By Daniel Kieval
Shabbat, the seventh day, the day of rest, is a strange concept to so many today. The long lists of prohibited actions seem to run counter to popular notions of individual choice and freedom, and the idea of temporarily disengaging from the continual “status updates” of society is viewed with a mix of astonishment and terror.
We live in a world of activity. Industrialized humans spend just about all of their time either producing something or consuming something, whether it be products, information, or energy. Time and space are voids to be filled, rather than dimensions to inhabit. It would not be unreasonable to change our name from “human beings” to “human doings.” Meanwhile, all of this “doing” is taking its toll—on our bodies, on our societies, and on our planet.
The truth is, we produce and consume far more than we need to be happy, and much of our perceived freedom is illusory; how many of us can admit to times that we feel like “slaves” to our email, or our cell phones, or our work schedules? Shabbat, with its seemingly restrictive laws, not only does not enslave us but actually opens the door to a deep freedom from our day to day lives. It is a freedom that we often don’t even know we are missing until we discover it: the freedom to stop, to rest, to be.
Millennia after the invention of Shabbat, others have started to recognize humanity’s deep need to simply exist. The Slow Food movement has expanded into an all-encompassing “Slow Movement,” including the playful but genuine “International Institute of Not Doing Much,” that fights against the ever-increasing pace of modern life. Sustainable farming guru Masanobu Fukuoka wrote that “We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a ‘movement’ not to bring anything about.”
The Torah, in fact, contains a similar sentiment. Every seventh year is a “sabbatical year”: the Israelites are prohibited from plowing, planting, and harvesting their fields in order to let the land rest. The consequences of violating this commandment are instructive: “And you will I scatter among the nations… and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate… As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest” (Lev 26:33-35). If the Israelites do not treat the land with respect they will be driven off of it, and it will take its rest by force. It is a warning that we today ignore at our peril: the Earth takes 18 months to regenerate the resources that humans currently use in a year, and that ratio is projected to worsen in the coming decades.
Many of our most serious problems could be mitigated if people simply slowed down or even, every so often, did nothing at all. Fast food—because people don’t have the time to eat, let alone cook, a leisurely sit-down meal—is causing a global health catastrophe in the form of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, costing untold billions of dollars every year. Accidents caused by texting while driving and even texting while walking have become a serious public safety issue as our gadgets demand our attention with ever more immediacy. Gratuitous industrial farming practices are destroying a precious American resource—topsoil—and contributing to large scale ecological degradation in order to produce more food than we need, leaving a legacy of exhausted farmland that has not known a sabbatical in generations.
Of course we could not survive by doing nothing all the time—Shabbat is only one day in seven, after all, and the same breath that gave it to us also commanded a full week of work in between. But we can survive, and thrive, by doing a little bit less all the time. Even more than the details of how we spend our Saturdays, Shabbat is about acquiring a certain consciousness, an appreciation of Slow, that alters the way we experience the world. It gives us the ability to reflect on how we live the rest of the week, what we do and do not allow to govern our lives, and, most important, what all of our hard work is really for.