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath?” To this I would add, is there any spiritual practice that is more transformational and that has been more misunderstood than the Sabbath?
In next week’s post I will offer some practical suggestions for how to incorporate a vibrant and intentional Sabbath practice in your life.
Dr. Travis West is the Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary, where he teaches innovative courses on the Sabbath, Old Testament narratives, and Biblical Hebrew.