Just before Holy Week, I was invited to participate in a consultation on the future of Sunday or Sabbath observance. During the consultation, I was reminded of one of the most important religious books written in the 20th century. It is “The Sabbath,” by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was an Orthodox rabbi who escaped the Nazis and made his home in New York City. He became a prolific teacher and author who opened traditional Jewish teaching to an English-speaking and Christian world. One of his main points in this short book is that Sabbath observance (the immensely counter-cultural notion that we take one day out of every seven to refrain from labor – what we must do to live – in order to rest, renew, refocus and celebrate) was what kept the Jewish people alive when they had no homeland and nowhere to locate their national identity.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70CE, the Jewish people lost the center, the focal point of their worship and their identity. No building ever replaced the Temple. What took its place, Heschel argued, was what he called “the architecture of time.” When the Jews no longer had a shared sacred space, they built a shared sacred time – a time that was described as a remembrance of both the completion of creation (God rested on the 7th day of creation) and the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt (because only free people can decide not to work).
The consultation reminded me that we do not talk about this ancient and venerable practice as much as we should. Sabbath practice is not just taking time off or a vacation or shutting out the world. Sabbath is fundamentally a community practice – whether we do it together or alone. It is marking a day as “holy to God” and then deciding how we will cultivate a recognition of God’s presence in our lives. The Sabbath is our opportunity to stop being busy so that we may: worship God (take time to experience God’s presence and respond to God with thanks and praise); experience the blessing of “beloved community” and of family; and rest from the incessant demands of work and media. Without insisting on imposing Sabbath observance on others, we might choose to spend our time in such a way that does not require others to labor on our behalf.
The traditional Sabbath greeting is, “Shabbat shalom.” The peace of the Sabbath be with you. May it be for us.
Cynthia M. Campbell, pastor