Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
There is an ancient rabbinical teaching that says that when God created the world, it was incomplete, until on the 7th day, God created something called “menuha.” Menuha translates from Hebrew as serenity, peace, or repose. So on the first day, God separated light from the dark. On the second day, God created the sky. On the third and fourth days God created the dry land, the sun and the moon. On the fifth day God created all the animals, and on the sixth day, God created humanity. So God was pretty busy those first six days. Yet still, after all that, the ancient rabbis say, creation remained unfinished. Only when God created rest and repose was creation finally complete on the 7th day.
Now this is a teaching that came long before any of our modern, scientific understandings of the world. And yet, it’s an incredibly astute observation of how things actually work in the natural world. Consider plants that grow, flower, and seed during the summer and spring and then lie dormant under the earth during the fall and winter months. Or consider animals that hibernate during the winter— something I imagine we all wish we could have done this year— and then are active again come spring. Consider the cycles of the moon, which wax and wane, or the tides that go in and out. With this concept of menuha, the ancient rabbis had identified something intrinsically true about the natural world— that there is a pattern that exists of activity and rest that is built into the very fabric of creation. Activity, then rest. Growth, then dormancy. Work, then menuha.
It is this natural rhythm of work and rest which has really come to define the way we think about how human beings ought to live. And it is when this natural rhythm is disrupted that we so often cry foul. Consider our modern day labor laws, for example, which are designed to ensure that workers get time off, or that they don’t work too many hours all at once. Or consider slavery— possibly the worst violation of this natural rhythm of life. The lack of rest is one of the greatest injustices of slavery or forced labor. It denies human beings something that is part of our very nature—how we were created by God to live. It is what African Americans endured during the years of the American slave trade. It is what so many people still endure today in sweat shops and factories all around the world. And it it what the Israelites faced when they lived as slaves in Egypt.
In the book of Exodus, we read about how the Israelites were treated as cattle— as little more than commodities to be dispatched for Pharoah’s impossible production quotas. Their daily task was always the same—24 hours a day— seven days a week— endless brick production for a society of insatiable demand. And if they did not meet these demands, they could be physically punished, they could be denied food and sustenance, they might even be killed. And so, theirs was an existence filled with anxiety and devoid of anything resembling rest or tranquility, or this natural rhythm of life. It was because of this experience as slaves that the command to honor the Sabbath was so much more than just a regulation of how they were supposed to spend their time. It was actual liberation from a back-breaking schedule of labor with no time for rest. It was liberation from the constant anxiety of having to fulfill endless production quotas. Make no mistake, the institution of Sabbath for the ancient Israelites was about liberation from slavery and oppression and the ability to finally live as God intended human beings to live— with cycles of activity, and then rest. Work, then menuha.
Now it might seem to us, living as we do in a free society, that we no longer have to worry about this kind of enslavement in our lives. We are, after all, technically free to take our Sabbath day whenever we want, free to observe it however we want, and free to practice our faith in the manner in which we see fit. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, how free are we, really? Are we really living as a liberated people, or have we simply allowed ourselves, in this modern age, to become enslaved to different things?
Are we not, for example, still addicted to work and productivity? Are we not slaves to the same kind of deep anxiety that we do not do enough, that we do not produce enough, that we do not accomplish enough, and that we are, in fact, somehow not enough? I don’t know about any of you, but I know in my household, a successful Saturday is often defined by how productive it’s been. An unproductive day is usually lamented by my husband and I—“we didn’t get enough done today,” we might complain to each other. Even during our supposed leisure time, there is this anxious presence in the back of our minds—this little voice that whispers--“maybe we should be doing something more productive right now…” Sound familiar to anybody?
We are slaves to a society that says that productivity and efficiency are virtues of the highest order. When someone asks us how we are doing, do we not take some measure of pride to be able to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so busy.” It’s almost as if busyness has become some kind of merit badge in our society. If you’re busy, then you must be doing well. But isn’t there more to life than this constant busyness— this constant running from one thing to the next? Isn’t there more to life than this constant cycle of production and consumption? And are we truly allowing ourselves to be free enough—to be unproductive enough—to notice?
Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel wrote that “six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; but on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in our soul.” With the observation of the Sabbath, we free ourselves from our society’s insatiable need for productivity and consumption in order to recognize that there is in fact a deeper need—a need to be connected to what is eternal and sacred in this world. The promise of Sabbath is a promise that allows us to disconnect and unplug from what enslaves us in order to reconnect to that which actually nurtures and feeds our souls, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this busyness isn't it. The promise of Sabbath is a promise that brings us back into balance with the very fabric of creation--how God created the world to be— activity, then rest. Work, then menuha.
Now I recognize that Sabbath keeping in the 21st century has it’s challenges. Our employers may ask us to work on Sundays. Our kids have soccer games and dance recitals that sometimes get in the way of Sunday morning worship times. We no longer live in a world where the Christian Sabbath is privileged or given special status. Which means that is increasingly up to us to be intentional about prioritizing and setting aside Sabbath time. No one is going to enforce that rest upon us. We have to decide for ourselves that it’s worth making it a priority to devote at least some part of our week to the things that are eternal and everlasting over things that are temporal and temporary— to find a time each week to step away from the endless pattern of consumption and production that rules our society--and in the words of Walter Brueggemann—to “break the pattern of our divided hearts in order to embrace our true created nature.”
So I have a suggestion to make as we enter into the final few weeks of the Lenten season. If you haven’t taken on a spiritual discipline yet this year, and even if you have, here’s one we can all try together. How about we give up busyness for Lent? How about we commit ourselves to basking in God’s gift of serenity and rest every seven days— it is, after all, how we were created to live. Every seven days, allow yourself not to be busy. Allow yourself to be completely unproductive. Liberate yourself from busyness. Tend to the seed of eternity that is planted in your soul. Honor the Sabbath, and keep it Holy, for on the seventh day, God created rest for all of us.
Amen, and may it be so.