I didn’t grow up in a sabbath-observant home. The first time I encountered traditional Shabbat observance was during my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England, when I was about 11 years old. And if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t care much for it.
What especially irked me about Shabbat in those early experiences was what Jewish tradition calls the “fences around the law”, activities that, while technically permitted on Shabbat, are nevertheless considered off-limits, either because they might lead one to inadvertently violate a biblical prohibition, or because they are against the spirit or essence of the Sabbath.
For example, I remember that, during my first summer, the last day of camp was a Sunday. And I, ever the procrastinator, neglected to pack my bags before sundown Friday. But I thought nothing of it, figuring I could just pack up on Saturday afternoon, since there were no structured activities, anyway. But when my counselor came into the bunk and saw me shoving dirty laundry into my duffel, he made me stop. Apparently, it is forbidden to prepare on Shabbat for something that takes place after Shabbat, even if the activity itself would otherwise be permitted on Shabbat. Why? Because preparing for something after Shabbat violates the spirit of the day as a day apart; sacred time, separate from the days that preceded it and distinct from the week that will follow it. In other words, Shabbat is its own thing. Shabbat exists for the sake of Shabbat itself.
That concept is central to the story found toward the end of parashat Sh’lakh Lekha. After the portion’s main narrative, which centers on the ill-fated mission to reconnoiter the Promised Land, the Torah turns to a lesser-known and somewhat strange story:
A man was discovered gathering wood on Shabbat. The Israelites are unsure what to do with him, and even Moses and Aaron are baffled, “ki lo foresh mah ye’aseh lo, for it had not been specified what should be done to him” (Num. 15:34). Presumably, the man was gathering wood for the purposes of kindling a fire, and the Torah specifically forbids making a fire on Shabbat. However, while it may be necessary to gather wood in order to make a fire, the act in and of itself is purely preparatory. Is it forbidden merely to prepare to do something that is forbidden on Shabbat, even before performing the prohibited act itself? What if the wood-gatherer doesn’t even intend to make a fire on Shabbat, but is simply getting ready for the next day? What if he just likes picking up sticks?
Ultimately, God clarifies the law: “mot yumat ha-ish, the man shall surely be put to death” (15:35), which is the same as the punishment for kindling a fire on Shabbat. The sentence is severe, to be sure, but let’s put that aside to note what this passage is really trying to communicate: God regards the act of gathering wood on Shabbat as tantamount to igniting a flame on the seventh day. In other words, merely preparing to perform an act that is forbidden on Shabbat, even if the preparation is intended for doing something after the conclusion of Shabbat, is considered the same as performing the prohibited act itself.
The fact that the Torah equates preparing to do forbidden labor on Shabbat with committing the prohibited deed itself means, from a biblical perspective, that Shabbat must be observed for its own sake. Once Shabbat begins, one must set aside old business, refrain from engaging in any new labor, and even forgo preparing for that which is beyond Shabbat. Put simply, Shabbat must be its own thing; a day apart, distinct, separate, sacred. A day that exists for its own sake.
This way of understanding Shabbat may strike many of us as counter-cultural. As Americans, we are conditioned to denigrate idleness and prize productivity. We tend to think of and justify time we spend not at work – like weekends, holidays, vacations, self-care; even sick days, family leave, and sleep – as means to an end, necessities for optimal productivity. Perhaps this is why we Americans frequently work on weekends and holidays; receive significantly less vacation time, sick days, and paid family leave than do citizens of similar nations; and even often pride ourselves in sleeping as little as possible. We are taught from an early age that our dignity derives from hard work. I know I was. As a result, we wear busy-ness as a badge of honor, boast about how tired we constantly are, and celebrate productivity, professional accomplishment, and material acquisition above all else.
Consequently, we are inclined to understand an institution like Shabbat from the same perspective, arguing that the Torah must mandate a day of rest each week only for the purpose of recharging for the week ahead. Without taking time to recoup our strength, the thinking goes, we risk producing diminishing returns and burning out more quickly. Having a regular day of rest, on the other hand, enables us to work harder during the work week and, moreover, to remain at our labors for more years of our lives.
Explaining Shabbat as a pragmatic strategy for ensuring a healthy and stable workforce is not new. When Roman critics regarded the institution of the Sabbath as an example of Jewish laziness, Philo, the spokesperson of the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, argued that the object of Shabbat was “to give [people] relaxation from continuous and unending toil” in order to “send them out renewed to their old activities. For a breathing spell enables [people] to collect their strength with a stronger force behind them to undertake promptly and patiently each of the tasks set before them.” In other words, Philo defended Shabbat by saying that its purpose was to make a person more productive, to regain strength for the work of the week ahead.
I must admit that I am frequently guilty of thinking about Shabbat in these terms. For example, I once had a girlfriend during my college years who I’ll call Sarah, to protect her identity. Sarah was a real go-getter – smart, ambitious, driven, and incredibly hard-working. Now, by that time in my life, I was shomer Shabbat. Sarah, on the other hand, was decidedly not traditionally observant. Spoiler alert, the relationship didn’t last very long. In any case, I remember one Friday afternoon, as I was busy preparing for Shabbat, Sarah said to me with maximum incredulity, “I really don’t know how you are able to spend a whole day off the grid and away from work.” I replied, “That’s funny. I don’t know how you aren’t able to do it!” My point was that having a dedicated day of rest made me more focused and productive in the week ahead, and I couldn’t understand how she was seemingly able to work nonstop with no breaks. However, it strikes me as I think back on it that both of us were actually thinking about Shabbat from the same perspective, that rest is only valuable as a means of attaining optimal productivity.
To this day, I find that I often explain or justify Shabbat in similar terms. I’m certain I’ve made comparable claims from this very bimah. And just recently, in my letter to the congregation about my upcoming sabbatical, I claimed that Shabbat is intended to be “purposeful and restorative respite,” a time for rest following a period of hard work that exists so that we can return to work with full spiritual, emotional, and physical vigor.
When I wrote those words, I was not being disingenuous. From the moment I first considered taking a sabbatical – which, as the term suggests, is closely related to the concept of Shabbat – I justified it to myself, and presented it to our congregation’s leadership, as an opportunity to disengage from day-to-day responsibilities so I could focus on other work – a book project or two that I had been dreaming about for some time and beginning to work on the advanced degree I will be pursuing part-time over the next few years. Having the spaciousness to engage in these pursuits, I argued, would enable me to be a better rabbi for our congregation when I returned.
However, after a recent conversation with a Christian colleague, I started thinking about my sabbatical in an altogether different way. The other week, I was telling my friend, Rev. Jim Somerville, about my sabbatical plans. After listening to me list all the things I was planning to do, all I was hoping I would accomplish, during this time, he replied with a mix of consternation and compassion: “That all sounds great, Michael. But this is Shabbat we’re talking about. What are you doing for your nefesh?” Rev. Somerville invoked the Hebrew word for soul specifically to remind me that the point of Shabbat is not increased productivity. The point of Shabbat is the soul, reclaiming and nurturing our most essential selves.
Many of us, myself included, have a deeply ingrained, perhaps pathological, need to feel and be recognized as optimally productive, as though our worth depends on our work. From the Torah’s perspective, however, our value as human beings derives not from our productivity but rather from our godly spirit, from the fact that each of us is created in the Divine image. In other words, we are fundamentally worthy. Work does not endow us with dignity; we are inherently equally and infinitely dignified. There is nothing we must do, indeed nothing we can do, to prove or magnify our worth.
Therefore, our tradition insists that Shabbat is not for the purpose of productivity. Rather, quite the contrary, “labor is the means toward an end,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues in The Sabbath, his stirring love letter to Shabbat (Heschel 14). We work for the sake of rest, not the other way around. In Heschel’s words, “the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath” (Heschel 14).
Shabbat, in this sense, is about ceasing our pursuits to remind us that we actually need not pursue; it beckons us to remember who and what we truly are. In Heschel’s words, Shabbat exists in order for us to “abandon our plebeian pursuits and reclaim our authentic state, in which we may partake of a blessedness in which we are what we are, regardless of whether we are learned or not, of whether our career is a success or a failure” (Heschel 30).
Heschel describes this kind of “perfect rest” as “an art,” and I would argue that it is indeed an increasingly lost art.
I can say that, personally, refraining from productive work on Shabbat has grown more challenging over the years. Some of that is invariably due to my chosen profession. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish, and am extremely fulfilled by, the work I do. Getting to be a rabbi is an extraordinary blessing; a great privilege. Yet as the spiritual leader of a congregation, it’s hard to claim that my activities on Shabbat, such as leading services and teaching Torah, while perhaps not technically violating the letter of the law, do not in some way undermine its spirit.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this challenge. Adapting to the moment required the use of technology I would have previously considered to be off-limits, and while I don’t regret how we found ways to safely and meaningfully keep our community connected to each other and God during this difficult time, I have to admit that, once the electronic devices are on and being used for one purpose, I have found it harder and harder to turn them off and avoid using them for other, less sabbath-appropriate, purposes.
I know I’m not alone. As my rabbi and teacher Art Green observed, “all those labor saving devices, all those prepackaged foods and household gadgets that were supposed to save us so much time” seem to have freed us up merely “to work harder than ever, to answer messages ever faster, to squeeze more productivity out of each minute of our lives” (Green, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, 40). With each passing year, it feels as though the pressures on our time, the demand for us to be constantly at work and immediately responsive, the sense that if we are not keeping up we are falling behind, are all growing exponentially. Is it any wonder that burnout has become so pervasive, that our society is in the throes of a widespread mental health crisis? The persistent push to produce is harming us and indeed our entire civilization – mind, body, and soul. We desperately need Shabbat, now more than ever, a radical reclamation of our inherent and equal dignity, a worth that derives not from what we do, or from how much we achieve, but rather from who we fundamentally are.
Can we rediscover the lost art of perfect rest, respite not only from constant toil itself but also from our constant urge to toil? Can we embrace an opportunity not only to stop working but also to stop even preparing for work? Can we reclaim ourselves from a culture that tells us our work determines our worth?
Shabbat is the way, a day in which we not only cease productive labor but also, as we learn from the story of the wood-gatherer in this week’s parashah, cease even laboring to be productive; a day that is not preparation for something else, but rather a day that is sacred simply because it exists, reminding us that we too are sacred simply because we exist.
I may yet do some of the things I had originally envisioned doing on my sabbatical; studying, dreaming, writing. But if I do any of those activities, I will strive to engage in them not because I feel the need to be productive, but rather because they affirm and nourish my spirit. More importantly, I am hopeful that the coming months will be an opportunity for me to learn and relearn the lost art of perfect rest, to rededicate myself to the essence of Shabbat, to embrace Shabbat for Shabbat’s sake.
I am extremely grateful to our holy community for enabling me to receive anew the godly gift of Shabbat, and I am hopeful that, in my taking this time, you will feel inspired and empowered to dedicate whatever time you can for the rejuvenating rest we all need, and that the Source of Life requires.
Wishing you all an extended Shabbat Shalom.