by Claudia Horwitz, March 2004
Two weeks ago I was blessed to take part in a unique gathering. Twelve soulful leaders came together to discuss a newly forming network of coaches who will support community-based work. But for some reason, it was hard for me to focus on the conversation, hard to appreciate all of the great minds and spirits seated around me, hard to feel comfortable in my own skin. By the second day of our meeting, a Saturday, I realized why. I was hopelessly tired—tired of groups, tired of myself, tired of thinking, tired of sitting. Then I remembered simultaneously that (1) I had only been at home for one weekend since Memorial Day and (2) it was Shabbat.
Now, this was an interesting thing to notice, particularly since my mother recently chastised me for letting my connections to Judaism slip. You are doing faith-based work, she said, and yet you neglect the faith you grew up with. She has a point. My estrangement from Judaism is too complicated to get into here. But I can say that if I were going to pick one way to reengage with my tradition ( and believe me, I know it doesn’t quite work this way, this picking and choosing, but right now it seems to be the best I can do) I would choose Shabbat.
Shabbat is the period of rest and prayer, lasting from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday that religious Jews observe. Traditional Jews abstain from any labor, the use of electricity, and engaging in commerce. Growing up, I just didn’t get it. For Jews, it is the most important holiday, more important than Yom Kippur—the solemn Day of Atonement when we fast for 24 hours and reconcile the truth about our lives with God; more important than Passover—the time when we recount the story of our Exodus from Egypt. But how could this be, I wondered? How could this one 24-hour period, which came like clock work every seven days, be so important? It was like Christians deciding they were going to celebrate Christmas every Tuesday or something. (I was a teenager when these confusions were drifting in and out of my mind; it would be a while before I discovered that Christians have their own Sabbath.)We always celebrated Shabbat as a family, in large part because it was important to my mother.
We had a nice dinner that began with the blessings over the bread, the candles, the wine. My mom would say a short prayer out loud, usually having to do with family or a specific wish for someone. We were allowed out on Friday nights (after much cajoling) though missing dinner was not an option. And, Saturdays were for us what they are for a lot of people in this country: a day of errands and shopping, getting things done around the house, spending time with friends. Besides being a weekend, it didn’t feel particularly special and it definitely didn’t feel prayerful.
Except at Camp Harlam, a Jewish camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania that I attended as a teenager. Shabbat at Camp Harlam was a transcendent experience. It began Friday afternoon when all normal activity stopped and everyone made their way back to their bunks to get ready. Then, all couple hundred of us, campers and counselors, would gather, dressed in white, at the bottom of the hill. Together we paraded up to the outdoor chapel at the top of the hill. There, overlooking the mountains and the setting sun, we welcomed the Sabbath with prayer, ritual, and song. I can recall that distinctive feeling, all too rare in my childhood and even now, that I was close enough to touch God, that all of us sitting there were profoundly connected to one another, not necessarily by our faith, but by our joy. After the service, we feasted on fried chicken (a rare treat) and spent many more hours singing. On Saturday morning there was another service, this time in the woods, a day of rest and play and then Havdalah, the evening service which separates Shabbat from the rest of the week.
When my camp years came to a close, I forgot about keeping Shabbat. I waitressed throughout college and that meant I was usually working either Friday or Saturday nights, or both. The rest of the weekend I did what most college students do: catch up on school work, sleep a little longer, and party. I went to synagogue very occasionally throughout my twenties, and only for major holidays.
Then, during the summer of 1998 I got a whole new perspective on the holiday. It was my second summer working on E Pluribus Unum, a 3-week residential program in which 60 high school seniors (Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant) examine faith, social justice, and the common good. We had just finished a long staff meeting one Friday afternoon, two days before the students were to arrive. I was sitting in my room, catching my breath and contemplating the weeks ahead. I was already feeling a bit drained and nervous. Jason, a rabbinical student who would become a good friend and colleague, wandered into my room. Like me, he was a bit frazzled, though like usual, in good spirits. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied, “I just need Shabbat.” He hesitated. “I think you need Shabbat, too.” he added.
This caught me off guard. What did it mean to “need” Shabbat? Over the next couple of years, Jason taught me about this meant, both through his words and his actions. I learned that Shabbat is not just a period of rest, though that is an important aspect of it. It is a chance for Jews to experience the world as God intended, to live as if the work of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world is already finished. For 24 hours, one could live as if the world was perfect, taking time to renew and celebrate relationships with God, family and self. I was enthralled by this possibility, and a bit skeptical of it. With so much work left to be done, how could we justify such a lengthy, structured and regular break? Of course, a saner person than I might ask: How can we not?
The other night I was riding home from a meeting with Mel, my favorite Baptist minister. We were discussing the irony of how rabbis and ministers are always working on the Sabbath, and how he now takes every Wednesday as a day for prayer. I was anticipating the weekend ahead, the amount of work and travel that lay behind and before me, and lamenting about my somewhat desperate need for rest. I started thinking about Shabbat, what it really meant to keep it holy, as the Ten Commandments instruct. I was conscious of my reluctance to suddenly starting to observe a holiday without a greater connection to the tradition as a whole.
In the middle of these thoughts, Mel said, “Everybody needs rest. Even Jesus, well, he was always off looking for a retreat, a place to rest.” That’s right, I thought, and immediately recalled one of my favorite passages in the Christian Bible. It is the time Jesus spends in the garden of Gethsemane with three of his disciples, not long before his crucifixion. He knows the end is near and really, he just needs a little down time with God. So he asks the disciples to keep watch while he prays alone. Only unfortunately, they fall asleep and he has to wake them up, not once but three times. Perhaps this was my problem. Maybe I was too worried about falling asleep at the wrong moment, stopping to rest just when someone needed me the most.
Curious, I went back to the Book of Matthew and saw what I hadn’t noticed before. Just before the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:1 we learn that, “seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.” In Matthew 13:1-2 “…Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there.” And yet again, in Matthew 15:30, “And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed…” Well, there is was. Jesus certainly did seem to be continually searching a rest from the never-ending work of healing and teaching. Unfortunately, he was so in demand that he could never really get a break.
Lying on my floor, drinking in the quiet and reading Matthew again this weekend, I was reminded that there is always more work to be done in the world. And there is always the need for rest. I’m slowly beginning to grasp more fully the importance of Shabbat, not just for Jews, but for all people. Why shouldn’t there be one day a week—for everyone—during which we unplug from life’s all-too-consuming demands, to enjoy life as if we were already living in the Kingdom of God, what Jews might call “the world to come.” With all the conditioning to constantly do, what would it mean to truly embrace Shabbat and give myself permission, for a full 24 hours, to live as if the just and perfect world I so greatly crave was already a reality?