A Time to Labor and a Time to Rest
by Rabbi Mark Elber
Published in the Herald News on May 14, 2014
I’m sure it’s not headline news to anyone that we live in an increasingly complex world. Even the very mechanisms and technological breakthroughs that were initially conceived to be labor savers have instead served to clutter and glut our daily lives. As the poet, William Wordsworth wrote in 1807: “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; - /Little we see in Nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon…” Written over two hundred years ago, Wordsworth already felt, during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, that we were losing our connection with the natural world. It’s not a great stretch to conjecture that there’s a link between our ever growing distance from the natural world and our polluting, depleting, and exploiting it with too little regard for the eventual consequences.
If our disconnection with the world of nature was true in Wordsworth’s time, how much more so is it true in our own?! People have certainly remained concerned with this issue in the centuries since Wordsworth’s time. More recently, many of us might remember Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi” (“They Paved Paradise and Put up a Parking Lot”). While it is true that technology makes many of our lives significantly easier, it comes with a price: it tends to elbow Nature out of the way as well as distracting us from connecting to it.
The internet is one of the most striking examples of the benefits and drawbacks of technological advances. The amount of knowledge at our fingertips thanks to the internet is astounding, but simultaneously the deluge of nonsense available “balks account” as Walt Whitman would have said - except that Whitman was celebrating the glory of what it is to be human. To appreciate the majesty of our existence - human’s, Nature’s, the planet’s - invokes a sense of the eternal and transcendent in the midst of the ephemeral. But sadly, rather than being grounded through our connection to the eternal and transcendent in our midst, we seem to be bombarded by the trivial, the transient, the superficial, the cosmetic.
Our society’s celebrity worship stares at us every time we stand in the check-out line at the supermarket. Most renown and celebrity today is not attained by dint of contributing to the improvement of humanity or knowledge, but because of the celebrities’ entertainment value (and not necessarily entertainment that simultaneously edifies). I’m certainly not claiming to be immune from the onslaught. Maybe I’m oblivious to the deeper message that current fashions convey and represent. Maybe there is some deep reservoir of timeless values beneath what looks temporal and superficial and I simply don’t see it because it’s no longer my generation that is generating it. Or maybe we increasingly are at the mercy of shallow values bombarding and distracting us incessantly. How do we retreat from this onslaught?
The Jewish tradition of honoring and treasuring a weekly Sabbath day can greatly contribute to realigning one’s inner self on a regular basis. As the great 20th Century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 - 1972) wrote, the Sabbath is an “oasis,” a “palace in time”. “Keeping the Sabbath” in the traditional Jewish manner (which, by the way begins at sunset on Friday, extending to one hour after sunset on Saturday) gives me a weekly opportunity to re-attune myself. During this 25 hour period of keeping or “guarding” the Sabbath as a holy time separated from the other days of the week, I disconnect from the world of electronic media, walk instead of drive, spend time with family and friends, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere this oasis in time can cultivate. While it is true that outside the world of Orthodox Judaism, not many American Jews are strict “Sabbath observers,” it seems to me that in today’s world the power of this practice is more relevant than ever.
Creating a refuge in one’s week from the unrelenting demands of the commercial world can regularly re-soul a person and help keep a connection to the more spiritual elements of our lives, to Nature, to the parts of ourselves that are gloriously human, to our highest aspirations, to the ideals of who we want to be in our lives and not so much what we want to acquire, to staying in touch with that which is timeless.