Judaism: Sabbath as Focused Rest
Rest and action are two poles of existence. Whatever one is doing, one is either resting or exerting oneself. Exertion complements rest and rest complements exertion as day complements night and night complements day. Universal experience shows that exercise leads to a deeper sleep and that without resting, one cannot have the energy to act.
The question of utmost importance, as with all pairs of opposites, is the question of balance.
The issue of balance between work and rest is epitomized in the difference between the Hebrew and the Greek approaches to time and place. In Homer’s epics, the heroes fight battles and travel on voyages. The direction of activity starts from home and extends outward to the farthest reaches of the Earth. In the case of the ancient Hebrews, the Bible describes the conquest of a homeland and its settlement. The direction of activity is inwards. The goal is to return to the pre-fallen state of man wherein man lived in a garden and the point of life was to “settle it and guard it.”
The ultimate messianic vision is that “every man would sit under his vine and under his fig tree.” The ultimate goal is to arrive at a state of tranquility wherein movement is unnecessary and time is of no consequence.
The goal of technology is to quicken movement, to go faster and farther, in less time and with less effort. Let us take a step back and look at the expectations for modern technology and how it would help us. Calculators were meant to replace slower and more tedious forms of computation. Cars and planes were invented to save the time and effort of lugging baggage and one’s self to various locations. In these respects, technology has succeeded.
However, all expected that technology would lead to shorter workweeks, but it has not. Ever since Henry Ford came up with the forty-hour work-week, nothing in North America has changed. Instead, technology has become invasive, eliminating the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, effectively increasing the length of the work-week allowing it to reach to within one’s private life. Home is no longer a refuge from work and the time in our private lives has decreased.
The reason for this failure of technology to save time is that focusing on action will not increase rest. No matter how much one focuses on getting things done, there will always be more to do. In fact, the more one focuses on getting things done, there more things one finds to do!
The only solution is to focus on rest. A focused rest is different than a rest that is merely a gap between two activities. Just as it takes focus to be active, it takes focus to properly rest. It also takes an appreciation for rest. We must set aside time to rest, to just be and to not achieve. The key is in setting aside time both for rest and activity; and in this, the Hebrew approach is worthy of emulation.
As opposed to the Ancient Greeks, who had no day of rest, the Hebrews set aside a day for focused rest, the Sabbath. This day is not considered a break from the week, but the purpose of the week! On this day one does not merely take time off, but instead actively focuses on creating an atmosphere of rest.
For example, electronic devices are completely forbidden by Orthodox Judaism to be used on the Sabbath. There are numerous interesting laws, such as laws stating that it is mostly forbidden to cook or clean. Additionally, walking slower and refraining from discussing politics are encouraged, though the later is often not followed. One cannot even discuss plans for following days, but must remain within the island of time that constitutes each Sabbath.
The Sabbath also exists in Christianity. Christianity, the premier child of both Greek and Hebrew civilization, has inherited practice and ideology from both in some form. However, in abandoning religion, western society has abandoned its Hebrew heritage to exclusively focus on continuing the Hellenic pursuit of perpetual advancement.
Advancement is important. There is a reason why immigrants flock to western societies. However, in my discussions with such immigrants I hear the yearnings to return to a time when they did not have to strive to achieve recognition of their worth by their society.
“Peace” is the Hebrew way to say hello and goodbye. It is even a name for God. It is the end of every important blessing. The focus on peace instead of excitement and advancement may be a product of farming societies, which were more tranquil than their northern counterparts.
In Northern climes, it was necessary to rush to harvest before winter. There was a strict deadline to meet and if one did not meet it, one was dead, literally. Perhapd, as a consequence of harsh climactic conditions, northern tribes were often “adventurous” nomadic plunderers such as the Mongols, the Indo-Europeans, the Hyksos and the Vikings.
Inner peace should not be left for others, such as monks, to achieve. It should be the goal of society, instead of excitement and advancement. It should be your goal. If you are not peaceful, does this benefit those around you?
On a broader scale, Ancient Greece tired itself out and vanished but the Hebrews are still here. Was tranquility the secret for their longevity? Perhaps it was.
And perhaps the wise reader would like to entertain the thought of a day without technology once a week — a day of tranquility.