A Sabbath from the Speed of Life

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Shanah Tovah. To each of you — to the members of our KKBE family, and your visiting family and loved ones; to those traveling in Charleston and members of the wider community who are here to celebrate with us this Rosh Hashanah morning — to each of you, I wish you blessing and good health, abundant joy and enduring peace, as we enter the new year of 5779.

5779 — what does that number represent? According to tradition, it’s the number of years that have passed since the creation of the world. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since God separated heaven from earth, darkness from light, land from sea. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since God hung the moon, sun, and stars in the sky. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since plants began to sprout, birds began to fly; since human ancestry began.

Of course, few of us here subscribe to the ancient story as a literal accounting of creation. We understand that nearly every component of the created world goes back not thousands, but millions and billions of years. Yet there is one part of creation that is much more recent than the others. One that didn’t exist until Jewish tradition brought it into existence. One that may very well be five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years old — and the only creation in the entire story described as holy: “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches: “The first holy object in the history of the world” was time. Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World, writes: “The first week was the first temporal division not tethered to the sun or the moon.” The concept of a week, and a Sabbath at its end — to be mindful of the idea of time, to keep one week from simply bleeding into the next — had to be created. Shabbat, and its unique way of helping us to value and sanctify time, has been described as the greatest gift God has given to the Jews, and the Jewish people, in turn, to humanity.

So how are we doing with our gift? Are we cherishing time, savoring it, keeping it holy? I think we know the answer. I think our souls feel it. How many of us have commented that, in one way or another, time continually feels like it’s slipping away, like we’re racing to keep up with our own lives? The speed of life is one of the biggest spiritual challenges we face as we enter this new year.

“When will today’s fast be tomorrow’s slow?” an advertising banner asked at the top of a webpage I was looking at recently — and I felt my pulse quicken, terrified. I already feel like life is moving faster than I can sometimes handle — how much faster can time possibly go? Thomas Friedman says we’re living in an age of acceleration. Think about how it feels to ride in a car, a plane: When we’re cruising, we often don’t feel the speed, or if we do, it’s the pleasurable sensation of wind in our hair, the landscape rolling by. But when we accelerate, everything tenses. We’re thrust back against our seats. We physically feel pressure — and it takes a toll. When two people greet one another on the street, the phone, at services, what’s the universal refrain we hear? “How are you doing?” “I’m so busy.” Or, if we can’t afford time for a complete sentence: “Busy, hectic, tired, stressed.” The Chinese pictograph for ‘busy’ is composed of two characters: heart and killing. That is exactly what “busy” — what today’s speed of life — is. [1]

We need to slow down, every single one of us. No one is exempt, and there’s no guilt or shame in doing so. We need to take a break, stop, catch our breath. Especially when we’re bombarded with messages encouraging us to go faster, to increase the busy-ness of our lives, how important it is to remember that five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years ago we were commanded to: “Slow down… you move too fast.” Yes — Simon and Garfunkel are right there in the Torah! We need, every seven days, to let go of at least some of the stress in our lives and accept the freedom Shabbat has always granted. We need the three forms of respite from speed Shabbat offers, if only we reclaim our holy gift.

First, we need Shabbat’s respite from the speed of knowing. Matte Barón works with corporate executives. “I teach them how to be present,” he says. “Stress and anxiety happen when you’re managing the future.” [2] Can we hear the chutzpah in that phrase, “managing the future”? Humans plan, God laughs. Yet how much energy do we expend, how much stress do we incur, in our racing to know what things mean and how they’re going to turn out… right now!

There’s an old Taoist story about a wise man on the northern frontier of China:

One day, for no apparent reason, his son’s horse ran away and was taken by nomads across the border. Everyone tried to offer consolation for the man’s ill fortune, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?”

Months later, the son’s horse returned, bringing with her a magnificent stallion. Their household was made richer by this fine horse, which the son loved to ride, and everyone was full of congratulations for the son’s good fortune. But his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” 

One day the son fell off the horse and broke his hip. Once again, everyone offered their consolation for his bad luck, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?” 

A year later the nomads mounted an invasion across the border, and every able-bodied man was required to take up his bow and go into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. [3]

The moral of the story is not that nothing is as it seems, or that it’s utter futility to try and understand our lives and the world around us. But everything is always changing. Our limited vision yields a picture that is never complete. Under those circumstances, what is lost in taking a one day break? A day on which we admit we’ll never really know, so let’s, just for this one day, let it go, and anchor ourselves firmly in the present. 

“Every person needs to take a day away,” Maya Angelou wrote. “A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future … a day in which no problems are confronted, no solutions are searched for.” Shabbat is our day of freedom from knowing how things are going to get done or turn out. And we need this freedom now more than ever.

Sometimes that from which we need freedom seems like a good thing. But the old adage is true: Everything in moderation. Mindful of every sermon in which I’ve emphasized how important it is to be engaged in tikkun olam, repairing the world — even from this, we need a break. Specifically, we need Shabbat’s respite from the speed of today’s activism. 

Marches, rallies, protests. Speakers, films, book discussions. Town halls, vigils, council meetings. If we care about today’s world, tikkun olam can easily become our full-time job. Yet “the frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace,” in at least two ways, says Muller. “It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.” And it shields us “from the actual experience of suffering.”

In 1973, two social psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, conducted an experiment with students on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary.

First, the researchers ran tests to determine each student’s personality type. Then they announced that the students would have to give a talk. Half of them were asked to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan [the parable in which Jesus encountered a wounded man, had compassion for him, and paused in his travels to care for him]. The other half were told to discuss the job prospects that faced them as future ministers. All were instructed to report to another building, where their audiences would be waiting for them. 

As the students left the first building, a researcher urged about a third of them to hurry, because they were already late. He assured another third that they were right on time but shouldn’t dawdle. He told the last third that there was a slight delay in the proceedings but that they should wander over anyway.

As the students walked to the second building, they passed a man slumped against a doorway in an alley. They didn’t know it, but this was the real test. As each student approached, the man coughed and groaned. If the student stopped, the man told them in a confused and groggy voice that he was fine but he had a respiratory condition; he had taken medicine that would begin to work any minute now. If the student insisted on helping the man, he allowed himself to be taken into a building nearby.

After the data was weighted and the variables analyzed, only one thing consistently predicted who would stop to help and who wouldn’t. The important factor was neither personality type nor whether a student’s career or the parable of the Good Samaritan was foremost in his mind. It was whether or not he was in a hurry. … Those who felt themselves to be in a rush didn’t realize that he needed help until after they’d passed him. Time pressure narrowed their “cognitive map,” and they raced by without seeing. [4]

Ask yourself, for all that you care about, and care deeply, in this world — for all the urgency you feel behind the need for change — are you willing to sacrifice recognizing your fellow suffering right beside you? If the experience of life increases in direct proportion to being present in the moment, is there anywhere that a break from the speed of life is more important than in the realm of compassion and justice? On Shabbat, one day in seven, we need to slow down, caring for our own souls as well as those around us.

And what is it that fuels so much of the busy-ness that occupies our time? What is overwhelmingly responsible for the rate of acceleration we feel in so many areas of our lives? The speed of technology. From this, more than anything, we desperately need the respite Shabbat offers. 

Thomas Friedman tells the story of a king who was deeply impressed with the man who invented chess and offered him any reward for his achievement. The inventor asked for rice, one grain of rice, placed on a corner square of a chessboard. “One grain?” the king asked. “That would hardly feed a mouse, much less your family.” One grain, the inventor insisted, but if the king would, double the amount on the next square: Two grains of rice. “Certainly!” the emperor agreed. “In fact, I’ll double the amount on each of the board’s squares.” The inventor agreed, but little did the emperor realize — doubling one grain of rice 63 times would yield something like 18 quintillion grains of rice by the end of the board — enough to feed not only the inventor’s family, but the whole village.

This kind of acceleration is precisely what we’ve experienced in the realm of technology. For one generation, the singular defining advancement was the telephone; for another the TV. But “because of the explosive power of exponential growth,” Friedman writes, “the twenty-first century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress.” [5] When advancement happens this fast, how can we not feel out of control — and it just keeps coming. There’s nothing inherently bad about technology; far from it. Look at all that humankind has been able to achieve. Yet in 1951, long before the invention of smart phones and tablets, Abraham Joshua Heschel already understood: “In spite of our triumphs,” he wrote, “we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.” We don’t have to renounce the technologies and gadgets at our disposal, he taught, but we do need to attain some degree of independence from them.

Five thousand, seven hundred and seventy-nine years ago, we were given permission; this year, more than ever, we need to take it: A respite from the speed of life. “The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God,” wrote Heschel. Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik called Shabbat, “the most brilliant creation of the Hebrew spirit.” (p. xviii-xix) And we miss it. “When we pine for escape from the rat race; … when we fret about the disappearance of a more old-fashioned time, with its former, generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose; when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumption; … whenever we worry about these things, [our souls] are remembering the Sabbath….” [6]

But all we have to do is reclaim it; it’s ours for the taking. Shabbat “does not require us to leave home, … go on retreat, or leave the world of ordinary life. We do not have to change clothes or purchase any expensive spiritual equipment. We only need to remember.” (Muller, p. 8) And the seventh day doesn’t have to be the arduous “picture-perfect” observance we imagine, either. “In the poetry of the prayer book,” writes Shulevitz, “the Sabbath is a bride greeted by an impatient bridal party with an almost anguished relief. In the more prosaic dominion of my house, the Sabbath sees herself in and sits down to wait.” [7] And. That’s. OK. Shabbat is all about embracing freedom, including freedom from a perfect Shabbat. Stress over Shabbat would defeat its purpose. Candles, Kiddush, challah? You’ll decide. A home-cooked meal? Maybe, but not necessarily. Most important is that you carve out time; how you decide to fill it can evolve later. 

Begin by keeping your calendar open. Make it a personal practice not to schedule meetings or commitments on Shabbat — even for something fun like dinner or a movie. Give yourself the ability to do what your soul tells you it needs to do when you take the time to pay attention to it. Meet a friend on Saturday afternoon because you feel like doing so — not because you’re keeping a commitment that you would. Refrain from doing things which fulfill a goal or purpose, complete something begun before Shabbat, or prepare for something that will conclude after Shabbat is over. With practice, the chores of daily life — folding laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying — will drift away on Shabbat, and what could get done on Saturday will be content to wait until Sunday. And you will, too.

Practice not answering emails on Shabbat — and since you’ve committed to not answering them, why read them either? Phones, television, social media — these are tricky and personal. Each can bring joy, connect families, lift one’s spirits. But they can also make demands, help us to pass time rather than inhabit it, deplete our souls and spirits, as well. So pay attention to how you feel, and remember that, if you wish, Shabbat grants you permission to turn it all off.

This New Year, as we hope and pray that our names will be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life, let our reclaiming of the sacred gift of Shabbat be our first commitment toward that end. As the poet Marcia Falk has written:

Three generations back

my family had only

to light a candle

and the world parted.

Today, Friday afternoon,

I disconnect clocks and phones.

[But] when night fills my house

with passages,

I begin saving

my life.


[1] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delightful in Our Busy Lives, pp. 2-3.

[2] Teddy Wane, “The 7-Day Digital Diet,” New York Times, February 9, 2014.

[3] Muller, pp. 187-9 (adapted).

[4] Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, p. 24ff (adapted).

[5] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, p. 201.

[6] Shulevitz, p. xxix.

[7] Ibid, p. 3.

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