Shab­batismorethantak­ing abreak­fromabusy­week


IN 1844 the Amer­i­can writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was re­lax­ing at a clear­ing in the woods near Con­cord Mas­sachusetts at a place called Sleepy Hol­low. He recorded in his note­book his ex­pe­ri­ence of ut­ter still­ness and tran­quil­lity: “Sun­shine glim­mers through shadow, and shadow ef­faces sun­shine, imag­in­ing that pleas­ant mood of mind where gaiety and pen­sive­ness in­ter­min­gle.” He felt a slight breeze — “the gen­tlest sigh imag­in­able, yet with a spir­i­tual po­tency, in­so­much that it seemed to pen­e­trate, with its mild ethe­real cool­ness, through the out­ward clay, and breathe upon the spirit it­self, which shiv­ers with gen­tle de­light”.

But sud­denly his peace is vi­o­lently dis­turbed: “But, Hark! There is the whis­tle of the lo­co­mo­tive — the long shriek, harsh above all other harsh­ness, for the space of a mile can­not mol­lify it into har­mony. It tells a story of busy men, cit­i­zens from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a coun­try vil­lage — men of busi­ness — in short, of all un­quiet­ness; and no won­der that it gives such a star­tling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slum­ber­ous peace.”

All I need to do is re­place the steam lo­co­mo­tive with the in­ter­net and I can eas­ily put my­self in Hawthorne’s shoes. I, too, ex­pe­ri­ence mo­ments of ex­quis­ite tran­quil­lity, only to be in­truded upon by the in­ces­sant clam­our of a tech­no­log­i­cally driven world. The con­trast be­tween si­lence and noise is most acutely felt at the thresh­old be­tween Shab­bat and the week. There is an in­de­scrib­able plea­sure that comes with “pow­er­ing off” all my elec­tronic de­vices at the onset of Shab­bat, putting me in a dif­fer­ent frame of mind for the next 24 hours. That peace­ful frame of mind evap­o­rates af­ter hav­dalah when I “power on” again and dozens of emails, texts and mes­sages flood back in, vy­ing for my at­ten­tion.

How­ever, a closer read­ing of Hawthorne re­veals that he is not just con­trast­ing soli­tude with noise, but more im­por­tantly he is dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween “be­com­ing” and “be­ing”.

The noisy men from the city spilling out of the belch­ing lo­co­mo­tive rep­re­sent a world of as­pi­ra­tion, yearn­ing and striv­ing. In other words; a world of in­ter­minable “be­com­ing”. Hawthorne, perched on the hill in per­fect still­ness, rep­re­sents the state of “be­ing”. He has no needs or de­sires. He is not try­ing to get to any­where else. He is fully present in the mo­ment. He just is.

Thed­if­fer­ence­be­tween­be­comin­gand­beingis­theessen­tial dis­tinc­tion be­tween Shab­bat and the week.

Dur­ing the week our re­al­ity is one of frag­men­ta­tion, in­com­plete­ness and of­ten con­fu­sion. We strug­gle to earn a liv­ing, to out­wit the com­pe­ti­tion, to gain a foothold of se­cu­rity in a chal­leng­ing financial en­vi­ron­ment. We strive, but rarely seem to ar­rive be­cause each new suc­cess gives rise to fur­ther chal­lenges and in­se­cu­ri­ties. It is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to feel at times as though it is you against the world.

Shab­bat, how­ever, is not just about si­lenc­ing the ca­coph­ony of the work week but, more im­por­tantly, it is about of­fer­ing us an op­por­tu­nity to stop be­com­ing and to sim­ply cel­e­brate be­ing. With­out Shab­bat one can pass an en­tire life­time of striv­ing with­out ever ar­riv­ing. Shab­bat punc­tu­ates our lives with mo­ments of true be­ing, through which we come to ex­pe­ri­ence our­selves and the world in a more whole­some way.

Of course, Shab­bat comes to an end and one will once again have to en­gage in striv­ing and be­com­ing. But for a brief in­ter­val, Shab­bat gifts us the abil­ity to gain per­spec­tive on all this striv­ing by re­mind­ing us what it means to sim­ply be. And what does it prac­ti­cally mean to be?

Rabbi A J Heschel, the 20th cen­tury Amer­i­can thinker, pro­vided a poignant de­scrip­tion. Shab­bat, he wrote, is: “A realm of time where the goal is Not to have but to be Not to own but to give Not to con­trol but to share Not to sub­due but to be in ac­cord.”

Shab­bat is of­ten pro­moted as a day to rest up from the hec­tic work week. As a wel­come oa­sis in time in which to recharge so as to re­turn to the fol­low­ing week re­freshed and rein­vig­o­rated. But this crude in­stru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of Shab­bat is to un­der­stand it the wrong way around. Shab­bat does not ex­ist to serve the week. Rather, the pur­pose of the week is to ul­ti­mately ar­rive at the truth that is Shab­bat; that for all our striv­ing and be­com­ing, if we are to truly live, we must make time to be.

Shab­bat is about so much more than so­cial­is­ing, rest­ing and eat­ing. It calls on us to lift out of the frag­mented chaos of the week a sense of whole­ness and full­ness. This can be hard work but the re­ward is noth­ing less than ex­pe­ri­enc­ing thor­oughly what it means to be a hu­man be­ing. Rabbi Brawer is chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Spir­i­tual Cap­i­tal Foundation. Shab­bat UK takes place this week­end: see shab­

Shab­bat is about so much more than so­cial­is­ing, rest­ing and eat­ing

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