Just sit there right now
Don’t do a thing
For your separation from The One,
Is the hardest work
In this World.
Let me bring you trays of food
That you like to Drink.
You can use my soft words
As a cushion for your Head.
–Hafiz (14th-century Sufi poet and scholar)
Have you ever spent an evening with a pre-schooler who didn’t get her afternoon nap? What happened? Did a lot of things go wrong for her? When they did, could she cope? Could she respond to logic? Could she share? Or was there one crisis after another, each ending in time-outs and out-of-control sobbing?
But are pre-schoolers the only ones who get like this, when they don’t get the rest they need? When people don’t get enough rest, no matter how old we are, we can’t think straight, we don’t solve problems well, we get irritable, we get clumsy, and we overreact again and again. Sometimes we feel like we’re losing our minds. Just the other week, I was rushing around, trying to do too many things after not quite enough sleep, and I tripped and fell headlong on the trail in the woods. Well, that was a pretty clear message. I had just been reading that a third of car accidents are the result of fatigue. And so, as I sat in the mud, and felt my joints for breaks, I thought to myself, you know what? You’d better slow down. You’d better get some rest.
According to the Jewish tradition, rest is an essential part of the sacred pattern of the universe. One ancient Hebrew creation story starts out something like this:
“In a beginning, when the Creator began to create, the earth was without form and void. The breath of the Creator stirred over the face of the deep, and the Creator spoke light. And light came into being. And the Creator saw that it was good, and separated the light from the dark. And the Creator named the light Day, and the darkness the Creator named Night. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” 1
Next the Creator goes on to speak earth and sky into being, and separates them from the sea. Then the creator calls into being plants, sun and moon and stars, animals of sea and sky and earth, and then people. At each stage of creation, the creator marvels at the work that has been done and says it is good. And when the whole is nearly complete, the Creator says it is very good. And yet, the work is not quite done. This is how one translation of the story ends:
“With the seventh day, God finished all the work that God had done. God [thus] ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had been doing. God blessed the seventh day, and declared it to be holy, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work that God had been creating [so that it would continue] to function.” 2
So that it would continue to function.
In the Jewish tradition, then, one of the most important things that came into being when the divine breath stirred, in fact the crowning glory of creation, was rest, the rest of Sabbath, the seventh day. And rest is necessary in order for creation to function.
Wayne Muller writes:
“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, serenity, repose—rest in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete. “3
Later in the Hebrew Bible, Jews are told by God to keep the Sabbath holy. This is one of the ten commandments Moses receives from God. In other words, in the Jewish tradition it is just as important to completely rest, one day a week, as it is NOT to lie, steal, or murder. Rest is necessary in order for creation to function.
One of the great rabbis of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote that, “The Sabbath as a day of rest 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.” 4
What can this mean? Of course we do need rest to recover our strength. We need to sleep so that our bodies can repair themselves and our brains can process the events of the day.
But Heschel says this kind of rest is not what the Sabbath day is about. The Sabbath is about something bigger and deeper. It is about living in harmony with the beautiful world and celebrating and praising it. It is about ceasing work entirely and devoting oneself solely to simple pleasures of relationship and the senses, as these are divine gifts and therefore where the divine is most closely revealed.
In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is ushered in on Friday evening at sundown. Before it starts, the people prepare the meals they will need for the Sabbath so that they only need to be warmed later. They disconnect clocks and phones and most machines, and put on their most beautiful garments. Then, at sundown, the women of the home light candles and sing prayers over them to welcome the Sabbath as if welcoming a bride. The people eat a simple, delicious meal. At the beginning of the meal they lay their hands on the heads of their children and bless them, with words of love and wishes for their health. Later, couples might take ritual baths to prepare their bodies and hearts for lovemaking. Families attend worship services, sometimes both Friday night and Saturday morning, sometimes just Saturday. After Saturday services, they eat Sabbath lunch with traditional Challah bread, and wine in a beautiful vessel, and pass around a cup of freshly ground spices, just for the fragrance. Couples enjoy the pleasures of one another’s bodies in the afternoon. They may later play games with their children, or take walks in nature, or read. Just after sunset on Saturday, the women bid the Sabbath farewell by singing a special prayer, and then they extinguish the Sabbath candles.
Now, I think it is worth remembering here that the ancient Hebrews, who invented this tradition, were people who were often exiled from their homeland. They were often the poorest of the poor, and the most hated refugees in any land. These poor and despised people were the people who said that one day a week, we must stop all work, and we must devote ourselves to celebrating the beauty of the world we have been given. In this way did they create the world for themselves, again and again. For them, the Sabbath was necessary in order for the world to function.
My friend Jodi, an observant Jew who happens to live in poverty, says it is the same for her now. She says she and her children re-create themselves and their world each week, when they turn everything off, and dwell for 24 hours together, in the quiet center of the heart of God.
Now, every religion in the world instructs human beings to stop all our hurrying and striving and find that still place within, that place in which we know ourselves to be a part of all that is, and see and praise its unutterable beauty.
Why, then, is it so difficult for us Americans to rest?
Partly I think it is that old Puritan work ethic that is part of our national consciousness, the one that says prosperity is a sign that you are one of God’s elect. And you know that old saying: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” But a bigger part of it is that we are steeped in an idea called, by its inventor in 1929, the Gospel of Consumption. 5
This begins with the premise that we are inherently unhappy. In order to become happy, we must continually buy more and newer stuff. This means we must continually work more and more hours to get the money to buy the stuff.
This idea was specifically invented because American companies in the 1920’s were worried that pretty soon, they would be able to produce everything everyone needed for a whole year, in just six months. This would mean people would only need to work 20 hours a week to provide everything their families needed. Imagine that! It was a big problem because the companies wanted to keep their factories going all the time to make money they wanted. And they were very worried that a people with leisure time would become radical.
It turned out they didn’t need to worry right away because then the Great Depression happened, and then World War II happened. But after World War II, the same problem arose again. Newspaper headlines were full of concern about the coming surplus of leisure. The time was finally ripe for the Gospel of Consumption to take off and spread like wildfire. And it did, to the point where in 2005, American couples worked 500 more hours per year than they had in 1929 to be able to buy all the stuff they think they needed…and they spent 32 times as much on durable goods.
On the impact side, Americans are only four percent of the world’s population, but we use 25 percent of the world’s resources; this means we take what we need from other places, impoverishing ecosystems and peoples all over the world. If everyone in the world had as much stuff as we do, we would need five and a half planets. 6 Our government uses the military to “stabilize” parts of the world where we extract resources and dump our waste. And most of the people in the military are poor people and people of color.
Thus the virus of consumption creates unnecessary poverty and war, and endangers the health of the planet.
What can we do?
Remember that rest is necessary for creation to function.
You may think it would never be possible for Americans to slow down and rest. You may point out that we are still recovering from a recession, and people who have jobs need to work especially hard to keep them. But let me tell you another story.
In the depths of the Great Depression, when people were losing jobs right and left as company after company failed, a man named Mr. Kellogg had a new idea. He owned a cereal company, and he realized that if he cut the work week to thirty hours for his three shifts of workers, he could add a whole fourth shift. That provided 300 new jobs—during the Great Depression! The workers were able to rest, to spend more time with their families, to educate themselves, to build their community. Mr. Kellogg’s idea worked. The workers were so happy with the results that they continued to vote for the shorter work week clear up until the year 1984. 7 By then, most employees were too young to remember what the world was like before the Gospel of Consumption swallowed everything.
If a shorter work week was possible during the Great Depression, it should certainly be possible now. In fact, if our society collectively decided we could get by with the amount of stuff per family that people owned in 1948, we would only have to work about three hours a day.8 But can we actually do this? How can we wean ourselves from the cycle of consumption, which has taught us that work is who we are and what we are about and that we are only allowed to experience pleasure when we have the right stuff and our work is all done and we have solved all the world’s problems?
Remember that rest is necessary for creation to function.
My brothers and sisters, my point here is not to make you feel guilty or ashamed. No, the very opposite. What I am asking you to do is to love yourself, and love the world, enough to rest.
And so I ask you to try an experiment. Take one day a week—at least a full 24 hour period—and spend it enjoying the simple pleasures of your earthly body. Turn everything you can—including computers and phones—off. Put on your most beautiful garments. Light candles. Eat simple meals with loved ones. Bless your children. Worship. Take baths. Enjoy erotic pleasure. Play. Tell stories. Take walks. Make music. Sleep. Celebrate the beauty of this world.
You might notice, after some time of doing this, that you feel less frantic. You might notice that your mind is clear and problems don’t seem so big. You might notice that you have more energy. You might feel quite content with very little stuff.
If you are employed, and you need less stuff, you might be able to cut back on your work hours. This could open up hours for unemployed people to fill. You might find that working less opens up more time for family, and community.
If you are retired, and you need less stuff, you might find you have more money and more energy to give to your community.
If you are unemployed or only marginally employed, like my friend Jodi, you might find that celebrating life one day a week changes your perception of what poverty is. Jodi has very little money but she does not actually feel herself to be living in poverty. She and her children have sufficient food, a roof over their heads, and a very few beautiful possessions. And that is all they feel they need. They have a lot of time together and they spend much of that in community service.
Whatever your circumstances, if you take one day a week for a Sabbath—if you rest—you might bring to your family and community a heart centered in love and joy. This is the most effective tool for change known to humankind.
In short, if you rest, you might just create a whole new world.
My friends, to preserve our beautiful planet, we must let it rest. And to do this, we ourselves must rest.
1 Personal re-telling of Genesis 1:1-5, Hebrew Bible, based on readings of several Hebrew-English interlinears.
2 ORT Online Resources. Navigating the Bible II. http://bible.ort.org/books/torahd5.asp?action=displaypage&book=1&chapter=2&verse=1&portion=1
3 Muller, Wayne. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. New York, Bantam Books, 1999. P. 37.
4 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1959. P. 14.
5 Kaplan, Jeffrey. “The Gospel of Consumption and the Better Future We Left Behind.” Orion Magazine, May/June 2007. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/2962/
6 http://www.myfootprint.org/en/. Results for average American. Take the quiz and see the size of your ecological footprint!