Rabbi Lea Mühlstein – 4 May 2018
Three Lessons from Shabbat for Life
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we read: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a Sabbath of the Eternal One throughout your settlements. (Lev. 23:3)”. The great poet and figurehead of cultural Zionism, Achad Ha’am once said: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” In that vein, let me suggests three lessons that we shold learn from Shabbat for life:
1. Productivity is important but rest is sacred.
The Jewish tradition holds God as the ultimate role model. Just like God is seen as the creator, human beings as made in the image of God are to be creators. We should be productive and thus our tradition teaches “say little and do much.” Or, in another place in the Ethics of our Ancestors (Pirkei Avot): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).
But while productivity is held in high regards – it is the time of rest that our tradition considers to be a sacred time. Just like God rested after 6 days of work, so we too are instructed to take at least one day of rest per week.
The authors of the Bible understood something which organizational psychology is confirming in scientific studies today: “We actually get stupider when we work too much,” says executive coach Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., author of the book “Bankable Leadership.” Eurich says working fewer hours and taking more breaks and occasional vacations can help us become much more productive.
In fact, working more doesn’t have the positive effect on productivity you might expect. Overtime only works in short bursts, and when sustained, does not increase productivity and may actually hamper it.
So, the first lesson we can learn from Shabbat is that it is important to rest and take a break, as it says in the words that we will sing before kiddush (Exodus 31:17), “uvayom hashvi’i shavat vayinafash” — on the seventh day God paused and caught a breath.
2. The value of taking time to restore our souls
According to our Jewish commentators, the value of Shabbat is not just to provide a day of rest. It isn’t just about ceasing work but also about actively doing something. The medieval commentator Rashi translated vayinafash to mean “God rested.” But then he explains the meaning of that rest. According to Rashi: “God restored God’s own soul and breath by taking a calming break from the burden of the labour.” By using this anthropomorphism, Rashi invites us to imagine a God with a soul, a God with needs, a God who could be, as it were, burdened. And just like God, we human beings oftentimes feel burdened.
So the second lesson we can learn from Shabbat is the value of taking time to restore our souls. Each of us will find their very own perfect way to restore their soul – spending time with the people we love, being outdoors, doing exercise, reading an interesting book, retail therapy – whatever it might be, Shabbat teaches us that it is a sacred act to take time to care for our souls. And what is most important, Shabbat teaches that we should do so often (at least once a week) and regularly (every week).
3. Grant others what we ourselves require
What is truly revolutionary about the instructions to keep Shabbat is that Shabbat is to be a day of rest for everyone, not just for the master but also the servant and even our animals. My colleague and teacher, Rabbi David Wilfond, would offer a beautiful teaching at every Havdallah ceremony. At the end of Shabbat, when we mark the transition from Shabbat to the profane, ordinary week we perform a small ritual called Havdallah – it involves the lighting of a candle, normally six wicks plaited together, the recitation of the blessings over wine and over pleasing spices, the nice smell of which is supposed to comfort us as we will have to return to everyday life, and then the blessing over the candle before the final blessing of separation and the extinguishing of the candle in the wine. It is customary for people to hold up their hands to the flame, turning their palms and folding in their fingers. Rabbi Wilfond always asked us to pay attention to what happened to our fingers – as we held them up straight, they were all of different length, but as we folded them inward toward the palm, each finger would suddenly look the same length – try it for yourself. “It is like that with the blessings granted to human beings,” he would teach. “In the ordinary world, blessings are distributed unevenly but Shabbat is there to remind us that world could be different, it could be a more equal place. And as we look at our fingers moving from inequality to equality and back again, Shabbat calls out to us to remember for the rest of the week that it is our responsibility to take this message into the world, to do our part in ensuring that every human being can feel equally blessed.”
So Shabbat truly teaches us the what it means to be a human being – it calls upon us to look after our bodies and souls and reminds us that what we ourselves need others need as well; that human beings all share dreams and hopes and that if we can all work towards that goal, the world will truly be a better place.
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