Monday, February 09, 2015

Why Don't We "Get" Shabbat?

I hate to admit this, but there’s one sermon topic of mine that has consistently flopped.

The topic is Shabbat.

We don’t seem to get Shabbat. What’s puzzling to me is why we don’t.

I’m not talking as a Shabbat observer looking out at everyone else; actually, even among the observant, there is a rush to “get over” with Shabbat. Everyone waits for the minute Shabbat is over, like schoolchildren waiting for the recess bell. And some Orthodox teens find it too difficult to let go of their cellphones on Shabbat, to the point that they keep the Shabbat carefully…except for texting. So it’s not a question of how observant you are; everyone finds it difficult to appreciate Shabbat.

Shabbat actually makes a lot of sense. In the 21st century, Shabbat is more necessary than ever. Constant buzzes and bells multitask our brains into mush; email and cellphones have transformed work into a 24/7 phenomenon. Now, more than ever, we need Shabbat for a little peace and quiet.

Even technology evangelists understand the need for a technology free time. Clay Shirky, a professor of social media at New York University, who teaches his students about the culture of the internet, found it impossible to allow his students to use laptops, tablets, and phones in class, because they were too distracting. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker who created the Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet, embraced a “technology Shabbat”. She and her family turn off all computers, TV’s, and smartphones for Shabbat, and instead focus on being mindful and being connected with each other. And even the investment bank Goldman Sachs understands the Shabbat. Goldman Sachs now requires junior associates to stop working on the weekend. Beginning 9 p.m. on Fridays, junior associates may not come to work or login on their computers until Sunday morning. 

So why don’t we get Shabbat?

Because we don’t understand how you can take a day off. We live in the culture of the M.B.A., where efficiency and productivity are the touchstones of meaning. For thousands of years, the Homo Economicus has seen the idea of taking a day off and forgoing potential profits as bizarre. Peter Schafer, in his book Judeophobia, devotes an entire chapter to Roman criticisms of the Shabbat. He quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E – 65 C.E.) as saying: “their practice of the Shabbat is inexpedient because by resting one day in every seven they lose in idleness one seventh of their life”. To the Romans, the Shabbat was absurd: what sense does a day of rest make, when you have countries to conquer and aqueducts to build? And this attitude is even more true of contemporary society. We live by Benjamin Franklin’s edict “time is money”, and wonder how we can squeeze a few more minutes out of the day. We carry our work with us everywhere, and take work calls and send work emails all hours of the day and night. Even universities, which are meant to be places of higher learning, have largely become pre-professional training centers, places for students to harvest A’s on their way to a good investment banking job.

But the Shabbat speaks another language. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) talks about the purpose of abstaining from work on Shabbat is to allow one to pursue spiritual experiences. Shabbat is a day to study and think, to spend with God at the synagogue and with family and friends at home. It slows us down to open our eyes to another reality.

In the Lonely Man of Faith, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that man possesses a dual nature, that of a conqueror and a poet. Man must both master and recreate the world, and at the same time stand in awe of the beauty and grandeur of creation. This duality is what Shabbat strives to help us balance; with six days of productive labor followed by one day devoted to the spiritual, man keeps himself in balance.

Soloveitchik notes that modern man clings to his work, and doesn’t open his ears to hear the other language, the feelings of awe, love and inspiration. Why don’t we get Shabbat? Because modern man is out of balance, devoted to triumphs instead of wisdom.

An anecdote from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg best describes what we don’t get about Shabbat. He was at a wedding and was sitting next to someone he had never met. He writes that:

“In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”

This plumber is absolutely correct in rebuffing Rabbi Goldberg. On a daily basis, as a habit of speech, we conflate “what we do” with “how we earn a living”. We forget that while work is important, there is more to life than work. And Shabbat is there for a full life, one that includes love and learning, insights and inspiration.

But as long as we think that how we make a living is all we actually do, we will not get what Shabbat is about.

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