Why do we need to rest?

May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Shabbat renews us in two ways.

First, the prayerful aspect of Shabbat provides the structure by which we enrich our spiritual lives. By engaging in regular prayer we are able to learn how to connect to what is greater and grander than us.

The discipline of prayer also increases our resilience, making it easier to rebound and rebuild when tragedy or difficulty strikes. I have found from my own experience, for example, that prayer changes the nature of my self-talk, that internal narrative, to give me the strength to overcome obstacles. When I hear myself falter, the language of prayer fills in those spaces and reinforces my resolve to move forward. It provides a reminder that I am not alone. I am a theist: in those moments, I sense the presence of God.

But even if you have your doubts about God, it is possible to sense that the community itself is behind you. And, if my own experience might be a guide, if you engage in regular prayer you will also eventually find your way to God, to a deeper and richer understanding of your relationship to the ultimate.

But Shabbat also provides us with a second source of renewal in the form of unstructured time, a space in which we might physically and emotionally recharge as well.

This sense of Shabbat is profoundly liberating. As the Torah commentator Doron Danino writes, “In the ancient world being a slave meant absolute subservience and unending work for one’s master; the Sabbath extricated the slave once a week from subservience to his master. Thus the Sabbath essentially curbed and restricted the institution of slavery, from which we can understand its association with the exodus from Egypt.” [1] Shabbat is the source of our freedom.

But we forget that sometimes. We all know that we need to take time off. It’s one of those things that we fully understand intellectually: of course it’s not possible to work continuously without stopping. But sometimes we try to do so anyway. In fact, I must admit, it’s a lesson that I learned first-hand this semester, the hard way.

Shabbat is, of course, at the very heart of my spiritual experience. The lighting of candles, the family dinner, the rhythm of prayer all nurture my heart and soul and provide a connection with the source of it all.

Nonetheless, the funny thing about rabbinic work is that in many ways we’re busier on Shabbat than most weekdays. In my household, we refer to Fridays as ‘six shot Fridays’ because it means that I drink three espresso drinks instead of my usual two. I want to be a bit pumped up because I routinely see more people on Shabbat than I do the rest of the week. But that fact is also one of the key reasons why Shabbat is very much the highlight of my week.

But that’s not the only busy time. Between the congregation, the university, and the community, there is plenty to do, even before I factor in my family obligations. That’s not a complaint: it’s all good stuff. Sundays and Mondays are busy because they involve the Rabin Religious School. I usually teach at the university on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Monday nights are also meeting nights. Wednesdays and Thursdays are for teaching and meeting. I usually write my sermon on Thursdays, finalize it on Fridays, and then engage in pastoral care during breaks in between. Torah rolling takes place on Friday afternoons. Saturdays are usually devoted to community-building in one way or another.

In the midst of all of this, Tuesdays are my day off.

In the fall, I taught a course for the university in the honors program. In the spring, I was all set to do another honors course, but we (the board and I) received the request that I teach Introduction to Judaism. And it made sense to do so, for a variety of reasons, so we said yes. It was the right decision, and I don’t regret it. Nonetheless, it meant that I’d be teaching on Tuesdays instead of my usual schedule.

It doesn’t sound like much, really: I would be teaching exactly the same number of hours as I had been teaching, so it shouldn’t fundamentally change anything. I really wasn’t worried about it.

But time off is like sleep: you need a stretch of uninterrupted time on a regular basis. It is not enough to have a few hours here and a few hours there: you need to have a full day off. Three months later, I feel like I’m frayed at the edges. I’ve arranged to teach again next year, but on the stipulation that I only teach on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’ve learned something in this process.

It is simply not possible to work continuously: we all know this intellectually. Shabbat offers us the ideal of a full day off, one that offers structured time for spiritual reflection and unstructured time for physical and emotional rejuvenation. It is a worthy goal, a necessary goal.

So what should you do if you find that you are feeling frayed at the edges? The key question to ask yourself: are you needing more structured time – in the form of prayer – or more unstructured time – in the form of relaxation? Or are you deficient in both?

[1] Doron Danino, “Sabbath, Shemitah and the Hebrew Slave – Symbols of Freedom,” Rachel Rowen, transl. Bar-llan University Parashat Hashavua Study Center, May 4, 2013.

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