New friends are puzzled, even dismayed, when they hear about the way I observe the Shabbat. They are surprised to learn that I do not write, flip an electric switch, use the telephone, cook, or engage in a host of assorted everyday activities for twenty-five hours each week, starting Friday night at sunset until Saturday at nightfall.
After that brief pocket of time, I am back on track, rushing along on that same fast-paced corporate treadmill. No one who sees me in the throes of my hectic life would ever believe I take such a prolonged hiatus, and on such a regular basis. "How can you afford to do that?" they ask. When they hear that my observance also precludes shopping, theater-going and a wide gamut of recreational activities, they'll raise an eyebrow and say, "Why would you want to do that?"
This reaction is not at all surprising. It comes from the natural assumption that to cease our everyday pursuits is not only difficult, but impossible. Think of the advertisements with the harried climber perched precariously on the mountaintop, logging in on a laptop to check for email; or the sunbather on a remote island clinching a last-minute deal even as she professes to be on vacation.
"You shall work during the six days and do all your tasks. But Saturday is the Shabbat to G‑d your Lord. Do not do anything that constitutes work." (Exodus 20:8-10.)
Everyone seems to take this fourth of the Ten Commandments quite seriously. The part about working for six days, that is. But, of course, the whole commandment is relevant: Shabbat is rendered meaningful by the work days and the work days are elevated by Shabbat.
The Kabbalah teaches that G‑d spent six days creating a stage on which we are all the actors. He did this by contracting His energy and pulling back, thus creating an "empty place," an arena we call "the world." G‑d remains hidden to allow us our freedom and the ability to choose. He's hoping we will choose Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world. He's hoping we will validate His plan by spending six days each week elevating this world, unmasking the G‑dliness inherent in all matter and unleashing the Divine spark of energy that gives life to all things.
As we become submerged in our work, however, it becomes a struggle to remain above it. In the endless conflict between earth and spirit, sheer weight often wins out. It is easy to forget our source, our reason for being, our point of departure for this journey we call life. Shabbat is a potent reminder that takes us back to the beginning. It is a reunion with our inner selves; a return to the primal oneness our souls enjoyed with G‑d before being sent to our present existence. It is a return to the perfection that existed after the six days of creation, before sin.
That I don't cook, shop, or email on Shabbat is a statement as much as it is a way of life. On Shabbat I will desist from harnessing this world's energies and forces. I will suspend my efforts to master and transform. In mirroring G‑d's original pattern — ceasing after six days of invention and innovation — I will lift the veil and come face to face with my self and my G‑d.
So think again, this time about the advertisements for glamorous vacation options to exotic, sun-drenched islands, and their promise of escape from the everyday din and commotion. I get to experience the relief of a real vacation each week, when, on Friday, just as the sun is about to set, I disconnect myself from my everyday summonses. I light the Shabbat candles and something changes as I clear my mind and take a deep breath, knowing I am in a place I could never have arrived at on my own.
Rivkah Slonim is the education director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University. An internationally known teacher, lecturer and activist, she travels widely, addressing the intersection of traditional Jewish observance and contemporary life, with a special focus on Jewish women in Jewish law and life. Slonim is the editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology (Jason Aronson, 1996; Urim, 2006) and Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday (Urim, 2008). Slonim and her husband are the grateful and proud parents of nine children.