The Meaning of the Sabbath

The deeper value of rest.

Whether celebrated as part of our religious traditions on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday - or noted for sheer psychological value on any other day of the week - the experience of Sabbath is as fundamental to the well-being of the mind as is sleep to the well-being of the body.

The world we live in is moving too fast, counter to the natural rhythms of body and soul that have evolved over millions of years. In the words of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “Every problem in the world derives from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Every part of nature expresses the need for rest, for shutting down of one system in order to prepare for the next. I know I’m among many who can point to serious mistakes I’ve made for no other reason that I didn’t slow down enough to think more deeply about something, to really think, to reflect on what I was doing.

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Sabbath is an entire day given to re-alignment of the psyche with its true nature, particularly important given that the world we live in exists in such contradiction to the truth of who we are. It’s an emotional, psychological and spiritual reset, without which we live ever at the effect of a world that does not honor who we are.

Years ago, I was visiting with some orthodox Jewish friends. When I first arrived, I experienced a family firmly ensconced in the experiences of modernity, with all manner of electronic equipment around the house, to kids going to and fro in a rush of activity and parents manning a kind of hilarious command center.

But as sundown on Friday night approached, there was a noticeable slowing down that began to occur. I was wondering how such a modern, plugged in family was going to handle a total shutdown of electronics and extreme slowing down of normal activity for a day. I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I saw, or what I experienced within myself.

The modern teenagers in the family spent as much time on computers, phones etc as did any other modern kids, but they had been raised all their lives to know that as of sundown on Friday night things were turned off. So there was no fuss; it was a non-negotiable issue that none of them seemed to resist. Cars wouldn’t be driven for a day except to pick up a friend or family member who couldn’t walk over for Sabbath dinner, and phones would only be used to make such arrangements or for emergency purposes. This was Sabbath, and in this house Sabbath was no joke.

So what was it like?

I’ll give you a few examples. Young marrieds got into deep conversations with their grandparents. Teenagers spent hours reading to their younger siblings. Husbands and wives who had been married for years sat holding hands and gazing lovingly at each other and at their children. What was going on? They were all finding each other again. Looking away from the world, they looked into the souls of one another. They were energetically reunited, with God, with each other and with themselves.

And me? I had been worried, to tell you the truth. How was I going to turn my own phone and computer off for a whole day? Would I steal into the bathroom and check my messages? Would that be cheating? As it turned out I never once thought about it, so deeply was I enjoying the peacefulness of that environment. I didn’t want to go back to the world of adrenaline-driven reactivity that defines our normal existence these days. I realized then, as I realize so often, that God’s commandments aren’t for His sake; they’re for ours.

When my daughter was about eight years old, we were living in Michigan and it began to storm outside. We hadn’t lived there very long yet, so India hadn’t yet experienced this as a common occurrence. As often happens in such cases, in the middle of the storm all the electricity in the house suddenly went down. I explained to her that the bad weather had caused the electricity to go off, but people were working on the problem and that the lights would come back on when it was fixed.

“Mommy?” she asked me, “What are we going to if night comes and we sill don’t have any lights?”

“It’s okay, honey,” I told her. “We’re going to light candles and we’ll talk in candlelight!”

Which of course is what we did. We talked more than usual, in fact, and more deeply than usual, totally there with each other in those ways we all crave but don’t experience enough these days.

Then, hours later, all of a sudden all the lights came back on. It was one of those jarring moments when the kitchen appliances, computers, TV’s, all of the accoutrements of modern existence reassert their assault on our natural sensibilities, reminding us how assaultive they actually are. We don’t even realize how much equipment we usually have on all the time, until it’s off for a while and then suddenly comes back on.

It was disappointing, that moment. It broke a spell. And just as I was about to say, “Oh honey, let’s turn all those things off and go back to candlelight, shall we?” my precious girl turned her sad little face towards me and said, “Mommy, we can’t get it back.”

I understood how she felt, because I felt it too. But we can get it back, and we must get it back. We are literally dying from our disconnection to the natural rhythms of light and harmony that make up the natural world. We have allowed ourselves to become distracted from the things that most feed us, nurture us and make us whole. We’ve thus allowed for the diminishment of the human experience, and seem not to understand that it is that for which we most crave.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

I had no idea, as a child, what any of that really meant or what it was for. I had no idea what a “hallowed day” was, and I certainly had no idea what a blessing it would be on my life to one day realize its purpose. The Sabbath, whenever it is and in whatever way we experience it, is a day of rest, a point of reconnection, and portal back to who we truly are.