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Rest as Resistance: Sabbath as Protest

 

I spend a lot more time on social media than is probably healthy or productive. I’ve had to put up all sorts of technological barriers and guardrails to keep me from “doomscrolling” all the time. But I can’t say that all the time I spend on social media is wasted, because often I discover something lifechanging.

This time, it was an account called @TheNapMinistry, belonging to artist, activist, and self-appointed “Nap Bishop” Tricia Hersey. As someone who struggles with getting enough sleep and sometimes can’t get through the day without a nap, this was a church I was eager to join.

As first, I thought this might be just another source of memes about being exhausted and superficial tips for “self-care.” But Hersey was clearly aiming at something deeper. She was challenging the notion that productivity is the only way we prove our worth, and that everything we do, even when we aren’t officially “working,” must be branded for social media and commodified for profit.

As her “congregation” grew, Hersey began to speak out against systems of oppression–unregulated capitalism and white supremacy—that value people only for what they can contribute to the economy. This is especially true for people of color. Hersey’s thinking has culminated in a new book, Rest is Resistance: A Manifestoin which she argues that rest is a protest against the systems that ignore the inherent worth of every human being.

She writes: “Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy. Both these toxic systems refuse to see the inherent divinity in human beings and have used bodies as a tool for production, evil, and destruction for centuries. Grind culture has made us all human machines, willing and ready to donate our lives to a capitalist system that thrives by placing profits over people. The Rest Is Resistance movement is a connection and a path back to our true nature. We are stripped down to who we really were before the terror of capitalism and white supremacy. We are enough. We are divine” (Hersey Loc 92).

I’m only a few chapters into this book, and already I can’t recommend it enough. But this idea of rest as resistance isn’t a new one. It goes all the way back to this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, where we are first introduced to both the idea of human dignity, and the idea of the Sabbath.

In Genesis 1, when all other elements of the world have been created, God says: “And God created humankind b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image,
creating it in the image of God—
creating them male and female” (Genesis 1:27).

Immediately after this last act of creation, God rests.  Genesis 2 begins: “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that had been undertaken: [God] ceased on the seventh day from doing any of the work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy—having ceased on it from all the work of creation that God had done” (Genesis 2:1-3).

The first recitation of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:11), gives God’s rest on the seventh day as the reason for our own commandment to rest, and also to let our households, our employees, and our animals to rest as well. But when the commandment is repeated in Deuteronomy, God provides an additional reason for this mandatory individual and communal rest:

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and your God יהוה freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore your God יהוה has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

Shabbat is simultaneously a reminder that we are a free people, and a safeguard against oppressing others in the way that we were oppressed.

Perhaps this why Hersey’s words about rest as resistance resonated so deeply with me. They are rooted in the biblical tradition of Shabbat as the antithesis to slavery. They also reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Jewish Way, in which Rabbi Yitz Greenberg gives this rationale for observing Shabbat:

“Idolatry is not merely worship of stone and wood. Idolatry consists of giving absolute authority to something relative, that is, to anything other than the Divine..…. To walk away from production and live the Sabbath is to renounce the absoluteness of the profit motive; it is intended to psychologically free the individual to impose moral values on [their] work as well. …. If a person is located in a [human]-made universe of finite values, with work as the ultimate goal, the parameters of human value shrink. A society that worships wealth usually degrades the value of the poor or perhaps all humans. Net worth is confused with intrinsic worth. Finally, as human involvement in work depends, the labor in itself can become a form of slavery” (Greenberg p. 137).

You are likely thinking: this makes a lot of sense, but can’t actually stop working. I’m too busy to rest. Or you might be thinking: well, we can rest when we need to because we are in a position of privilege. But how can this possibly be applied to everyone, when the people who most need rest are the least likely to get it?

In response to the first question: we won’t always be able to observe Shabbat on the biblical or rabbinic scale. But that doesn’t mean we can’t develop a spiritual practice of rest. Hersey writes:

“Get up today and tomorrow and think to yourself: “When and where can I find a moment of rest?” You can plot and plan for ten minutes at your desk, thirty minutes of weekend napping, or one minute of resting your eyes. Keep pondering and making space for the time to detox from technology. Listen. What day will you be able to remove one app from your phone in an effort to retain expansiveness for yourself? How will you be able to one day say no to a request that doesn’t serve you? To build firm yet caring boundaries that teach us all the meaning of community care? All these things are a form of rest. Can you find ways to get outdoors in nature, to sky gaze, to ground your feet in the grass, to connect with the land since the land needs healing also?” She adds that, for her, sometimes rest is as simple as “staring out of the windows on public trains and buses” a habit that many of us have lost to technology (Hersey Loc 301).

This kind of rest is accessible to everyone individually. But as we approach the question of how more vulnerable groups might find a way to rest, we need to think communally. How can we help build, nurture, and sustain a world in which every human being can be valued for who they are instead of what they produce? How do we build structures in our society that protect the most vulnerable from being victims of “grind culture”?

There are many systemic answers to this question, and many of them center around providing better wages and working conditions, and stronger social safety nets, to keep people from having to work themselves to death and still barely get by. We need to ensure that corporations have to take more than profit into account in their decision-making, and that the most wealthy people and institutions in our society don’t continue grow their wealth at the expense of the poor.

But whatever actions we take, we start with the recognition, as Hersey says, that:

“Rest isn’t a luxury, but an absolute necessity if we’re going to survive and thrive. Rest isn’t an afterthought, but a basic part of being human. Rest is a divine right. Rest is a human right. We come into the world prepared to love, care, and rest. The systems kill us slowly via capitalism and white supremacy. Rest must interrupt. Like hope, rest is disruptive, it allows space for us to envision new possibilities” (Hersey Loc 582).

This Shabbat, may we find some way to create moments of rest for ourselves. And in the coming week, may we begin to envision new possibilities, so that everyone in our society might someday have the opportunity to rest.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz