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The problem is the voices in your head

by Rabbi Ari Shishler

It seems that Shabbat isn’t working anymore.

Don’t set the cholent cops on me just yet – I’ll explain. Shabbat is meant to refresh and rejuvenate us, right? It’s our chance to slow down, breathe, reconnect and return to the “world” refreshed.

Well, look around and tell me... are those of us who are Shabbat observant walking into Sunday bright as a button?

We do all the right things: power off the tech (arguably the number one benefit of Shabbat), have a candlelit family dinner, sleep extra and revel in community. We complete the full timeout checklist, but as that Havdallah candles sizzles into the wine, we’re as edgy as when we powered off just over twenty-four hours earlier.

As good as we are at Shabbat compliance, there seems to be one component we can’t shut off, even on the Sabbath: the voices in our heads.

Jews in the shtetl had fewer voices in their heads than we do. They had Shprintza, the professional gossip artists who would deliver local community scandals through the gossip mill. (You can be assured those scandals came nothing close to today’s Hollywood stuff.) Henoch, the shtetl doomsayer might have intoned how “one day” the Cossacks would come and kill everyone. But, I’d guess that people mostly worried about planting before the rains and collecting sufficient firewood. If the Cossacks attacked two towns away, the news would have been stale by the time it hit shtetl headlines. Today, every global flashpoint is live-streamed over coffee.

Shtetl people didn’t stress over their children’s grades (can you imagine Tevye dreaming about “my son, the doctor”?) or whether they were sufficiently stimulated by as wide an array of extra-curricular activities as the Cohen’s children. They had no TV doctors or best-seller expert books to pressure them into feeling inadequate as parents, spouses or simply as humans.

They would actually sleep at night. Fear of the plague kept fewer people up at night than our screens do today.

We, on the other hand, have incessant intrusions into our thoughts. Be it the radio in our cars, the stream of news on social media or the myriad weekly WhatsApp notifications we receive, the whole world intrudes on our peace of mind. We’re worried about nukes in North Korea, and what the right are cooking up, and what the left are cooking up, and asteroids that have a 0.001% chance of hitting the Earth...

We live in fear of either short-changing or over-pressuring our children. We’re anxious about our weight, appearance and fashion sense. None of us wants to be greeted by our friends with “you look tired”.

Shabbat’s welcome respite allows us to sleep more (maybe even the amount we should sleep nightly), laugh with our families and escape the screen. But, it doesn’t turn off the voices in our heads.

We may shut off our phones, but our Friday night table-talk centres on all of the screen-themes that we dutifully shut off at sunset on Friday. We may pause our to-do list, but new items that belong there pop into our heads throughout the Shabbat rest-day.

And, so, we return to the work-week from our Shabbat respite feeling like we didn’t have much respite at all.

Here’s what we’re missing: Shabbat is not a slice of time, it’s a state of mind.

The Midrash says each day of the week has a partner, except for Shabbat. Rather than a corresponding day of the week, G-d chose the Jewish People as the partner to Shabbat. (Bereishis Rabba 11:8). Sounds sweet, but it’s quite deep.

Shabbat is not one aspect of Jewish observance; it is what Jews are all about. Like those Talmudic sages who spent every weekday gearing up for Shabbat, a Jew is meant to keep Shabbat as a daily focus. Once we get what Shabbat represents, and we plug into it 24/7, we’ll learn to not only rejuvenate once a week, but to generally remain stress-free.

On Shabbat, you are meant to feel that all your work is done (Pesikta Zutrasa). None of us ever arrives at Shabbat feeling that all our work is done. On hold, maybe, but never done. We’re thinking about what we will need to tackle first, the minute Shabbat is over. We may feel relieved to ignore our emails until Saturday night, but we may feel just as anxious about how they’re piling up in our inbox.

“My work is done” is not only a Shabbat mentality, it’s meant to be a Jew’s over-arching worldview. Yes, we have work to do. No, we are never entitled to sit back and let fate take its course. Hence, the term “work”. But, our work is only part of the tapestry. We may plan to leave early enough to reach an appointment on time (our work), only to hit unexpected traffic en route (not our work). We invest our best efforts to bring up decent children (our work), but can’t control the people they meet, the role models who disappoint them or the curve-balls that life throws them (not our work).

Stress happens when we imagine that it’s all “our work”; that we dare not rest until we have attained perfection. Judaism teaches us that when our work ends, G-d’s work begins. As long as we do ours as we should, He does His. We work six days, He blesses our work on the seventh.

Shabbat isn’t a magic time when we step off the hamster wheel, to return to the week with our problems resolved. Shabbat is the apex of how Jews are meant to think always – G-d runs everything outside of what He has entrusted to me, and I need to have a healthy and objective view of what He has entrusted to me.

As long as those voices of anxiety or self-doubt rage in our minds, Shabbat can’t cure our stress. When we train ourselves to have one overriding voice in our heads, we can rest and rejuvenate again. And that voice needs to say: “I have work to do. I will never perform perfectly, but I’m not expected to. As long as I do my best, I can trust that G-d will carry me to success.”

With that mindset, Shabbat moves from my calendar into my consciousness, bringing me shades of Shabbat all week and real respite on that holy day.

Rabbi Ari Shishler

Rabbi Ari Shishler, together with his wife, Naomi, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. He hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's first and largest Ask the Rabbi group.

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