Last week came the news that the papers of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel have been acquired by Duke University. Among those papers are “notes and drafts for nearly all of his published works, as well as correspondence with leading religious figures, including Martin Buber and Reinhold Niebuhr. Also included in the collection are his social documents: correspondence with organizers, speeches and even hate mail.”[i]
Heschel was one of the most influential thinkers and writers of the 20th Century. As scholars research these papers in the months and years ahead it shall be interesting to see if there are new revelations from this great mind.
I love the writings of the good Rabbi. I have been trying to slow things down this past week by taking some vacation. Then I read the news about Rabbi Heschel’s papers and decided to read a little again about Shabbat of Sabbath. In speaking of the idea if Shabbat, Rabbi Heschel said,
“It is a day in which we abandon our plebeian pursuits and reclaim our authentic state, in which we may partake of a blessedness in which we are what we are, regardless of whether we are learned or not, of whether our career is a success or a failure; it is a day of independence of social conditions.” ——— [The Sabbath p. 30]
“To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from, toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention.” ————- [The Ten Commandments p. 215]
As priest in the church, it seems this should be something that I would have a visceral awareness of. Of course I get it…. right? We teach about taking Sabbath all the time. We impress upon congregations the importance of keeping the third commandment. So I have to have a command of this…. right?
“Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.” Deut. 5:12-15
I will confess though that I am not good at keeping proper Shabbat. I am not real good at it when I am not on vacation because I do not observe well a regular weekly day of rest. I say this not as a badge of honour but as divulgence of a debility. There are no martyrs for the cause. I confess that I am not great at Sabbath. While on vacation I also have also been unable to embrace the fullness of what Rabbi Heschel teaches. I think I (like most to be fair here) often enter into these periods of ‘rest’ as if I am a D Cell Rayovac battery being dropped into a recharger. I convince myself (as we all do) that this time will ready me to be taken from the charger, after appropriate time, and set back in the flashlight, ready to illumine the world. This, of course, is a terrible act of pride and of sinfulness to think this way. Shabbat is for the sake of life. It is a time to accept God’s intentionality in creating us as good. God has created and continues to create with our gifts and giftedness. We are not the light for the path and therefore need not a recharge to offer light.
As a people of God we all need time that serves as a reminder that we are what we are – we are God’s beloved. Shabbat should offer to us a time when we seek to rid ourselves of the noise of judgement and busy-ness to hear God in the stillness whispering our name and a subtle – “I love you.” If we can be still from time to time perhaps we will be reminded that God breathed us into being — and it was good! I find it hard to be free from all of the noise of the consumer culture and embrace the time of rest and just that – a time for stasis. A time to be still and at peace with God. I find that I can do this best when I read and study the words and witness of the many voices of discovery that God has placed before us – Merton, Corie Ten Boon, Henri Nouwen, Julian of Norwich, Rabbi Heschel, etc.
So here is to hoping that in the week or so of vacation that I have left that I might observe some form of Sabbath. Here is to hoping that we might all find the time and space in each of our weeks to remind ourselves that we are God’s own and we are indeed “first in God’s intention.”
Without any concrete idea of what the next days will bring, I will seek accept these words of the Rabbi – “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
Perhaps you might share in the comments section here, how do you embrace Sabbath? How do you realization that “just to be is a blessing – Just to live is holy?”