[This essay is a chapter in Rabbi Waskow’s book Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights, 1996).]
One lesson that we have discerned from studying the story of the Flood [see a previous chapter from Godwrestling — Round 2] is that it is profoundly necessary for us to affirm and celebrate the cycles of life if we wish to preserve the cycles of life. Are those cycles now in danger? And if so, how can we affirm them?
The cycles are in danger. We humans have been acting as if we had outgrown them. We have become extraordinarily fruitful of new ideas and new products even of new humans. So much so that our fruitfulness threatens to blight all the fruit of our wombs, our minds, and our work.
We have wanted to become so fruitful that we could produce new fruit at every moment — force ripening it rather than sharing in the pauses that grow the ripened fruit. So we have almost destroyed the great cycles of productivity and rest, seedtime and waiting and harvest, from which the fruit bursts forth. Denied their rhythm and their rest, the cycles threaten to take their revenge by destroying us.
What would it mean for us to act more in tune with them?
The Biblical tradition teaches that when God wanted to accomplish the most fruitful act of all the creation of the world God needed to not act in order to complete the creation. the seal of all creation was the final creative act of deliberately not creating: of resting, of God’s pausing and catching a breath. (In Hebrew, in Exodus 31, shavat va yinafash. Shavat, “paused;” va yinafash, “took a breath” or even “became a breath.”) This is what it meant to make Shabbat, the Sabbath. So this is an ultimate teaching about the limits of creativity even the best and holiest creativity.
What would have happened if God had not paused — had become so joyful in the process of creating the Six Days that S/He had continued straight on, into a seventh and an eighth day of work? Surely, the world would have shattered under the weight of over creation. It was only the Sabbath that made the creation viable.
An artist will tell you: if you are painting a picture, there comes a moment when one more paint stroke will ruin it. You have to know when to stop, catch your breath, and be at peace with your painting. Then, on another canvas, you can start over. But always, in a rhythm, there most be a pause to not do. If you will not stop to rest, the work will stop anyway willy nilly. By ruination, if we refuse to rest.
This lesson applies to us. It was taught us in the Biblical command to make our own Sabbath the Sabbath of all of the seventh day, and also the Sabbath of the seventh month, the seventh year, and the year after the seventh seventh year the fiftieth, Jubilee year.
What was to happen on these Sabbaths?
On the seventh day, the community was to refrain from ordinary “work.” In the Biblical text, it is specified that this included gathering food, kindling a fire, and gathering the wood to build a fire. As particular issues arose to be judged, concerning what was the “work” that was prohibited, the Israelite community, first in Biblical and then in rabbinic times, had to work out a lore and law of what refraining meant.
The tradition developed that all the acts of labor that were necessary to build the Sanctuary of God’s Presence in the wilderness were prohibited on the Sabbath: that even the most holy of work intended to make ready the “house” of God on earth must bow before the holiness of Sabbath. The use of money, writing, planning business, riding in vehicles all came to a pause on Sabbath.
To some, it seemed clear that with these prohibitions came an awesome, frightening cast to the seventh day. But the main line of Jewish and Christian practice made the Sabbath into a joyful time. Gradually the day came to be celebrated as the focus of gathering in the family, prayer, meditation, song, Biblical study, sauntering warmly and calmly in the town and village.
In the seventh month the month of the autumn equinox, according to the Biblical count there were in the original Biblical pattern an extraordinary group of festivals. At each of the four phases of the moon in that lunar month, on the first and tenth and fifteenth and twenty third days came a festival. One of them lasted a full week.
Thus, alone of all the months, the seventh became a time of repeated rest, celebration, and meditation all focused on renewal of the individual and the community. Indeed, so powerful did the sense of renewal become in the seventh month that its first festival, on the day of the new moon, came to be understood as the beginning of a new year Rosh Hashanah and the last of the festivals became the time for starting over again the synagogue reading of the yearly cycle of Biblical passages.
The seventh or sabbatical year became the year of “release” or “letting go,” –- Today we might call it a year of “non-attachment.” (Leviticus 25). In that year the land was to rest for a Sabbath of its own — to be left fallow. The people — land-owners and the landless, homeborn and foreigners — were permitted to gather freely from the land’s free produce, but not to organize a regular sowing, cultivation, or harvest. So the people were also released from hierarchy. Deuteronomy 15: 1-11, written in a time of intense social upheaval in Israelite society, added that in the sabbatical year, all debts shall be annulled.
The great climax of the cycle came in the year after the seventh sabbatical year the fiftieth year, the year of the Jubilee. As the Bible (Leviticus 25) describes it, in the Jubilee not only was the land to have a restful Sabbath for the second year in a row but ownership of all the land was to be redistributed, family by family, so that the rich would give up everything extra they had accumulated during the previous cycle, and the poor would get back the solid life competence they had lost.
And all servants and slaves, whether indentured for a period or for their lifetimes, were to become free. So for a year, equality not of “opportunity” but in actuality, in status, wealth, and power would be renewed in the whole society. And this would be accomplished not by a central government’s taxation or police power, but by the direct action of each family, each clan, each tribe in its own region.
Scholars disagree whether the Jubilee part of the cycle, the most profound and radical, was ever fully carried out. But as an ideal, a goal, and a demand it lasted not only among the Prophets and in the teachings of Jesus, but even into the rhetoric of the Liberty Bell and the songs of emancipation at the end of American slavery in 1865.
The effect of this system of spirals of sevens was the periodic renewal of “repose” in both the physical and institutional spheres. The cycles affirmed the worth of labor and pointed beyond labor to the worth of celebration. The cycles affirmed the worth of efforts to control and use the earth and pointed beyond that effort to the worth of loving the earth. The cycles affirmed the worth of efforts to accumulate wealth and power and pointed beyond that accumulation to the worth of sharing.
In these ways, the spirals of renewal taught through constant practice that even the best acts of creation and production and accumulation were not the single goal of human effort. The Sabbath mattered.
But for the last 500 years or so, the human race has celebrated no Sabbath. We have become intoxicated with our own greatly increased powers of creation, of production and consumption; and in our intoxication we have not paused. What we have with these powers been able to create has been good tools to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick. The work has been more than good; it has been vital, life giving. So for 500 years, we have thought that it would be a waste of time indeed a waste of time for us to pause, to contemplate, meditate, share, reevaluate. Far better to do our work.
Many of us thought indeed that our new ability to do such vital work was so life giving that we had become what God once was: the giver of life, the creator of worlds. And perhaps we thought that since we had become practically Divine, the commands that we should pause from our earthly work no longer applied to us. We paid no attention to the meaning of the Bible’s teaching that not only human beings, but even God, had had to pause and make a Sabbath. Instead, we worked away.
And therefore, our creativity is on the verge of decreating the world. On the verge of drowning it in a Flood of Fire, returning it to the primordial void and chaos.
We need the Sabbath. It is the acceptance of a Mystery, the celebration of a Mystery rather than of Mastery. It is the acceptance of the mysterious truth that our own Mastery cancels itself out, is most self destructive when it is most complete.
So one great word the religious traditions have to say to the human race is : MAKE SABBATH! Pause. Rest. Reflect. Catch your breath. Meditate. Reevaluate what you have done. Life for a moment at peace with the rest of the created world. Renew society by redistributing wealth and power so that people can start out again as equals. Celebrate.
This does not mean cursing technology, work, production, consumption, accumulation. It means putting them in their proper place: within the framework of the Sabbath.
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