Shabbat Inspiration

How Does Shabbat Create Rest?
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Tuesday 14th September 2021

The idea that everyone is entitled to rest which was once revolutionary is now enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Today, in the West, we are blessed with endless opportunities for entertainment, but Elizabeth Gilbert, the American author of Eat, Pray, Love argues that none of these can fully provide what is needed: 

Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused. .  . but that is not the same thing as quiet enjoyment. Americans work harder and longer and more stressful hours than anyone in the world today. . . 

Alarming statistics back this observation up, showing that many Americans feel happier and more fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes. Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, and then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pyjamas eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don't really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of the great sad American stereotype – the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax. 

Shabbat brilliantly blows a whistle. By telling us not to drive, or switch on electrical devices, it creates new form of relaxation – a total rest for the soul and a space to interact uninterrupted with the people around us. 

It is often argued that by giving people more choice, and more freedom to shop and enjoy the consumer culture, we will bring them greater happiness. Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has argued in the secular press that this is not the case. Twenty years of a seven-day-a-week consumer culture has not made Britons measurably happier. Not surprisingly, because the world of salvation-by-shopping depends on advertising making us all too conscious of what we lack. If only we had this watch, that suit, this car, that mobile phone, our pleasure would be complete, at least until tomorrow when we discover the next thing we don't yet have. The financial meltdown was caused, at least in part, by people spending money they didn't have to buy things they didn't need to find a happiness that doesn't last. The consumer culture is, in fact, a remarkably efficient system for the production and distribution of discontent. 

We can't bring back the Sabbath to the public domain, but we can bring it back to our private lives. We need to because neither the environment nor the economy can be predicated on limitless growth, fed by artificial desire. One day in seven we should give thanks for what we have and open our eyes to the radiance of the world.  

In his book, "Tuesdays with Morrie", American journalist Mitch Albom touches on the meaning of this as he celebrates the year that he dedicated to his dying sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz. Through their conversations, Mitch became ever closer to Morrie and engaged in a powerful journey of self-discovery. His most profound lesson is that no amount of wealth or hard work can substitute for the gift of spending time with the people we love. 

I glanced around Morrie's study. It was the same today as it had been the first day I arrived. The books held their same places on the shelves. The papers cluttered the same old desk. The outside rooms had not been improved or upgraded. In fact, Morrie really hadn't brought anything new - except medical equipment – in a long, long time, maybe years. The day he learned that he was terminally ill was the day he lost interest in his purchasing power. 

So the TV was the same old model, the car that Charlotte drove was the same old model, the dishes and the silverware and the towels – all the same. And yet the house had changed so drastically. It had filled with love and teaching and communication. It had filled with friendship and family and honesty and tears. It had filled with colleagues and students and meditation teachers and therapists and nurses and cappella groups. It had become in a very real way, a wealthy home even though Morrie's bank account was rapidly depleting. 

Shabbat is a day of spiritual engagement, not just of prayer and ritual, but spending quality time with the people around us. One of the most important indicators for creating a happy and successful family is ensuring that the family eats at least one meal together every week. Sadly, too many families cannot manage this: 

According to a range of recent surveys, one in four Britons do not own a dining table and of the three out of four that do, only one in five actually eat food around it. Less than a third of Britons eat together as a family more than once a week. Even when families do get together for a meal, more than three quarters watch TV instead of chatting.  

Shabbat addresses these issues. The traditional Friday night meal, Shabbat lunch and the final meal of Shabbat are wonderful opportunities for friends and families to carve out quality time to eat together, and bond uninterrupted by television or other distractions. At their best, these meals are a forum for debate and discussion, for consideration of what children have been learning at school and for singing together. Some weeks, the tone may be more serious, others there may be more light hearted banter. The crucial thing is that families and friends share time together, developing their relationships and passing on of values, traditions and memories.