Saturday, March 30, 2013

Become a wise elder — at any age / Shemini

A dear friend told me a few years back that he was in training to become a wise elder. A “wise old man,” he explained, is a Jungian archetype. Near retirement, he told me that at this stage in his life, he felt it appropriate to take on the role of one who offers sage advice and assistance in times of need.

There was a time when elders were held in high esteem and considered not  only dispensers of wisdom, but its very embodiment. Jung wrote:

The afternoon of human life must have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind and the care of our children. This is the obvious purpose of nature. But when this purpose has been attained — and even more than attained — shall the earning of money, the extension of conquests and the expansion of life go steadily on beyond the bounds of all reason and sense?...

In primitive tribes we observe that the old people are almost always the guardians of the mysteries and the laws, and it is in these that the cultural heritage of the tribe is expressed.[1]

(Keep in mind that Jung speaks not of knowledge and information, so readily available to anyone with a connection to the internet, but about wisdom, which entails judgment and comes from experience.)

How does this work in our youth-worshiping culture? Jung said that we find old people trying to compete with young people, so much so that, “…it is almost an ideal for the father to be the brother of his sons, and for the mother if possible to be the younger sister of her daughter.” Consider the incalculable loss when our elders are not able to share their wisdom.

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) considers wisdom from a very different angle. Commenting on the first verse of our parashah, On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and the elders of Israel (Leviticus 9:1), he begins his commentary on parshat Shemini with a midrashic teaching that focuses on the term “call.”

The midrash teaches: “Beloved are the elders, and if they are young, their youth is secondary to them.” Tanchuma adds: “God ages them quickly.” This needs an explanation. R. Akiba had said [earlier in the midrash he is quoting]: “Israel are compared to birds. Just as birds cannot fly without wings, so too Israel cannot exist without their elders.” Moses’ calling the elders was a sign of affection and intimacy; “call” is the term used by the ministering angels [who call to one another]. That is why the midrash mentions here that they sat in a semicircle. The same is hinted at in the verse, Her husband is known in the gates, as he sits with the elders of the land (Proverbs 31:23). What is “the land” doing here? The verse refers to the angels above; among them are those in charge of the lower world, and they are called “elders of the land.” Those above eternally give light to those below.

The Sfat Emet asserts that the qualities of wisdom and leadership are not the exclusive province of the elderly. When younger people possess genuine wisdom and earn the appellation “elder,” and God even gives them “the look.” While the Sfat Emet doesn’t reference it, the Talmud tells the story of a young scholar who attained “the look.” B.Berakhot 27b-28a recounts a disagreement in the Sanhedrin between Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua that reached a boiling point: the infuriated Sages voted to depose Rabban Gamliel because he had treated R. Yehoshua (a wise elder) with disrespect. Needing to fill the void of leadership, they chose R. Eleazar b. Azariah, a young man. R. Eleazar knew he would not occupy the seat of leadership in the Sanhedrin for long because eventually Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua would settle their difference, so he went home to consult his wife. Talmud tells us:

[His wife] said to him: “You have no white hair.” He was eighteen years old that day, and a miracle was wrought for him and eighteen rows of hair [on his beard] turned white. That is why R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: “Behold I am like seventy years old,” and did not say [simply] “seventy years old.”

In other words, R. Eleazar is saying: I only appear to be seventy years old; in reality I am younger. At least in the ancient world, even those who possess great wisdom but not years, are in a better position to convey it if they look the part. The Sfat Emet goes further:

On the verse, Gather seventy men to Me (Numbers 11:16), the midrash notes that “to Me” always refers to things that will last forever. Through the seventy elders below, the Sanhedrin was established above. They forever shine their light below.

The Sanhedrin of scholars, configured in a semicircle, turns out to be but half of the Sanhedrin. The circle is completed by a mirror complement in heaven above. Now we know the source of their wisdom: the divine flow between heaven and earth. When earthly scholars tap into the divine flow — seeing the “big picture” and cognizant of God — they complete the Sanhedrin. Wisdom comes not only from experience, but from connection with the sacred, as well. Those who perceive that everything is interconnected are sensitive to the far-reaching impact of all of our actions and decisions on the world; they have tapped into sacred wisdom. Their wisdom and judgments are invaluable resources for the community.

Often that perspective comes from wise elders who have the perspective of years and experience, and are attuned with the sacred dimension of life. But, as the Sfat Emet reminds us, it can come from the young, as well, and their wisdom should not be ignored due to their youth.

Sfat Emet’s commentary is a splendid reminder of three things:
  • First, we should seek out truly wise people, regardless of age. We should listen to their stories, absorb their wisdom, ask for their help and advice. There are many “wise elders” (of all ages) among us with so much to give.
  • Second, for seniors to be wise elders, they have to choose the obligation. In a society that thinks that the only purpose of the last third of life is to travel and indulge oneself, a society that believes the elderly are worth little and often a burden, it is for elders to reach out and prove otherwise. Seniors might share their wisdom by volunteering, teaching, or mentoring.
  • Third, throughout our lives we are always preparing to become sacred elders. In a wonderful book entitled From Age-ing to Sage-ing Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes “spiritual eldering.” He tells us that there are levels of self-development and spiritual growth possible only after a lifetime of experience. To reach the point where we can “harvest the fruits of a lifetime to sow seeds for the future” we need to see ourselves now — at whatever age we are — as wise elders-in-training. There is no minimum age for harvesting; sowing seeds can be our life’s work.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Sfat Emet

[1] Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 112.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rob Portman's direct line to God / Chol ha-moed Pesach

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced a wholesale reversal in his position on same-sex marriage recently. Only two years ago, he piously maintained that marriage is a “sacred bond between one man and one woman,” God’s definition of marriage. That is, until his son Will came out. Now he sings a very new tune: He’s a dad who loves his son and “wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.” I am delighted by his epiphany but wondering if Portman believes his new position is the one endorsed by God. Here are his words: "The overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker, that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue.” Does Sen. Portman believe that God has had a change of mind? Or has Sen. Portman finally learned how to read Scripture?

Although I am gratified by the direction of Sen. Portman’s change of view, if it is the case that one certainty about God’s will is now replaced by another certainty about God’s will, and Sen. Portman still thinks he’s channeling God, my contempt will know no limit.

The one thing that religious extremists — be they Christian, Muslim, or Jewish — have in common is that they support their bigotries by pointing to Scripture and claiming that their views are God’s will, all encoded in a book of marching orders. The scourge of fundamentalism and reactionary conservatism in our country is dangerous; its foot soldiers audaciously claiming a lock on God.

Torah is our starting point for the conversation about God, one that has ongoing for over three millennia. Our Rabbis participate in the conversation, offering different views and voices. Torah’s vision of a Supernatural Being imposing will and agency, manipulating events on the ground, rewarding and punishing, is not the Rabbis’ experience. For the Rabbis, God has withdrawn into the background of history, seldom intervening but potentially capable of coming forward. Human moral and intellectual agency has moved to center court. For Maimonides, God is pure thought and reason, “the Active Intellect,” which makes the world possible but does not in any way run it. For the Kabbalists, the entire universe is in God and therefore God’s divine energy flows through the universe continuously, enlivening and enlightening all those who become vessels for it. Note what a far distance we have come from the biblical view: when the Kabbalists speak of God as a being, using pronouns like “You” and “He,” and employing verbs like “see”, “hear”, and “love,” this is for them metaphor, a way we embodied humans can more easily speak of our experience of God. The Kabbalists’ view of God is entirely abstract.

People have long known that Torah and Talmud are humanly authored books situated in an historical context, and that they reflect their authors’ experience of, and best understanding of, God. From our vantage point in the 21st century, scientific cosmogony and the laws of physics have given us a far clearer understanding of how the universe operates. This in no way eclipses belief in God, but it motivates us to think more deeply. Scripture contains numerous ancient misconceptions, bigotries, and values we no longer hold. We do no honor to Scripture to read it as a mere rulebook that justifies bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

Scripture must be interpreted. There’s a wonderful poster that hangs on many college dormitory doors. At the top it says, “What Jesus said about homosexuality.” The rest of the poster is blank. I wonder if Sen. Portman has seen that poster. On the other hand, the Bible is very clear about eating pork and shellfish, keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest, and stoning rebellious adolescents. Does Sen. Portman conform to the rules associated with these passages? Clearly he chooses to interpret these passages in a manner that exempts him from compliance.

And indeed, all who take Scripture seriously interpret it. We need to search sacred texts for meaning consistent with what we know. But even more: Ben Bag Bag’s deeply profound teaching in Pirke Avot is now more relevant than ever before; he said this about sacred Scripture: "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it." (PA 5:22) Ben Bag Bag is telling us: Torah must flow through us, and start us on a path of searching for answers to difficult and troubling questions. Torah is about the process of finding answers, and it is about our sacred relationships, with God, with other people, and with the world we inhabit.

We don’t speak for God, but through the process of Torah we allow God to speak to us. It takes humility and compassion to listen.

This week we celebrate Passover. Midrash Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (piska 7:2) builds on Ben Bag Bag’s teaching, making a subtle but startling claim about how we speak about God. It begins with a comment on a verse describing the tenth plague:

And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:29).

The midrash wonders how anyone could know the exact, precise moment of midnight, and concludes only God can. (Smart phones that pull the time off satellites keyed to atomic clocks were not facets of the ancient world.) The midrash tells us:

R. Aha began his discourse by citing the verse, I am the Lord, that is My name. I will not yield My glory to another, nor My renown to idols (Isaiah 42:8). I am the Lord, that is My name means, according to R. Aha, that the Holy One said: I am the Lord, that is My name, the name which Adam called Me; that is My name, the name I have consented to be called by…

This is a profound insight. Let’s dissect it. For the Rabbis, God’s Name (the 4-letter tetragrammaton) has special resonance. The Sages believe that God’s Name itself is invested with power and is so closely identified with God that it cannot be separated from God’s existence, essence, and being. R. Aha brings a verse from Isaiah that in context says: “I am Adonai. Adonai is My name. I will not yield My power, presence or reputation to any other gods or idols.” In the context of the Passover story, this makes perfect sense: the Exodus is the story of a showdown between Adonai and Pharaoh, the god of the Egyptians. God handily and publicly proves his superior might, again and again and again, bringing plagues upon Egypt, splitting the Reed Sea for the Israelites, and closing it again over Pharaoh’s army to assure the Israelites’ safety. In the story of the Exodus, it is Adonai, and not Pharaoh, who possesses the power.

R. Aha, however, tells us that “Adonai” is a name Adam chose and therefore God accepted it. That Adam — who could also be a stand-in for humanity — chose the name suggests that Adam (i.e. human beings) conceived the universe in a certain way, and named their understanding of their experience “God.” Whether people call that experience Adonai or God or Lord or Allah, or any other name that Adams throughout history have chosen, it is a reflection of people’s experience, not a literal truth to be trumpeted from the hilltops and in the halls of Congress.

When Isaiah has God say, I will not yield My glory to another, nor My renown to idols, Isaiah is telling us that God does not want other deities given credit for what God does, but in the hands of R. Aha, the latter half of Isaiah 42:8 suggests that it is Adam — again, the stand-in for people — who makes of his God-ideas idols. Claiming absolute truth and a direct line to God’s will is pure arrogance, and a naked attempt at grabbing power to control other people.

Truth is far more subtle and nuanced than the black-and-white formulation fundamentalists and religious extremists offer us so “lovingly.” Truth is the search for wisdom, and wisdom doesn’t come in a verse or a bottle. Wisdom comes from living, searching, and loving, and it requires humility and compassion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 18, 2013

The burnt offering: sacrifice, altruism, and evolution / Tzav

Charles Darwin’s writings extend far beyond his classic, On the Origin of Species. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (published in 1872, 13 years later), Darwin explored the evolution of human expressions of emotion. He concluded that all mammals suffer, and they all feel empathy when another suffers, which they express in patterns of tactile contact. He had already argued in previous books that communities populated by empathetic members could more successfully raise offspring to the age of reproduction, a pillar of evolutionary theory.

We’re reading Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus reads like a pocket guide for priests. Not much plot, no character development, lots of rules. There are eight animal sacrifices and they fall into three categories, based upon who is permitted to eat them: First are those that are eaten by the person who brings it: the Shelamin, Ma’aser, Todah, and Pesach (peace, or well-being offering, tithe, thanksgiving, and paschal offering). Second are those that are eaten by the priests: The Chatat and Asham and B’chor (the guilt offering, sin offering, and firstborn). Finally, there is the Olah (burnt offering), which is, as its name suggests, entirely burned on the altar. Its smoke rises to heaven. This one is for God, and God alone.

To many people, the details of the sacrifices are tediously boring. If you’re still with me at this point, I hope you’re wondering what Charles Darwin’s observations of human expressions of emotion have to do with the sacrifices mandated in Leviticus. It’s coming.

Our parashah describes several of these sacrifices, introducing each section with the words, “This is the Torah (law) of the…” and then details where the sacrifice is to be slaughtered, what should be done with the blood, how various internal organs are to be disbursed, and so on. In the case of the olah, however, Torah says only this:

God spoke to Moses saying, “Command Aaron and his sons saying: ‘This is the Torah (law) of the olah (burnt offering); it is the olah which shall burn upon the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn in it. (Leviticus 6:2)

Now, I’m not a huge fan of animal sacrifice. (We have a dairy kosher kitchen in our home.) I take comfort in knowing that no less than Rambam (Moses Maimonides) believed that the purpose of animal sacrifices was to wean the Israelites off idolatry; having served its purpose, animal sacrifice is no longer necessary. Isaac Abarbanel said that God prescribed animal sacrifices for Israel specifically to wean them off the idolatrous sacrificial practices of Egypt. Rashi goes further. He says God didn’t particularly desire animal sacrifice at all; it was Israel that wanted it. How does Rashi know this? From a verse in the Haftarah for Shabbat Vayikra: I have not burdened you with a meal-offering, nor wearied you with frankincense (Isaiah 43:23).

If Rambam, Abarbanel, and Rashi — who are certainly no lightweights — are correct, why would the olah be burned entirely? God doesn’t need it. It’s a waste of meat that could nourish priests or Israelites, and more, it’s a waste of a life.

Perhaps the meaning and value of the olah is not in the details of where and how it is sacrificed, but that it is a total sacrifice. Giving up something entirely, without any reward or recompense, is difficult. Many of us would consider it a loss. The olah trains the Israelites in altruism, the disinterested and selfless concern for the wellbeing of others: people learn to surrender to God something of great monetary value and practical significance.

Philosophers are divided concerning whether we humans can ever truly exhibit altruism. After all, could we not say that the gratification that comes of knowing I have done a good thing is in itself an intrinsic reward? That’s not an argument I wish to enter. I’m content with a definition of altruism that includes doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. 
Charles Darwin, 1809-1882

Finally, we return to Charles Darwin. He observed that mammals naturally empathize with the suffering of others and respond accordingly, and that this quality is crucial to the successful rearing of offspring to the age of reproduction. In other words, we are evolved to exhibit altruism.

Neurologists concur. In 2006 using magnetic resonance imagining, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, showed that acts of altruism light up the subgenual cortex and septal region of our brain, both of which are connected with social attachment. Subsequent studies have confirmed these findings and expanded on them. It turns out that we are hard-wired for altruism. Neurologists have identified in us what they term “mirror neurons” which are the biological source of human empathy. (Robert Krulwich explains mirror neurons nicely for NOVA here.) It is our capacity for empathy that makes altruism possible and indeed a basic human behavior. Darwin’s thinking has yet again been confirmed.

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) recounts two stories of altruism, both in tractate Ta’anit 1:4. The context is a discussion of whether and when prayer brings rain in a time of drought; these stories illustrate the Rabbis’ contention that the prayer of a simple person brings rain. In the first story, R. Abbahu learns through a dream that although his prayers do not bring rain, when a certain donkey driver prays for rain, the rains fall. Upon questioning him, R. Abbahu learns that on one occasion, the donkey driver’s client was a woman weeping for her imprisoned husband. The donkey driver sold his donkey — sacrificing his livelihood — and gave her the money to use to free her husband. In the second story, the protagonist is Pentakaka, so named because every day he committed five sins connected with the brothel he ran. Pentakaka was unquestionably a reprobate. When he encountered a woman weeping for her imprisoned husband, he sold his “bed and cover” and gave her the proceeds to use to redeem her husband (and not without irony) so she could avoid becoming a prostitute to raise the funds needed. Like the donkey driver, Pentakaka sacrificed his livelihood, an act of altruism. The Rabbis are not telling us that we, too, should sacrifice our very livelihoods when a stranger in need enters our lives, but these stories convey deep admiration for genuine altruism and the power of such righteousness to repair lives.

The term olah means “ascend” and connotes the smoke of the sacrifice that ascends to heaven. An altruistic act ascends straight to heaven, which is to say that it is sacred and repairs the world. The olah offered daily in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) and later in the Mikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) trained people to act according to the better side of their nature: with compassion and generosity. Rather than worrying with psychologists and philosophers whether we are truly capable of altruism, or whether deriving satisfaction from doing the right thing obviates the altruistic quality of the good we do, perhaps we should take comfort from biologists and neurologists in knowing we are evolved and wired for it. And then take that knowledge and run with it.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Self-sacrifice of another sort / Vayikra

Humanitarian and political activist Dr. Thomas Dooley said, "Dedicate some of your life to others. Your dedication will not be a sacrifice. It will be an exhilarating experience because it is an intense effort applied toward a meaningful end." Dooley had in mind public service, which is highly admirable, and I agree that it is not a sacrifice. But at the moment, I’m pondering his words as they apply to human relationships: Is what we invest in a relationship — and particularly in a deeply meaningful relationship — a sacrifice? And if so, what is the nature of the sacrifice required?

Dr. Thomas Dooley

The Book of Leviticus is all about sacrifices. Parshat Vayikra opens with instructions concerning the olah, the only sacrificial offering that is not eaten by either priest or Israelite, but rather is burned entirely (with the exception of the skin) on the altar. It is dedicated in its entirety to God’s “pleasure” and “benefit.”

If your offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall make your offering a male without blemish. You shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before Adonai. You shall lay a hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in your behalf, in expiation for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before Adonai, and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar, which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus 1:3-5)

Not only is the olah the first offering discussed in Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), but it is also the first offered on occasions when a variety of sacrifices are being offered at the same time. A commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which addresses the relationship of the person who brings the sacrifice to God who receives it, got me thinking about the olah in connection with personal relationships, as well as our relationships with God. Here’s the commentary:

“The fact that the burnt offering usually appears first in a series of sacrifices suggests that its purpose may be to open up communication with the Divine; if so, then that goal would be accomplished by manifesting generosity — giving part of one’s wealth to God.” (p. 572)

How do we open up communication — initiate meaningful relationship — with God and with other people? Another way to ask the question, using Martin Buber’s idiom, is: How do we move beyond an I-It relationship, and enter into an I-Thou relationship?

Beginning with our relationships with other people: People continually parade through our lives (as we do through the lives of others), but every once in a while, someone enters our lives who is different — someone to whom we are drawn to create an opening that turns our I-It encounters into I-Thou encounters. We want to go past conversations about politics, philosophy, children, culture, and all the other things that we are delighted to discuss. We want to touch souls.

Does that require a sacrifice? I think it does. To reach another’s soul, we have to open ours. We bring our olah to the altar. Our olah takes the form of entrusting this person with something that makes us feel vulnerable, something deeply personal and meaningful, and knowing that the outcome of that trust is that we are going to be changed. From the other side, when someone reaches out to us to create such an opening and we want to accept their olah, we must suspend judgment, which is to say, sacrifice the stereotypes and pre-conceived notions we harbor to make ourselves feel safe, and be open. From this side, as well, we will be changed.

This opening is, as the passage from A Women’s Commentary suggests, a generous gift. It is the gift of the self. What is more, Torah requires the olah to be tamim — pure and without blemish. How does this translate into our efforts to open up deep, meaningful, and transformative communication with another person? Certainly we are not without blemish (no person is) but our sacrifice — our gift of self — can be tamim. When we offer our true selves, unvarnished and detached from the projection of an image of how we would like others to see us, we are offering an olah that is tamim.

The sacrificial cult is long gone and has been replaced by prayer. In fact, shacharit and minchah, the morning, and afternoon services, are direct replacements for the morning tamid and afternoon minchah offerings. The word for prayer in Hebrew, l’hitpalel, is a reflexive term meaning “to judge or examine oneself.” This suggests that to a very great degree, praying is introspective. (It’s difficult to square this with the high degree of petitionary prayer found in the siddur, but that’s a subject for a separate discussion.) Can prayer that is l’hitpalel — introspective self-examination — provide a way to “[open] up communication with the Divine”? The genuine spiritual connection requires sacrifice: it requires us to look deep within and reveal to God-within, our whole and true selves. Introspection of this sort is difficult and makes us feel vulnerable. When it is honest, it is tamim. If the divine in us can accept our sacrifice — that is to say, if we can accept ourselves with love and with gentleness, we will emerge changed, transformed.
Charles Du Bos

The French essayist Charles Du Bos (1882-1939) wrote in his book Approximations (published 1922): "...premier tressaillement vital; surtout il s'agit à tout moment de sacrifier ce que nous sommes à ce que nous pouvons devenir." "The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become." A worthy exchange indeed!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, March 3, 2013

You think it's so easy to rest? / Vayakhel-Pikudei

Vayakhel begins on a confusing note:

Now Moses assembled the entire community of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. For six days work is to be done, but on the seventh day, it will be holy for you, a Sabbath of complete rest for the Lord; all who do work on it shall be put to death. Do not kindle any fire throughout your settlements on the day of the Sabbath. (Exodus 35:1-3)

Anything here strike you as peculiar? More than one commentator has pointed out that Moses tells the Israelites, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do…” and then proceeds with the mitzvah of shabbat, whose primary observance is not doing: shabbat menuchah (sabbath rest) is the crux of keeping shabbat. We are we commanded to not do. (This reminds me of the irony of the commandment to remember to wipe out the name of Amalek.)

It’s no longer news that we live in a 24/7 world, continuously plugged in via cell phones, iPads, and laptops. The boundary between work and home life is obscured by our connectivity, and email follows us on our smart phones. I recently heard about a group of 20-something friends who meet regularly at a restaurant for dinner. They put their cell phones in the middle of the table and the first to touch his or her phone picks up the tab for everyone at the table. I wondered: why not just put the phone away for two hours? The answer is obvious: if they feel it vibrate, it’s hard to resist checking for a call or a text. How many of us can’t unplug?

We are workaholics. We’re often exhausted, but we are imbued with the sense that all our emails, texts, postings, writings, reports, reviews and all the rest are critically important.

Are all the things we do of earth-shattering importance? The answer is both yes and no. Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke (19th century) told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha'olam / For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "Ani eifer v'afar / I am but dust and ashes." Rabbi Simcha Bunem’s prescription for emotional balance works well for our efforts to achieve balance between work and rest: In the one pocket is the message that says that our work is very important and we do make a difference in the world. In the other pocket is a message that says the world will keep spinning if we let email and projects sit for a day, and take time away from our gadgets to spend with our loved ones, with God, and with our own thoughts.

Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited.” Imagination is rooted in the soul and rest nourishes the soul. Every athlete knows that you have to take rest days to allow your muscles — broken down by strenuous exercise — to rebuild. The soul is no different. Perhaps that is what the Rabbis had in mind when they taught that we are given a neshamah yeteirah / an additional soul on shabbat (B.Beitzah 16a, B.Ta’anit 27b). It’s tough to focus on that part of our being during the week; we need to take time off to appreciate our innermost selves.

The Sages taught that there are five different names for the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida. Rav Sadya Gaon, living in the tenth century, understood this at face value: there are five different terms that refer to the soul. But the Kabbalists understood the five terms to allude to five levels of self-awareness that a person can achieve, the highest being yechida (union, or communion). This is the highest level of self-awareness. To achieve that we need to turn off the gadgets and white noise and dig deep within.

The Kiddush we recite on Friday evening tells us that Shabbat is a commemoration of creation, which culminated with the first shabbat (Genesis chapter 1), and the Exodus from slavery in Egypt where we had no rest. The Kiddush for Shabbat morning includes these words from Torah:

Remember to make the day of Shabbat holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God; on it you shall not do any work — you, your son and your daughter, your male and female servant, your cattle, or the stranger who is among you — for in six days Adonai made the heavens, the earth and the sea, and all they contain, and rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

In the ancient world, Greeks and Romans scoffed at Jews for being lazy and slothful because their religion decreed that they were forbidden from working and required to rest. But note that the prohibition is not for us alone; it’s for everyone: children, servants, strangers in our midst, and even animals! What a gloriously civilized idea: no one should be a slave; everyone is entitled to rest and to renew themselves. What a wonderful expression of respect for human and animal life this is!

Shabbat can be magic time when we attune ourselves to its rhythm. Shabbat happens according to the clock of the world, not our mechanical timepieces. The sun sets; the stars appear. Rather than creating and changing the world, we step back and appreciate the world and our blessings. We make time for self-review: what are we doing with our time, with our lives, with our energy? We take time to think our own thoughts, unprompted by TV, newspapers, and commentators. We can enjoy the unencumbered company of family and friends, with no other agenda beyond love and joy. Our souls hunger for this.

Do we really need to be commanded to rest? The answer to the irony that what we are commanded to do is not do is that it’s very difficult for us to slow down, let alone stop and rest. We don’t know how to do it. What is more, as Judith Shulevit, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, suggests, imposing some structure helps:

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.[1]

There is a nice forum in The Chronicle for HigherEducation in which a number of university professors — Jewish and Christian — share their struggles and views on the notion of a day of rest.

There are many ways to create shabbat for yourself and your family and friends. Here are more approaches. Find what works for you.
The internet is rife with commentaries that can spark great table conversation.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel likened shabbat to a cathedral in time, an indestructible Holy of Holies. As much as our actions can be sacred, so too our rest.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman