Take Back Your Time: Rediscover Shabbat
Yom Kippur 2008
How do you know you are living in the year 2008?
Here are some possibilities: You know it’s the 21st century if you accidentally enter your password when you want to run the microwave. It’s 2008 if you have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach your family of three.
Or consider another sign of the times.
A few years ago you may have seen a television commercial in which a mother feeds her little one in just under two minutes. Mom holds her pre-schooler in her hands and declares, “Nicky is a very picky eater. With instant Quaker oatmeal, I can give him a terrific hot breakfast in 90 seconds, and I don’t have to spend any time coaxing him to eat.”
The ad continues, “Instant Quaker oatmeal – It’s for parents with a lot of love but not a lot of time.”
“Slow me down, God.
Ease the pounding of my heart..
Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles…
Slow me down, God.”
Here’s the problem we face. Without asking you separately, I already know what gift everyone here would love to receive for his or her next birthday. All of us would like to receive the gift of an 8th day in the week.
The very mention of the idea brings a smile to the lips.
An 8th day would bring with it more of that precious commodity we call TIME. And if there is one thing almost all of us don’t have enough of it is time.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? In this day and age when we have so many devices to organize time and save time, we feel as if we have less time than ever before. We always feel busy.
To be honest, we probably feel that way because we are busier than those who came before us. Back in the 1990’s, Judith Schor, a Harvard economist, wrote a book with the perfect title. She called it – The Overworked American. Schor, and others since her, have documented that modern Americans really do work more than ever before. She calculated, for example, that during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, the average American worked added an additional 160 hours to his or her work year. For most Americans, vacation time also shrank.
Schor also wrote about “work” in a broader sense so that she looked at both the time people spend in an office as well as the time they devote to chores at home. Add all those hours up and people are “busy” – especially women who still do most of the housework and childcare – for most of their waking hours.
There may be lots of love, but not much time.
So wouldn’t an 8th day in the week be quite the gift?
If you had that extra day, you would have time to finish reading the newspapers left over from the other seven days. You would be able to file away the receipts you used last April to do your income tax.
With an 8th day, you could put all those photographs from all those vacations in an album.
If I had an 8th day, I could read that wonderful novel I picked up in a used book store two summers ago. If I had an 8th day, I would finish transferring my VCR tapes onto DVD’s – one of those little projects I began three years ago.
When all is said and done, I think you know what would happen. You and I would love the 8th day and, in the blink of an eye, we would fill it with activity. The 8th day would become like the other seven.
And here is why that would happen: You and I would eat up the 8th day because the truth is that we can’t ever finish everything we need to do. There is always another day with another newspaper to read. Today’s empty clothes hamper has dirty clothes in it tomorrow.
Think of life as a carousel that by definition goes round and round week after week. It doesn’t stop and won’t stop, which is why we need to take action ourselves. If you’re breathless or just plain sleep deprived, you’re letting the carousel run you. And that can’t last forever. You need to change something. You need to take back your time.
I’m thinking of an artist who focuses intently on her painting. She applies the colors. She studies the angles of her composition. But, sooner or later, the artist stops, puts down the brush, and steps back to gain perspective. It’s the only way to create great art. It’s also the only way to create a life. All of us need to lay aside the brush and pause in our lives.
You know, it’s easy for me to conjure up everyone here sitting in front of a computer screen. I know you’re there and you’re there a lot because I am always surprised to see what time (either late at night or at the crack of dawn) various e-mails come into my computer from your keyboards. I can see you, like me, at the computer sometimes for hours on end. You sit there. Your body is scrunched up: shoulders hunched over, arms tight to your sides, eyes are locked on the screen. You can learn a lot roaming the Internet. You can make a living through the computer, but you and I both know you can’t have a life at the computer.
For the sake of your sanity, humanity, and your health, sometimes you need to stand up and stretch.
Or in other words, relax. Take back your time.
And if I may be so bold, let me suggest we drop the 8th day dream. Opt instead for something more available. Consider the seventh day (which does exist) as a day for reclaiming our time. If regular days are called Monday and Tuesday, call this day “Myday” or “Mytimeday.” Or go altogether radical and why not call this very special day the name it already has. Let’s call the day for taking back time – Shabbat.
But don’t lose me now.
Don’t give up because now I’ve introduced that Hebrew term you’ve heard so many times from rabbis condemning you for not observing enough.
Hold on for a moment because this morning I am doing something different. I am trying to reimagine Shabbat for you and me. Reframe it.
I’m asking you to join me as we enter Shabbat through “the back door.”
We’ve already begun that process by starting where we did. We started in the world out there and agreed that lack of time is a huge part of our lives. The challenge is to find an antidote for our busyness. What I am now proposing is that as Jews we draw on the obvious resource we already have. It’s called Shabbat. I’m suggesting maybe there’s more to this ancient seventh day than you expect.
Last Fall a professor in media studies at American University gave her students an assignment. She asked her students to go without electronic technology for 24 hours. That meant no cell phones, text messaging, iPods, computers, and e-mail. It sounded easy, but the students reported that the experiment was very difficult.
One student spoke about almost feeling a pain as she endured her day-long “electronic fast.” Another said, “The isolation I felt made it one of the toughest days I have had to endure.”
But other students responded differently. They were surprised that the absence of electronics felt liberating. Some said they were energized by the recess from constant communication. The professor who isn’t Jewish drew this conclusion, “I had no religious motives at all, but I have to admit there was something almost religious in the outcome. Leaving the electronics aside was a great way to find peace.”
So what if you and I took this idea seriously, and since we’re Jewish, what if we decided to make Shabbat the day when we “pulled the plug?” We’ve already talked about being glued to our seats in front of the computer screen. Everyone also knows what it’s like to have e-mail and the Internet follow you home from the office so that your work day becomes a 24/7 reality.
What would happen, then, if we said that observing Shabbat for us meant changing stride. We might frame it this way at some point on Friday, “Work isn’t done. There is more to do, but I’ve done enough for the time being. I’ve surfed through enough websites and replied to enough e-mails. I need a break. I will now put down my electronic paraphernalia in order to take back my time. See you later Google!”
Does it sound hard? It is. Believe me, I know it is.
Does it sound unrealistic?
If so, I’ve got good news. I have 51 other suggestions for ways to rediscover Shabbat as an antidote to the speed of our lives.
The ideas – this first one plus 51 others for a total of 52 – one for each week of the year – came to me from our Reform movement, the Union for Reform Judaism. Last year the URJ literally published a deck of cards containing 52 ideas for making the seventh day unique. The ideas came from Reform Jews like you and me who in very different ways were experimenting with Shabbat.
Under the category of “Shabbat Unplugged,” here is what one Reform Jew offered. “I don’t wear a watch on Shabbat. Once a week this helps me create what I call an island in time.”
Another one of the 52 cards reads: “A few years ago we started to celebrate an ‘hour’ of Shabbat. No TV, phones, Blackberry’s, none of that. Just reading things, maybe a board game, or relaxing together. It’s been great. I’m still hoping to expand the hour to two, then three…”
Here’s an idea that starts with a classic ritual but tweaks it nicely. “On Friday night, I turn off most of the lights and then light the candles to bring Shabbat into my space. I like the symbolism of “turning off” the week and “turning on” Shabbat. After I bless the candles, I take time to meditate and center myself in the quiet.”
Here’s a practice I follow. Although I may listen to the radio during the drive to Temple on Friday nights, when I get back in the car to go home, I always turn off the radio. It’s a purposeful way for me to carry some of the mellow feelings from the sanctuary into the rest of the evening. And the silence in the car is golden, almost tangible. Many nights (even in the winter) I like to open the windows and feel the breeze (even the cold breeze) of the quiet night air. It’s a hearing/feeling encounter for me with Shabbat.
But this notion of Shabbat doesn’t have to mean only taking away: “I won’t do this and I won’t do that.” You can also add to life on Shabbat.
One of the 52 cards offers this celebration of family life. “When my boys were young, I kept aside two boxes of toys just for Shabbat. As the boys got older, they chose certain games they would play just on Shabbat.”
One of my friends who is a rabbi loves kabbala. A few years ago he found a brand new commentary on a kabbala text called the Zohar. He set the book aside and studies a page of it every Saturday afternoon. He calls it his Shabbat dessert.
Back to the deck of cards. “When I buy new clothes, I save them and wear them for the first time on Shabbat.” Someone else. “I always change the sheets Friday morning so that I come home to clean sheets for Shabbat.”
Finally, one of my favorites. “I only drink Coca-Cola on Shabbat because it’s my favorite beverage. It helps me sanctify the day. I even wrote a blessing for my first glass of Coke on Shabbat. Baruch atta Adonai…– Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth caffeine from the cola nut!!!”
Up until that one, I bet I almost had you!!!
But the blessing for Coke probably broke the spell, because, you may say, “What does savoring Coca Cola on Saturday have to do with taking back time and sanity?”
Here is my interpretation.
Compare what we’ve done in fighting back the work week to the work of foresters. Imagine you and me standing in the middle of a congested forest. Trees crowd out the sunlight. There is barely room for us to stand or move. We’ve got to make some space for ourselves. We’ve got to push back the trees – or in our case “the busyness” of life – so that we can breathe, and we do this by making a clearing in the forest. We cut down some trees so that we can move around, see the sun, and relax.
But that’s not all we can do in the clearing. Once we’ve got a spot in the sun, once we’ve turned down the static of life, we can go a step further. We can do something that gives the clearing in the forest or in our weekly schedule an extra dimension.
That’s where the idea of new clothes or even a special drink arises. They are both ways of filling the opening we’ve made with something different, better, or precious.
To put it in classic terms, on the seventh day we step away from the frenzy of the weekdays – we push it away - in order to create a space - enter a world - that is calmer and sweeter. In a profound sense, yes, Shabbat is about a favorite drink or book or even a hike you don’t have time for in regular life. Shabbat is for experiences that remind you why you are alive to begin with.
Think of the candles that were here on the bimah last night. Shabbat is summed up in the flames that glowed here before our eyes. As our prayer book says, “Flames purify and renew, soften and refine, brighten and make warm.”
That’s what I think you and I need in our lives: beauty, warmth, and calm. That’s what Shabbat is all about. Time out. Time away. Time for holiness.
The Torah put it this way long ago. “The people of Israel shall have this great gift of Shabbat because in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:16-17)
But listen to this. That phrase in English about God being “refreshed” doesn’t do justice to the Hebrew word, vayinafash. You see vayinafash comes from the root “nefesh,” which means “soul.” So even though you could translate vayinafash as “refreshed,” you could also communicate the meaning of Shabbat by saying that, when you get to Shabbat, you “soul” yourself or “resoul” yourself.
Shavat vayinafash - On Shabbat you rest and recreate so that “you can get your soul back.”
And here’s what your soul hopes you will do tomorrow night and Saturday or, if your body can’t work that quickly, here’s what your soul hopes you’ll do the following weekend.
Number One - Experiment. You don’t have to turn your life upside down. Just try to take back some of your time – maybe half an hour, an hour or perhaps more. Do something different on a Friday evening or during some part of a Saturday.
Number Two - Don’t be intimidated by Orthodox. I’m not. Look at me. I told you about a Shabbat moment driving home silently from services. Some Jews would say the very fact I use a car on Shabbat kills the whole idea. I don’t buy that at all. I have a rationale for what I do and don’t do. It’s complicated and we can talk about it another time. For now, we are all too stressed. For me, Sinai’s Shabbat needs to address that dilemma.
But, you will say, exactly should we do?
That brings me to Number Three - Take to heart the booklet summarizing everything I’ve said this morning. You’ll receive this booklet in a few minutes from this year’s Confirmation class. The booklet contains all 52 Shabbat possibilities plus several other ideas. Take the booklet home. Talk about it. Think about it.
Number Four – Get involved with some of the activities that a newly formed Sinai Shabbat Committee is preparing.
This Saturday morning, October 11, you’re invited to a Torah Study session that will not study Torah per se. You’re invited to the Oneg Shabbat Room at 9 a.m. where I hope you’ll talk about this sermon and the idea of Shabbat for you. We’ll look at those 52 ideas, agree, disagree, argue, and see what this whole Shabbat idea means in our lives.
On Sundays, October 19 and 26, there will be family programs for parents and kids in our Religious School. On the 19th, families in Grades 4 through 7 are invited for a morning of learning about Shabbat. On the 26th, families from Kindergarten to Grade 3.
On Saturday, November 15, we are creating a full morning of Shabbat activities that will involve prayer, music, meditation, art, and storytelling followed by lunch and intergenerational games at the JCC. This really will be a morning for everyone – those with children and definitely those without.
Come January, we are going to set aside time to talk about what has happened in your lives. Here is a real invitation. Please, please, please. Look at the 52 ideas for Shabbat and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, make a little vow. Promise yourself that you’ll try 2 or 3 of the ideas in the booklet for a few months. Then come to the January program and share what’s happened. I would love to know if you have had success and what it looked like in your life.
Finally, some of you know that I have written a book about Shabbat called Gates of Shabbat. In that short volume I offer history of Shabbat, background, and a discussion about how a Reform Jew can create Shabbat in the modern world. Parents in the Religious School will receive a copy of the book at the family programs later this month. Others of you are welcome to purchase the book at our Gift Shop. (I make no royalties.) Reading this book will be very helpful if you really are interested in Shabbat.
Finally, go to our website. We have a plethora of materials there under the link Take Back Your Time: Rediscover Shabbat. Perhaps most importantly, the blessings for Friday night are there in Hebrew with transliteration plus you’ll be able to hear Cantor Levson chanting each prayer.
“Wow, he talked about Shabbat, didn’t mention coming to services, and barely referred to the rituals. This is my kind of Shabbat!”
Friends, of course, rituals, prayers, and Torah are central to Shabbat. They are the body of the day. They give the seventh day its Jewish structure.
But that’s not where I’ve traveled with you today because, as I said earlier, I wanted to invite you into Shabbat this morning “through the back door” or, you might say, the less obvious entry way.
Instead of focusing on the body of Shabbat, I’ve invited you to consider the soul of Shabbat - the flavor, the aura, the spirit.
This Yom Kippur please consider taking back your soul.
Take back your time.
And remember this story: It’s the story of several Englishmen who were rushing across India many years ago. They had hired local Indians to guide them and for many days they had been rising early and trekking over the landscape until nightfall.
One morning the Englishmen woke up and were surprised to see that the Indians had made no effort to pack for the day.
One of the Englishmen exclaimed, “What’s happening. We’ve got to make time. Pack your things and away we go.”
One of the guides responded, “We’re not moving today.”
The Englishman asked why. The guide answered, “We’re staying still today because we’ve moved our bodies so quickly these last several days our souls got left behind. Today, we’re going to give our souls some time to catch up.”
This Yom Kippur I hope you will join me in doing the same and more this year.
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