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