“There is no better point of entry to the religious experience than the Sabbath, for all its apparent ordinariness. Because of its ordinariness. The extraordinariness of the Sabbath lies in its being commonplace.” (Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time)
Not far from where I live there is a Chabad Torah Center, with a school and a worship space. I have never been inside, but on rare mornings when I am out early I sometimes see cars rushing into the parking lot for minyan. Shortly after the Chabad opened, drivers on the main thoroughfare began to see something new for this largely Christian area: Jews walking to services on Friday afternoons, eschewing automobiles as they engaged with the beginning of the Sabbath.
It was such a “new” thing for the neighborhood that people speeding by would do a double take, leering at the head-covered men and women on the sidewalks. The walkers would smile and wave good-naturedly, as though to say, “Yes, we’re taking time to slow down! We’re going to think about something else now, while you’re speeding up to make the next light on your way to the mall, or the store, or whatever you’re doing!”
Early on, when I saw their friendly waves, I would imagine I could hear Billy Crystal shouting Miracle Max’s famous line from The Princess Bride: “Have fun storming the castle!”
And then we wouldn’t see much of our Jewish neighbors because they were doing something almost unthinkable to the endlessly-busy goyim all around: they were resting. At sundown they were sharing a prayer and a meal, and then they were…well, what, exactly? What were they doing with all of that weird downtime?
Well, they were “doing” nothing of import beyond obeying God, who modeled for them the idea of a day of rest: a day not for “doing” but for “being.”
On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.
God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation (Gen 2:2-3).
“Sabbath rest,” I’ve been reliably informed by Jewish friends (none of whom regularly observe the Sabbath, themselves) can take many forms: it can mean hunkering down with a good book, or reading together, or playing a board game with the kids. It can mean simple one-on-one socializing with family members and friends. It can mean giving in to the urge to take a glorious afternoon nap, or taking more time to read holy pages, and pray over them.
Simply put, observing a Sabbath rest means taking the time to simply be. That can sound like nothing until you stop to consider that all of our cues and instincts, and too often our sense of who we are and what we are worth—what gives us “value” in our own eyes or in the eyes of others—are tied into what we “do.”
That perspective, with its skewed priorities, can color our understanding and relationship with God, whose valuation of us is not contingent upon our “doings” because the Creator loves us, wholly and completely, in our simple being. What we do for love of God may please heaven, and even bring blessings upon our heads, but it doesn’t make us more beloved than we already are.
We should consider that when we’re in the middle of our mad daily (and weekly) rushes to “storm the castle” and “get everything done” on our to-do lists. The world tells us we need to acquire things and credentials and accolades, in order to enjoy its good regard. We’re supposed to make our mark, and raise our kids to have similar ambitions, because if they “do” enough, successfully enough, then they will really “be somebody” in the world! Someone celebrated! Someone listened to! Someone who stands out because of what he or she has “done.”
It’s an empty sort of “being” that relies so much on what we have done. It takes an awful lot of doing in order to be someone in the world, and even more energy to maintain the world’s regard for as long as one can hold on to it, before fickle trends or simple mistakes impact one’s social value.
But we already have God’s good regard, and we have it always, because God’s own being is 100 percent love. The Sabbath is a day that allows us to remember that, and to be grateful for it, and even to bask in it a little.
Recently, I have tried to observe the Sabbath by “doing” less online, particularly by removing myself from social media. It did feel strange the first week, but I very quickly experienced a sense of contentedness that came from being less stimulated by headlines which, though they always change, so often seem to be the same. I was less distracted by “notification” cues meant to keep me apprised about who is thinking what about anything, which is something we didn’t always need to know.
What I’ve learned through this Sabbath observance has been healthily humbling, I think: having lived and breathed the internet for over fifteen years, and made my living with it, pulling away has shown me that I don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things—social media, and the world, buzzes along just fine without Lizzie.
I’ve learned that I needn’t have an opinion about every “daily outrage” that comes down the pike, nor need I feel obligated to praise or condemn someone, or some story, because plenty of others are doing that, and it’s pointless to add to the social din unless you’re saying something no one else has, which is unlikely.
I’ve discovered that the whole “If you don’t denounce thusly your silence implies consent” is a chump’s game not worth playing.
Mostly, I’ve learned that it is a good thing to take a break from the noise of my social media connection in order to reconnect with myself. In that contented silence, there is time to think; time to explore ideas that the online rush-to-react keeps me from considering; time to chat with the neighbors, to play a game of Scrabble, or lounge with my husband before an old movie; time to gaze at a beautiful Icon, like Rublev’s “Trinity,” and to simply “be” with it.
It is a kind of adoration, I have discovered. One looks at the Master; the Master looks back; and there is no doing, only being.
The world demands that we be Martha, constantly busy and “anxious about many things.” But this is why we need a day to let our inner Mary out, too—to sit, and listen, and observe, and think; to simply be, before God.
“Doing” is the first thing we bring up when we meet someone new. We greet them with an extended hand and a “how do you do?” In the space of minutes we are then asking each other, “What do you do?” We will often greet a friend with, “How are you doing?”
“How are you being?” might be the better, more valuable question.